The Power of Images

The discovery of a bust of Julius Caesar by French archeologists  at the bottom of the Rhône brings into prominence the power of images and propaganda during the last days of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire.

The bust does not correspond with the approximately 25 busts of Caesar known from the Augustan Classical Age, which were strongly influenced by propagandistic norms. The assassins killed Caesar in 44 BC because of his real or presumed ambitions to establish a hereditary dictatorship or kingdom, but they got an empire instead.

Although the Republican constitution did not ceased to exist formally, the rule of August, the victor of the civil war afterwards, was the beginning of the Roman empire. August understood the need and possibilities of a new visual language and communication as no other ruler before him.

He had learned these lessons from the last generation of Roman Republican generals. The establishment of the de facto monarchy, the transformation of society and the legitimating of the new political class in Rome and in the provinces had to be promoted.

The ‘visual imagery’ or propaganda included programs for public buildings, cities, arts, religious rituals, statues, states ceremonies and all other aspects of public life with one purpose: to establish the imperial cult in the empire.

The new regime should not have survived without its legions and military backing,  but the propaganda succeeded in legitimising the new order as the best of all times, presenting the emperor as divine himself.

This imperial ideology, self-representation and glorification were also reflected in busts and statues. It will never be known how Caesar looked like, but as a bust the power of propaganda is effective. August based his hereditary monarchy on the Republican constitution by the power of images and accomplishments, not primarily by terror, military force or indifference of the citizens.

This remains a remarkable development in a period without modern means of communication, taking into account that only a few people throughout the empire actually saw the emperor in person, but statues and imperial cult were successful.

It remains to be seen whether European ´presidents´ will ever reach this status.  Europe. The power of images could not be sufficient to cover up the deficiencies of this new institute. (information and title from: P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor 2003).

Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar, found in Arles in 2007 at the bottom of the river Rhône (France). Photo: Wikipedia.