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Emperors, Art, and the Display of Power (by Drew Carbone)


Since Augustus’ reign and the start of the Imperial Roman period, Roman emperors have sought to demonstrate their power through art and architecture.  While military actions and other political moves certainly contributed to an emperor’s reputation, the emperor’s commissioned buildings and projects expressed his own efforts to create a powerful image.  By commissioning monuments, various public spaces, and temples among many others, emperors displayed their power through the size, grandeur, and individual message of the site.  In order to succeed as emperor, each must understand the situation of their rule and respond accordingly.  Furthermore, each building or art piece must be understood in the context of the full collection commissioned by each emperor in order to perceive the display of power appropriately. 

This exhibit features two emperors, Augustus and Constantine, each of whom have an interesting list of architecture linked to them.  Augustus, who is acknowledged as the first emperor, took power after Julius Caesar and therefore had to contend with the notion of an emperor along with the idea of the princeps, or first citizen.  To achieve this balance, Augustus flirted with deification while he publicized his military achievements to bring peace to his fellow citizens.  Constantine, about 300 years after Augustus, had to balance Roman emperorship and his conversion to Christianity.  As the majority of Rome remained polytheistic, Constantine navigated between his people and his religion.