Friday, October 14, 2011

35. Head of Augustus (Sudan, 27-25 BC)

Roman Empire!
Although the basic function of this big, striking head of Augustus is similar to the PR effect of the giant stone Rameses II, since it’s Augustus it’s worth pausing (the way we did over the Greeks with the Elgin Marbles) to say—this guy was a really big deal, and the change that happened on his watch is one of the main changes in human history. The transformation from Republic to Empire. I’m sure it’s happened in many other times and places; heck, as my great idol and role model Gore Vidal spent a lifetime pointing out (before going nuts), it happened in a big way in 20th century America. And those Star Wars prequels would have been worthwhile if they had gotten this story right, or interesting. A Republic, which is theoretically most concerned with the freedom and welfare of the people who live there, becomes an Empire, which is mostly interested in dominating its colonies and extending its domain and way of life. As mentioned before, unlike the Persian Empire, the Roman one tried its hardest to make all of Europe (and bits of Africa and the Mideast) into Rome, where one does like the Romans; just look at the mess they made of weekday names and month names, up north.

MacGregor and friends point out that Caesar Augustus, aka Octavian, must have been one of the greatest and most skillful politicians who ever lived, to be able to get rid of (or at least neuter) the Senate and the other triumvirs and create the structure where there’d be one (hereditary, I guess, although did that ever even happen?) emperor on the throne. Certainly the PR campaign that came up with the idea of sending this head out all over the empire was carefully considered; it’s almost a cartoon of the ideal god-leader humanoid. I remember being dazzled by this sculpture when I first came to the museum, many years ago. My picture from that trip has different color temperatures:

The fun thing about the object is that they found this particular head buried in the sand in northern Sudan. That was the border of the Roman empire to the south, the way Hadrian’s Wall was the boundary to the north, and as a sign of disrespect the Kushites in that upper part of the Nile buried this symbol of Roman power beneath the threshold of a temple, so that everyone would literally be stepping on Augustus to go in to where they worshipped. Even so, whether celebrated or despised, the head survived.

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