So much ink (to say nothing of blood) has already been spilled over Octavian Augustus, Rome’s first real emperor-CEO, there would seem to be little left to say. But this young man—a general at eighteen, and Rome’s leader and “restorer of the republic” at nineteen—was astute at more than war and politics. He foresaw the power of imperial branding and even the value of mass production, ideas that seem far-fetched and too “modern” for the first century B.C.
In 44 B.C., a short time after the assassination of Julius Caesar, Octavian’s adoptive father, a huge comet appeared over Rome. Priests immediately identified it as Caesar’s soul in heaven, and called it sidus Iulium, “the Julian star.”
About eighteen months later, with the full consent of the Roman senate and the people of Rome, Octavian put on a solemn and extravagant apotheosis for Caesar, officially making him a god— divus Iulius. Octavian’s next brilliant move? On the very site of Caesar’s cremation, he dedicated a temple to Julius the god. As a result, he was then able to call himself divi filius, “son of the god.” What cunning modesty! And what a lineage to point to.
When Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C., and now in sole command, he began his diplomatic, low-key transformation of Rome’s “republic.” Instead of calling himself a dictator and/or imperator (as his adoptive father Julius Caesar had done), he insisted on being called princeps, a vague and soothing term meaning “first man” or “leading man.”
After the bloody decades of power struggles following Caesar’s assassination, Octavian wanted a return to law and a senatorial framework in which to exert his influence. Accordingly, he made the big decisions but almost humbly presented them to the Roman senate for their approval. That adoring body soon voted him a new title: Augustus, the majestic, awe-inspiring one. (Well-behaved empresses would later get to be called Augusta.)
In other parts of the Roman Empire, in places where kings traditionally had been given godlike attributes, people clamored to deify the man who still refused to call himself emperor. Although Octavian and his wife and political adviser Livia publicly protested and stoutly refused all efforts to deify them, little by little they allowed provinces from Greece to Asia Minor to have their fun and hold apotheosis ceremonies.
This fit in quite well with Octavian’s long-term plans for an imperial brand, one that extended to his entire family. He wanted all of them to become well-loved; adored. In an age without printing presses, photography, or photocopy capabilities, he engineered various ways to replicate, replicate, replicate his image and theirs.
Coins bearing Octavian’s name and face were the perfect propaganda tool. During his forty-one-year tenure, tens of millions of coins with his portrait were issued. Not simply in Rome, either, but from a variety of mints established throughout the growing empire. Each new batch told another story: of Rome rebuilt in marble; of new lands conquered; of army veterans given land, and the hungry fed. All of his good deeds and qualities were immortalized on coinage, the most important advertising medium of his day.
Some might argue that an even more ingenious marketing plan fed Octavian’s imperial love cult. During his long lifetime, more than 20,000 bronze statues of “the son of god” poured out of workshops around the empire. In addition, there were cheap plaster casts as well as larger-than-life-size marble statues of Augustus in heroic poses.
The creation of elegant yet visually accurate images in such huge numbers was a difficult trick. How was it solved?
During his forty-one-year reign, Emperor Octavian Augustus distributed thousands of his statues and millions of his coinage portraits throughout his far-flung empire.
Even without photography, Rome’s first emperor made his face instantly recognizable. How? Clever mass production of his image.
Art historians and archaeologists knew it must have been done via mass production techniques that maintained the quality and standardized the likeness of the originals. They finally solved the mystery when some unfinished marble statues turned up. On the heads of each piece, they found twenty-four or more wart-like protuberances. After consultations with working sculptors, they realized these were puntelli or checkpoints. Using calipers and the puntelli, a sculptor two thousand years ago could achieve startling accuracy in the copying of an original bust or statue.
Thus statues, busts, and other imagery of Emperor Octavian Augustus remained uniform and readily identifiable throughout the empire. Art featuring Augustus and his family members was everywhere—near theaters, in the forum of each town and city, and, as the years went by, in growing numbers of temples where the cult of imperial worship was held. The busts and statues were also a fixture in every one of the Roman army camps, where legionaries could daily behold their commander-in-chief even while on bivouac or at war.
Besides his other astonishing accomplishments, Octavian knew how to play the unassuming man of the people while imposing his brand on the marketplace. Becoming the literal love object for millions of people may have contributed to his long and largely peaceful reign. He certainly kick-started the cult of emperor worship, which after Augustus grew to obscene levels. It served a good purpose, however. Perhaps the Romans, always happy to add to the plethora of gods and goddesses, also needed a flesh-and-blood figure to admire, love, and lean on as their godlike protector.