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Iconography of Power

posted on 20/02/20

M. AGRIPPA L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT. So reads the inscription on the façade of the Pantheon, translated as: Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his 3rd consulship, built this. It graces probably the foremost and most astonishing extant building of the Roman World, yet this ostensibly simple inscription is more enigmatic than it appears.

While Marcus Agrippa did build a Pantheon, a traditional-style Roman temple on this site in AD 27, it was destroyed by fire – twice. The current Pantheon, however, was an entirely new design, with Greek influence, facing in the opposite direction from the original, and constructed as part of Hadrian’s building programme a century later in c. AD 118-128.

So, in a move that confused minds as great as Michelangelo’s (and was only solved in the early 1900s by Hadrianic brick stamps), Hadrian chose to attribute the erection of this architectural masterpiece to a deceased general of plebeian origin rather than assume that lasting glory for himself. What may have prompted this?

It is speculated that the statuary and other sculptural decoration in the Augustan Pantheon (a Temple to ‘all the gods’) hint that this building was actually the nearest Augustus could get to the Imperial cult in the City of Rome (i.e. a temple to himself deified while alive). He was worshipped as a god in Eastern regions of the Empire, but in Rome, even monarchy was inadmissible. Godhead (for the living) was quite beyond the bounds of palatability. Augustus had learned the lesson from his adoptive father’s assassination (Julius Caesar) and thus assumed the title ‘Princeps’ – first (among equals) – as opposed to ‘Dictator’ or other monarchical titles.

However, the iconography of Augustus’ Pantheon consisted of deities with a specific connection to Augustus’ personal mythology. The statue of Venus alluded to his apocryphal descent from this divine ancestress of the Gens Julii – the bloodline of Julius Caesar, by whom Augustus was adopted upon the latter’s death. She stood with her lover, Mars, whom Augustus hailed as the avenger of Caesar’s assassins at the Battle of Philippi. With these stood a statue of the Divine Julius Caesar, whom Augustus pushed the Senate to declare a god upon his death – thus enabling him to assume the title ‘Divi filius’, son of a god. And at a politic distance from his celestial family, stood a statue of Augustus flanked by Marcus Agrippa. This was one of many moves Augustus made to establish tacit dynastic propaganda and cosmic ratification of his rule through imagery and implication.

And Hadrian? By the use of the simple inscription, he established his own connection to the deified Augustus, but through seemingly humble means. Recusatio honorum (the refusal of honours) is a literary trope in Roman literature, where the likes of Callimachus, Horace, Virgil, and even Tacitus assume a faux self-deprecating persona to downplay their work or choice of literary style.

It is the refusal of power as a means of power. Augustus played out this equivocal game throughout his reign. In a quite literal display of subliminality (the word derives from the Latin word, limen, meaning threshold), Augustus lived in a deliberately modest house adjunct to which he built his Temple of Apollo – a blurring of thresholds between god and man. The location of this house near the Hut of Romulus, on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Forum, emblematically bound Augustus to the foundation of Rome itself and wove him powerfully into the City’s history.


Throughout Rome today, we see remarkable ancient (mainly Imperial) buildings which are deeply expressive of the structures of power in the infancy of the last millennium. With the perspective of time comes a clarity of vision that is not always apparent in one’s present time, which is why (I believe) the study of history provides the greatest lessons. By adopting the emotional distance of observer status, we can know ourselves and our times better and gain a greater sense of how things do not always play out in the way we anticipate. It provides one with a sense of humility in our judgements and is in contradistinction to the reactivity of an age where the ping of a mobile phone makes (many of) us jump to attention.

The Romans had a strong sense of their legacy enduring, of the importance of inscribing in stone, of words that provided ‘monuments more lasting than bronze’. And they were right – the Ancient riches that the modern day City of Rome offers up as insights into both the past and present, and their timeless beauty that continues to take one’s breath away are gifts for the mind and the soul – generation after generation.

You’ll find a list of our Roman tours below, but at the heart of them all is the City of Rome, from which all roads lead.

Kelly Ward
Director, Martin Randall Australasia


Roman Southern Britain, 5–12 May 2020 

Walking Hadrian’s Wall, 14–20 September 2020

The Romans in Mediterranean Spain, 5–11 October 2020

Connoisseur’s Pompeii, 6–9 October 2020 

Ancient Rome, 12–17 October 2020

Pompeii & Herculaneum, 19–24 October 2020

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