Historical Context of the Statue
The original statue of Augustus at Prima Porta was probably constructed in 20 B.C. to celebrate Augustus' victory over the Parthians3. The Parthian empire dominated Central Asia and was a formidable power against Roman rule12. The Romans fought against the Parthians three times without success3. In 53 B.C., the Roman army led by Crassus suffered a devastating lost against the Parthians3. Crassus, a member of the first Triumvir, was killed and had his head sent to Armenia as a sign of Roman humiliation13.
Furthermore, the Roman standard was relinquished to the Parthians3. The Romans were infuriated by this shameful defeat and hungered for revenge3. Both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony attempted to reclaim the Roman standard through military means. However, Caesar's military campaign against the Parthians was cut short by his assassination, and Anthony only suffered further losses on the battlefield3.
Augustus was able to succeed where all his predecessors failed. He reclaimed the Roman standard that had been in Parthian possession for more than thirty years3. He incorporated Armenia into the Roman Empire as a client kingdom3. Because Armenia 's geographic location, Rome gained a valuable offensive position against the Parthians3.
Finally, the Parthian king asked Augustus for a truce and agreed to restore the Roman standards3. While no previous Roman had been able to defeat the Parthians on the battlefield, Augustus, through diplomatic means was able to “[force] the Parthians to restore to [him] the spoils and standards of three Roman armies and to ask as suppliants for the friendship of the Roman people” (Res Gestae 29.2). On coins produced at this period, the Parthian king is shown kneeling, offering back the Roman standards (Fig 1).
Therefore, it is not surprising that the central focus of the statue's breastplate depicts a Roman soldier receiving the standards from a Parthian. The viewer is reminded of Augustus' unparalleled achievement.