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A view of the marble head of Augustus Caesar discovered last week in Isernia, a town in south-central Italy.

Marble Head of Augustus Caesar Discovered Outside the Realm of Rome

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A construction crew performing restoration work on historic walls in the Central Italian city of Isernia discovered something ancient and remarkable. It was a buried, sculpted marble head that had apparently been detached from a larger statue. The head was missing its nose, but other than that it was intact and in great condition. There was no mystery about the identity of the person the head was sculpted to represent. Archaeologists supervising the restoration activity immediately recognized the head’s face as that of Augustus Caesar, the founder and first emperor of the Roman Empire.

Finding The Head Of Emperor Augustus Caesar

“The head was found today [Thursday, April 29] during excavations carried out along the stretch of collapsed walls in Via Occidente,” officials from the Archaeological Protection Office of the Superintendency for the region of Molise told the local news agency is News .

“It is a marble portrait of the emperor Augustus, clearly identifiable by the somatic features and by the hair with the characteristic dovetail tuft. We cannot say more for the moment, because being a find ‘fresh from the day’ it will be necessary to understand, with the continuation of the excavation, how to place it within the history of that piece of town.”

The side profile of the marble head of Augustus Caesar discovered during excavations near the city walls of Isernia, south-central Italy, known for its long history of occupation by Roman forces. (Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio del Molise)

The side profile of the marble head of Augustus Caesar discovered during excavations near the city walls of Isernia, south-central Italy, known for its long history of occupation by Roman forces. (Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio del Molise)

The walls being excavated and preserved date far back into antiquity, and at least some of them were built during the time Isernia was under the control of the Roman Empire . So, while this discovery was unexpected, it was not entirely surprising given the overall historical context.

Augustus Caesar served as Roman emperor from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. The face on the marble statue head is that of a young man, in his late teens or early 20s, although Augustus was 35 when he became emperor.

The artists who created sculptures, paintings, or engravings in his image usually portrayed him as being much younger. This style became the norm around 20 BC, according to University of Cambridge experts , and was designed to make Augustus appear wiser, and more energetic and authoritative. 

The practice of portraying him this way continued throughout Augustus’ life and beyond. Consequently, the age of the image on the marble head doesn’t offer any clues about the exact year it was sculpted.

It might have been made while Augustus Caesar was alive and in charge of the Roman Empire. But it could have also been made decades after his death. As the founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar was a beloved and honored figure. Local authorities in Isernia could have commissioned the statue as a way to pay tribute to a legendary man, whose accomplishments would be remembered and praised for as long as the Roman Empire continued to exist.

The Samnite theater and Italic temple of Pietrabbondante in Isernia, Italy.

The Samnite theater and Italic temple of Pietrabbondante in Isernia, Italy. ( Giuma / Adobe Stock)

The Unusual History of Isernia and the Social War

From the sixth century BC through the second century BC, the Roman Republic shared the Italian peninsula with other powers, who were known as the Italic peoples . The relationships between the Italic city-states and Rome were generally peaceful and based on alliances that both sides had entered into willingly.

Under the terms of these alliances, the Italic peoples preserved much of their independence. But as the mightiest power in the region, the Roman Republic was able to negotiate agreements that were largely in their favor. They forced the Italic city-states to pay taxes, and to contribute young men to serve as soldiers in various Roman military campaigns .

In the year 91 BC two Italic tribes, the Samnites and the Marsi, rebelled against Rome, in response to what they considered an intolerable situation. The Romans had captured Isernia from the Samnites in 295 BC. But the Samnites attacked the city with full force in 90 BC, and after retaking it they used it as their center of operations in the ongoing conflict with the Republic.

This conflict, which came to be known as the Social War , had an unusual motivation. The Italic peoples didn’t actually want to escape from Roman control. Instead, they wanted to join the Republic and become full citizens. This would have given them voting rights and political influence within the Republic, while integrating their economies more closely with a power that was the strongest and richest in the region.

But the Romans resisted these pleas, not wanting to grant citizenship to outsiders. Most of the Italic peoples hoped Rome would eventually change their mind, but it seems the Samnites and Marsi ran out of patience and decided to force Rome’s hand.

“Most insurrections are people trying to break away from some power—the Confederacy tries to break away from the United States, the American colonies try to break away from the British—and the weird thing about the Social War is the Italians are trying to fight their way into the Roman system,” author, podcaster, and Roman Republic expert Mike Duncan explained to Smithsonian magazine

Rome was ultimately too powerful for their breakaway allies, and they suppressed the rebellion and ended the Social War in 88 BC. After recapturing Isernia they destroyed the city, and spent the next few decades rebuilding it and colonizing it with Roman settlers .

Ironically, the Samnites and Marsi lost the war, but got everything they and the other Italic peoples wanted. Hoping to avoid any similar conflicts in the future, the Romans granted full citizenship rights to all of the Italic peoples shortly after the Social War ended.

This arrangement proved to be a favorable one for the Romans. They quickly gained full control over the Italian peninsula and absorbed it into their empire in subsequent years without meeting any resistance. The Italic peoples surrendered their separate identities and became loyal Romans, enjoying all the benefits of that association for centuries to come.

Ancient Roman arches in front of the Basilica Nuova in Isernia, Molise, Italy (Castel San Vincenzo).

Ancient Roman arches in front of the Basilica Nuova in Isernia, Molise, Italy (Castel San Vincenzo). ( gloriaimbrogno / Adobe Stock)

Are There More Treasures to Be Found at Isernia?

The discovery of Augustus Caesar’s marble head beneath the ancient walls of Isernia offers a glimpse into this region’s fascinating past.

By itself, it doesn’t reveal much about Isernia’s actual history during the Imperial Roman era. But it suggests that other similar archaeological treasures may lie hidden in the same area, just waiting to be unearthed and analyzed.

Work on the Isernia wall restoration project will continue. Officials from the Archaeological Protection Office in Molise promise that all precautions will be taken to ensure no artifacts are damaged by this activity.

Top image: A view of the marble head of Augustus Caesar discovered last week in Isernia, a town in south-central Italy.                 Source: Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio del Molise

By Nathan Falde

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