What is Augustus doing in The Good Place?

Picture this: it’s a Sunday afternoon and a studied – out Taylor desperately needs a break from the stress of midterms. What better way to take a break than to watch one episode of your favorite show? Well, I may have watched a few episodes of The Good Place, and I was surprised to spot a familiar statue of the Augustus of Primaporta in the house of a character named Tahani. The decision by the set designers to include the statue may seem arbitrary and something that viewers are not meant to pay much attention to or analyze. However, the choice to include a copy of a famous, classical sculpture in the show is intentional and reveals a lot about both of Augustus and Tahani’s characters. 

The Primaporta stands between Tahani, on the left, speaking to Eleanor, on the right, in The Good Place.  

Augustus and Tahani are undoubtedly egomaniacs

 The Augustus of Primaporta wears a military uniform, with his arm outstretched as if he’s addressing a crowd of people. His breastplate displays Augustus as the leading Victor against his enemy, the Parthians, and gods approvingly look on. The statue is carefully designed to portray Augustus as heroic and divine in nature, as a perfect savior of the Roman people who should be worshipped like a god. This message, along with the larger-than-life size of the sculpture, flaunt Augustus’ self-calculated superiority, both physically and in status in relation to ordinary Romans.

The Augustus of Primaporta wears a breastplate while standing tall with an outstretched arm.

The breastplate of Augustus of Primaporta.

 Just as Augustus considered himself to be the epitome of greatness, Tahani is a luxury and status-obsessed socialite who believes she is the master of everything, especially ostentatious party planning. Even when she thinks she may have outdone herself, she tells herself, “I’m always this good. So I simply did myself,” highlighting her belief that her skills and she, herself are always the best and most extraordinary.

Augustus and Tahani are two-faced

Augustus manipulated his public image to appear as a humble leader who would guarantee peace for the Romans. As implied by the egomaniac sculpture of himself, the Roman emperor’s act in attempting to restore and secure a peaceful Roman Republic became a self-absorbed act in itself. He promised to reinstate a peaceful Roman Republic based on a Senate, but instead became a dictator and established a monarchy instead of restoring power to the people and the Senate. 

 Augustus convinced the Romans he would create the best life for all, but his intentions were to increase his own status and power. Similarly, Tahani concealed her true motivations behind actions that appear to be of good intent. Tahani held galas and fundraisers, donating large amounts of money to charity. While these acts are good deeds, Tahani acted this way not to make a difference for charities, but to make a difference for herself. She wanted to be the “best,” like Augustus, and for her, this meant gaining public recognition for her actions that would increase her social status in society. Tahani’s self-obsessed and fame-hungry character caused her actions to be inspired by corrupt motivations that attempted to improve her status and reputation, rather than being authentically generous.

The role of classical statuary

Augustus’ statue reflects Tahani’s desire to attain a high status because she attempts to personify the ideals the statue represents. The classical style signifies enduring eliteness of power, traditionalism, education, and status. While the statue itself serves as a physical reminder of Augustus and a symbol of power, the inclusion of the statue in Tahani’s house displays her desire to celebrate classical antiquity and to embody its legacy. As she continues to remind people of its greatness, Tahani puts Augustus on display in her own home as a representation of herself. Hence, as Augustus and Tahani are shown together in The Good Place, they reflect each other’s desire to have a lasting impact on society by enhancing their status. 

Tahani and Augustus are conveyed in a manner that hides their true characters and motivations despite the depiction of themselves in seemingly sincere lights. This intentional portrayal relates to Sophie’s work analyzing the false depiction of Augustus as a pharaoh by ancient Egyptians on the Temple of Dendur. Just as it is surprising to see Augustus and Tahani in the same scene, it is almost as surprising to see Augustus depicted on an Egyptian style temple because at the time of the temple’s creation, Egypt had only recently been incorporated into the Roman Empire. In Tahani’s house and on the Temple of Dendur, most viewers are unlikely to know without context that Augustus is being portrayed. Hence, Tahani and the Egyptians have complex motives that simultaneously honor Augustus and his legacy and serve as a reflection of those who chose to include Augustus and his image. 

Augustus, on the left, is shown as a pharaoh, burning incense in front of deities on the Temple of Dendur.   

The Good Place, the Primaporta, and the Temple of Dendur continue to challenge us to not blindly accept or acknowledge history, art, or people in a single way. Certain people or things in life may be praised due to their seemingly impressive, powerful, and even divine nature, based solely on their presentation, but these calculated forms of communication may be hiding the truth. Whether in ancient times, or in the present day, we must remind ourselves that not everything is always as it seems. 

Author: Taylor West

Taylor is from San Francisco, California and is a part of Colgate University’s class of 2024. She is interested in pursuing a major in Political Science and majoring or minoring in History and Art History.

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