Sculpture: Portrait Statues

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Sculpture: Portrait Statues




Polybius (6.53) describes the ritual significance behind early Roman portrait-sculpture used in aristocratic burial ceremonies:

The portrait is a mask which is wrought with the utmost attention being paid to preserving a likeness in regard to both shape and contour. Displaying these portraits at public sacrifices, they honor them zealously, and when a prominent member of the family dies, they carry them in the funeral procession, putting them on those who seem most like [the deceased] in size and build... The men so dressed also wore the togas and carried the insignia of the magistracies which had been held by the person whom they were impersonating. One could not easily find a sight finer than this for a young man who was in love with fame and goodness. For is there anyone who would not be edified by seeing these portraits of men who were renowned for their excellence and by having them all present as if they were living and breathing? Is there any sight that would be more ennobling than this?

Source: The Histories of Polybius, translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, 2 volumes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962).

Realistic Style. A major Roman achievement in the sphere of sculpture from the republican age is what is known as a “veristic,” or realistic, style that aims at a genuine, if sometimes unflattering, likeness of a real individual. An early instance of Etrusco-Roman sculpture with realistic tendencies is the life-size bronze statue of Aulus Metellus of about 100 B.C.E. in the adlocutw (speaking) pose of an orator. With his “unidealistic” features—cropped hair, furrowed brow, arched eye-brows and thin mouth—and inclusion of prosaic details such as the lacing on his boots, the statue has an air of realism and directness absent from much Classical Greek sculpture. A key

motivation behind “realism” in Roman sculpture is the commemoration of one’s ancestors in funeral ceremonies as outlined by the historian Polybius (circa 202-120 B.C.E.). While these masks were probably wax and may have been specifically “death masks” molded from the face of the deceased, it is clear that many Romans wished to commemorate their ancestors in more permanent materials. To meet this expense would be a typically patrician custom and is evident in a statue of a Roman nobleman of the first century B.C.E. (or C.E.) carrying portrait-busts, presumably of his ancestors. While much Roman portrait sculpture is closely linked to a specific ritual, it may also reflect some of the more or less “realistic” tendencies in the portraiture of Hellenistic monarchs from the third century B.C.E. onward. These images continue a trend of ruler-cult through image-making propagated especially by Alexander the Great, who wished to be immortalized in the works of his favorite artists Lysippos the sculptor, Apelles the painter and Pyrgoteles the engraver. Later Roman men of power similarly had their images disseminated as a form of self-promotion to bulwark their political ambitions, among them Pompey and Julius Caesar. While these are obviously stylized, their real point is presentation of recognizable individuals to convey something of their forceful character. Stone and marble were not the only media used for such purposes. As had been the practice of Hellenistic monarchs, during the late Roman republic and throughout the empire, coins were struck with profile-portraits of the most powerful figures of the day, among them Caesar, Marc Antony, and Octavian (later Augustus).

Greek Influence. Under Augustus imperial portraiture took on certain trends reminiscent of Classical Greek art but put to political ends to glorify his family and regime. The famous marble, over-lifesize “Prima Porta Augustus” (circa 20 B.C.E.) presents the emperor in armor gesturing forward as if leading his people to a new era of peace and prosperity. Although recognizable as an individual—not for the last time would jutting-out ears be a conspicuous feature in depictions of members of royal families—Augustus’s face has become simplified compared to the detail of other portraits. He has become “classicized” as a result, with an emphasis on the wide brow and deep set eyes. His pose recalls that of idealized and

heroic Greek statues, the famed sculptor Polyclitus (circa 440 B.C.E.). In both images weight is shifted onto one leg, and the head tilted slightly to the right, and facial expression is calm and contemplative. This seems to add a sense both of understated movement and repose to Augustus, whose heroic status is further implied in the fact that he is barefoot—a contrast to the detailed footwear of Aulus Metellus. Political allegory is included with the figures on Augustus’s armor depicting the defeated Parthians returning the standards to a Roman soldier, which recalls actual recent victories over these enemies. Thus, in this impressive work of propagandistic art Greek form meets Roman function. Similar facial features and pose in another famous image of Augustus as priest, with toga drawn over his head, likewise convey the idea that he is at once pious and dignified—like the hero of Vergil’s Aeneid so often called plus —and that the Augustan reign ushers in a new age of order and civilization.

Imperial Portraiture. More or less grandiose portraits of the Julio-Claudians are known, such as the perhaps incongruous statue of Claudius as Jupiter (the supreme Roman god), as well as fairly distinctive images of Caligula and Nero. Under the new dynasty of the Flavians (69-96 C.E.) a range of sculptural


Under Hadrian, an emperor greatly drawn to intellectual and artistic achievement, a number of surviving sculptures were made, which depict his favorite, the Bithynian youth, Antinous, who was deified after death, as Pausanias (8.9.7-8) writes:

Of all the temples in Man tinea [in central Greece] that of Antinous is the newest. This person was loved with great ardour by the emperor Hadrian, I never saw him while he lived among men, but I have seen him in images and paintings … The emperor instituted honors to him in Mantinea as well, with sacrifices to him every year, and games in his honor every four years. There is a chamber in the gymnasium in Mantinea which contains images of Antinous and is worth seeing, among other reasons, for the stones with which it is adorned and above all for its paintings. There are, among these, portraits of Antinous, most of them as representing him as Dionysus [the Greek god of wine].

Source: Pausanias,Description of Greece, translated by W. H. S. Jones, 5 volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press / London: Heine-198-1935).

styles emerges. One finds a more earthy type of imperial portraiture for the self-made man Vespasian, whose evidently practical, no-nonsense approach to life radiates from this statue of circa 75 C.E. The tough but not brutal facial features contrast with the “idealism” of Augustan imagery and suggest that Vespasian wished to be perceived as different in more ways than one from the previous regime which had come to be despised by this time. Other notable images from the Flavian period include elegant portraits of aristocratic women with elaborate coiffures of high-stacked curls. This style is likely to have followed a fashion set by imperial wives, and here one sees intricate carving skills and use of deep drills for the hairstyle that gives off interesting effects in the contrasts of light and shade. Such effects recur in later imperial portraits. As the first emperor to wear a full beard as part of his official imagery, Hadrian ushers in a different style for depiction of male rulers, previously beardless. His “beardedness” is a likely expression of his interest in Greek culture and is designed to assimilate him to figures from the Greek past. At the same time this also allows scope for depicting his beard and sometimes full, heavy locks of hair in ways which develop techniques pioneered for portraits of women in the Flavian era. Apart from fuller details in rendering male coiffures, two major sculptural innovations of around this time (117-138 C.E.) are the incision and drill used to render the iris and pupil of the eye, often to striking effect, especially in later imperial portraits. Hadrian was besotted with a Bithynian youth, Antinous, whose early death led to his deification and, consequently, frequent depiction in sculpture and painting which drew comment from the traveller Pausanias (second century C.E.). In many statues of Antinous one sees a recurrence of Greek ideals of male beauty from the classical period (circa 480-320 B.C.E.). Poses and facial expressions are similar to those found in images produced by Polyclitus

and others, but now with softer musculature and fuller, wavier hair to emphasize the youth and charm of the subject.

Impressive Monuments. One of the most impressive surviving monuments from antiquity is the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius of 164-66 C.E. This image, much admired in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, was long thought to represent Constantine, but comparison with other portraits confirms identification with the earlier emperor. With one arm raised to address a crowd in the adlocutio (speaking) pose, Marcus Aurelius sits astride a powerful horse that originally had a barbarian under its foot. The emperor’s hair and beard are fully modelled, perhaps suggesting his philhellene disposition, and his expression is far from brutal. He does not ride in full armor as might be expected of an ostensibly military statue. Instead a more restrained and even humane presence seems to be in evidence in the image, which is perhaps fitting for a ruler who also happened to leave a philosophical tract, written in Greek, called The Meditations Of the imperial portraits under the Antonine and Severan dynasties, some interesting developments include the appearance of full-scale nude statues, of, for instance, Lucius Verus (circa 160-9 C.E.) and Septimius Severus (circa 200-210 C.E.). These, it seems, might not have been suited to all Roman tastes and were not produced in Rome, but rather in the provinces, chiefly the Greek parts of the empire. Further variants in imperial imagery can be found in the portraits of the demented Commodus (emperor circa 180-92), who not only fancied himself a gladiator (where he had no fear of being defeated), but also as the incarnation of Hercules. Thus he is depicted with the hero’s characteristic lionskin and club. While some sculptures reveal the self-delusions of certain emperors, other imperial portraits expose something of the brutality and insecurity of their subjects. Caracalla’s menacing persona is consistently evoked in a series of scowling, bull-necked images where his heavy eyebrows, harsh stare, lined forehead, and rough beard add a sense even of paranoia to his presence. Indeed, many emperor portraits of the post-Severan period up to the time of Diocletian (235-84 C.E.) represent men who seem anxious and world-weary, far removed from Augustan idealism or the calm of a Marcus Aurelius. In stylistic terms, one notable change is in the hair, which is now more of a cap rather than a series of deep bushy curls. Many of these later figures, whose short-lived reigns were often instigated and ended by bloody coups, are distinctly human, and evidently weighed down by mundane matters. One often sees worried or scowling expressions in their furrowed

brows, sidelong glances, and circles under the eyes. Attempts at self-glorification through full-length nude bronze portraits, such as that of Trebonius Gallus (emperor 251-253 C.E.), seem simply unconvincing or absurd in the light of his facial details and awkward proportions. A fine example of imperial portraiture from this age is the image of Philip the Arab (244-249 C.E.), an emperor who hailed from Syria. His heavily lined face, large, apparently once-broken nose, and distant, melancholy gaze under his broad brow convey a palpable physical presence and a sense of resignation and foreboding, which seem appropriate for an age of insecurity.

Visual Changes. With the regime of Diocletian, different elements in the depiction of powerful figures emerge again, that were to have long-lasting effects, beyond the era of pagan antiquity. The new rule of the Tetrarchs was to be propagated in visual imagery in such a way as to emphasize the idea of unified power which they represented, even though, as one commentator put it, they seem to cower like nervous monkeys in this depiction. As was beginning to happen in other types of sculpture, figures were becoming more schematic with less emphasis on features that might mark them out as individuals. Drapery becomes more openly patterned, and here the costumes of each figure are identical. Thus, in the porphyry image of the Tetrarchs (circa 305 C.E.) at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, there is nothing really to make one figure distinguishable from the next. The facial features are animated by lines across the forehead and apparently anxious expressions, but overall the faces have little detail, without much depth of sculptural modeling. Notable features are the enlarged eyes, which protrude more than previously, being set less deeply in the head. While some of these features can be seen to anticipate later Christian imagery, portraiture under Constantine, emperor of the Roman west and himself a former Tetrarch, retains some elements closer to older styles. The chief example is, of course, his colossal marble portrait (circa 313 C.E.) which sat in his basilica. Now only fragmentary, the head itself is 2.9 meters high and its overall dimensions recall the great colossal statues of the Greek world, such as Pheidias’s gold-and-ivory Zeus at Olympia (circa 435 B.C.E.), which became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Constantine’s face shows greater depth of modeling than does the Tetrarch’s image in his protuberant nose, jutting chin and huge, deeply set eyes, implied in other portraits of him. These features are also

likely to have been slightly exaggerated to facilitate viewing from below or at some distance, as this seated statue was over 9 meters high. The expression is impassive and distant, the gaze far beyond the viewer, and the overall pose—more rigid than that of the Prima Porta Augustus—conveys the idea of power in almost iconic or abstracted terms. The image of grandeur aims at a sense of permanence beyond this world. Here, one sees something of the transcendentalism of Byzantine imagery of later ages.


Diana E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven &c London: Yale University Press, 1992).

Jerome J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Nancy and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine, third edition (London: Laurence King, 2000).

Donald E. Strong, Roman Imperial Sculpture (London: A. Tiranti, 1961).

Mario Torelli, Typology and Structure of Roman Historical Reliefs (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982).