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Idealism and Realism.

In modern society, photographic equipment makes it easy to capture images of one's self and one's family in portraits, and the ease with which such pictures can be created tends to devalue their significance. The absence of such technology in the Greek and Roman world, however, made the creation of portraits a very important and significant act that was generally done for a motive beyond the capturing of an image. In the sixth century b.c.e., victorious athletes in Greece were commemorated with portrait statues which presented an idealized picture of vigorous youth, though there was a degree of realism as well. Idealism was the hallmark of Greek portraiture because the motive of the portrait artist was not to portray an exact likeness—warts and all—but rather an impression of a real individual as an exemplar of vigor, intellectual power, or heroic virtue or the like. This motivation did not quite hold true for the Romans, however, as portraiture had a practical purpose. A Roman kept imagines—images usually of wax—in the atrium or living room of his house as the visible record of his ancestors and of his own social status. They were exact likenesses, and they set the standard for Roman portraiture. Early Roman portraiture can be realistic to the point of homeliness. However, once Rome was ruled by emperors, from the time of Augustus (27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.) onwards, imperial portraiture was used to convey a message of power. Yet the Roman portrait, whether of an emperor or an ordinary citizen, always portrayed an individual with a distinctive appearance, and this taste for realism survived even into the early Byzantine period.

Portraiture in Classical Greece.

A bust of the Athenian statesman Pericles, the architect of the Athenian Empire, has survived in a Roman copy. The original was a bronze statue by the sculptor Cresilas, erected in Athens after Pericles' death in 429 b.c.e. The date is important, for there was a prejudice against portraits of living men. The great Phidias who made the gold-and-ivory statue of Athena Parthenos for the Parthenon, smuggled a likeness of Pericles into his design for the shield of Athena and was apparently driven into exile for it. While the original is lost, the marble bust is a good copy and shows an idealized Pericles. Any blemishes he may have had were removed and the helmet he always wore hid his peaked skull. The helmet also marked him as a general, for during his years of power he was elected year after year to the influential Board of Ten Generals. Without the helmet, this portrait of Pericles would pass for the image of a god. Portraits in fifth-century Greece were intended to flatter, although this was not the case in the following century. No original portrait from the fourth century b.c.e. survived, but to judge from Roman copies representing Plato, it seems that the aim of the sculptor was to portray him not so much as an individual as a typical philosopher. Pliny the Elder reported that the Sicyonian school of sculpture experimented with realism and that Lysistratus, the brother of the famous Lysippus of Sicyon, made a likeness from an actual face. Lysistratus was probably the first artist to ask his subject to sit for his portrait so he could sculpt what he saw, whether it was flattering or not. Pliny's evidence has been disbelieved by some art historians, but there is evidence of a greater taste for individualism in portrait sculpture in the Hellenistic world, though it is far from the uncompromising realism found in Egypt and later in Rome.

Portraiture in the Hellenistic World.

In the Hellenistic world after Alexander the Great's death in 323 b.c.e., there were two rival traditions in portraiture. One carried on the classical tradition. Like Cresilas's portrait of Pericles, it sought to idealize. Alexander the Great's portraits are a case in point. Alexander had his favorite artists: Lysippus for sculpture, Apelles for painting, and the gem cutter Pyrgoteles for his seal engravings. It is likely that the many sculptures depicting Alexander take their inspiration from portraits that he himself approved. They show Alexander with his head bent slightly to the left, directing his gaze above the spectator as if he were looking into the distance, or perhaps a distant future, and they emphasize Alexander's physical beauty and youth. The portrait is of an individual, but in 324 b.c.e. Alexander demanded that the city-states recognize him officially as a god, and his portraits have a god-like quality about them. About 280 b.c.e. a statue in Athens by the sculptor Polyeuctus of the orator Demosthenes made no effort to idealize Demosthenes, and art historians have pointed to it as a landmark in the development of realistic portraiture. This assertion must be tempered, however, with the reality that the statue was made some forty years after Demosthenes' death by an artist who probably never saw Demosthenes in his lifetime. Even so, he showed Demosthenes as he should have looked, not as he did. The statue of Demosthenes has the body of an old man, slightly stooped, and he clasps his hands nervously in front of him; his face is lined and his expression is sober, almost melancholy, as if he was apprehensive of the future, reflecting, perhaps, Athens' approaching defeat by Macedon.

Portraits of the Imagination.

While it cannot be determined how true to life the portrait of Demosthenes is, it is reasonably certain that portraits were produced in this period which were not true to life at all; they portray real individuals, but they are purely imaginary. This is a period in the history of portrait art when sculptors produced "portraits" of authors who were long-since dead, which could be set up in libraries. Homer's portrait is a case in point. No one knew what Homer actually looked like, but the portrait sculptor started with some preconceived notions: Homer was a dignified old man of genius, and he was blind. The finished portrait fits the conception. Yet what was remarkable about it is its individualism. This portrait was not simply the portrayal of a poet-type; it depicts an individual, and copies of it are immediately recognizable. Homer's hairline is receding and he wears a fillet or head-band which partly disguises it. The lines on his forehead suggest great intellectual power. He wears a full beard, denoting maturity, and his eyes are arresting under his beetling brows. This portrait was an imaginative creation, but it was one that the Greeks could accept as a representation of what Homer actually looked like.

Roman Portraiture.

Romans kept imagines (portraits) of their distinguished ancestors in the main rooms of their houses. They were usually made of wax from death-masks of the departed ancestor, and when a Roman died, these imagines were carried in the funeral procession so that a Roman was buried in the presence of his ancestors. His genealogy was put on public display, and the longer it was, the better it was for his social and political standing. If any such imagines existed in the houses buried by the ash and lava from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 c.e. they were unfortunately melted by the heat. A fourth-style wall painting from a Pompeian house has yielded a wedding portrait, however. It shows a man and a woman, the man holding a scroll and the woman a stylus and a writing tablet known as a pugillaris, two small thin wooden boards hinged at one side so that they could be folded over and their inner surfaces covered with a layer of wax on which a message could be written. The scroll, stylus, and pugillaris are all stage setting: they are intended to portray the man and wife as an educated couple who read books and wrote letters. The faces of the man and woman are photographic likenesses, done with such startling realism that we could recognize them if we met them on the street. The man transfixes us with his gaze; the woman gazes off to one side with a look of infinite sadness. There must have been many portraits like this in the Roman Empire. From the second and first centuries b.c.e. a number of Roman portraits depict their subjects with uncompromising realism. The wrinkles and other blemishes that come with advancing age are clearly marks of honor. This attitude towards portrait art owes little to Greece. Rather it draws its inspiration from the imagines of the ancestors, which Romans kept in their houses. This realistic tradition continued into the first century c.e. and, in fact, never died. Yet by the mid-first century c.e., the completely uncompromising realism of the earlier age was no longer in fashion. Many Romans no longer displayed masks of their ancestors in the atriums. The historian Pliny the Elder makes a grumpy complaint in his Natural History about the new custom of decorating rooms with pictures of athletes from the gymnasium or the arena rather than family portraits. An imposing array of family portraits went along with lengthy genealogies, and the demographic changes in the Roman Empire from the first century c.e. onwards resulted in persons with very short genealogies rising to power and wealth. The portrait artist could pick and choose from the styles of the past, and eclecticism was the vogue.

The Imperial Portraits of Augustus.

The emperor Augustus (r. 27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.), who restored peace to Italy after a half-century of civil war and political turmoil, was very conscious of the fact that his reign was a new beginning for the Roman Empire. His portraits reflected this new era by seeking inspiration in classical Greece, the age before the Hellenistic monarchies, when the city-states (Sparta excepted) were little republics. He adapted the art of classical Greece to Roman uses. One famous statue of Augustus that was found at the villa of his wife Livia at Prima Porta just north of Rome shows him in full armor, with one arm raised in the gesture of an army commander addressing his troops. The body beneath the armor conforms to the Canon of Polyclitus which outlined proportions for sculpture in the classical period. Augustus, who in real life did not have an impressive physique, had his statue conform to the proportions of Polyclitus' Diadoumenos, a muscular youth adjusting his headband. The face of the Prima Porta statue is easily recognized because it has the high cheekbones and hairstyle of Augustus. Augustus was shown in two other ways as well. He was portrayed as a priest, wearing a toga with a cowl, for Roman priests covered their heads when they sacrificed to the gods. He was also shown as a youth: a young man who was leading in a new age. Augustus' portraits never aged, nor did those of his wife, Livia, though her hairstyles changed with the fashion. Like the famous portrait of Pericles by Cresilas, the portraits of Augustus showed him as no ordinary man.

Changing Fashions.

Portrait styles changed in 69 c.e. with the ascension of Vespasian as the new emperor. He had none of the aristocratic background of the previous dynasty, the Julio-Claudian family that became extinct with the suicide of the emperor Nero in 68 c.e., and though he was sensitive about the peasant origins of his family, known as the Flavians, he was wise enough to know that he should make a clean break with the Julio-Claudians. His portraits therefore returned to the realist tradition of Roman republican portraiture. They show him with receding hairline and the leathery skin of an old soldier who knows what life in the military camps is like. His portraits were numerous; this was a great age of portraiture when people of all ages, not just old men, had portrait sculptures made. One marble bust of a woman of the Flavian period, which is now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, should be noted as an example of Flavian style, even if it is not an imperial portrait. The face and the long neck are modelled softly, and the sculptor managed to portray the texture of the skin by the polish of the marble. The woman's coiffure is a mass of tight curls piled up above her forehead. The sculptor used a drill rather than a chisel to sculpt the curls, a trend that became more common as sculptors used the drill more and more, particularly for hair and beards. The surprising element of this particular bust is that the coiffure is, in fact, a wig. It can be lifted off the bust and replaced by another. In an age when hairstyles changed, this was an efficient way of keeping the bust up to date.

Imperial Portraiture in Troubled Times.

With the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–180 c.e.) the long period of peace that the empire had enjoyed came abruptly to an end. There were grim times ahead, and imperial portraiture conveyed a new message of suffering and sadness. A relief sculpture of Marcus Aureliusthat once adorned a lost imperial arch shows him bearded after the style of the emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138 c.e.) who had worn a beard to hide scars on his face. Marcus' face is that of a care-worn man. His eyes are incised rather than merely painted, creating a melancholy effect that no doubt was a window to his soul. The sense of sadness is even greater in the portrait of a short-lived emperor, Decius (r. 249–251 c.e.), in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. He is balding and what is left of his hair is clipped short. The sculptor made no effort to flatter. His gaze is fixed upwards, as if he hoped for help from above. If so, the help failed to arrive, for Decius died in a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Goths. After 268 c.e., when the empire began to revive under a succession of emperors from Illyria (modern Croatia and Serbia), first Claudius Gothicus (r. 268–270 c.e.) and then Aurelian (r. 270–275 c.e.), the emperors are shown as men of action with several days' growth of beard. Realism increased to the point of brutalism. The emperors are shown as tough and effective rather than handsome.

The Loss of Individuality.

A great political change occurred at the end of the third century c.e. In 284 c.e. a soldier from Illyria named Diocles was elected emperor by the Roman army. He immediately changed his name to Diocletian and chose a colleague, a fellow soldier named Maximian, to share the imperial office. A few years later, he chose two more junior colleagues, naming them "Caesars." So the empire was ruled by a committee of emperors, two bearing the title "Augustus" with one of them, Diocletian, senior to the other, and two with the title of "Caesar." This tetrarchy (the rule of four men) lasted until 305 c.e., when Diocletian retired and persuaded his colleague, Maximian, to retire as well. At San Marco Cathedral in Venice there is a remarkable group portrait of the tetrarchs that captures the spirit of the new age. It is made of porphyry, a hard reddish granite from Egypt which, because of its dark crimson color, was considered particularly fitting for representing emperors. The tetrarchs are each shown embracing another with one arm; with the other arm each grasps his sword. They have larger, cubical heads on squat, shapeless bodies. This sculpture group represents the tetrarchy as an office rather than a group of individuals. The sculptural form is less important than the message it conveys. The same spirit, too, informs a colossal portrait of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, who united the Roman Empire under his rule in 323 c.e. and founded a new capital, Constantinople, the next year. The portrait, which is in Rome in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, is over two and a half meters (8.2 feet) tall, and it is what remains of a seated statue, over nine meters (30 feet) in height, that has a core of brick, a wooden torso covered with bronze, and head and limbs of marble. The face is a mask. Enormous eyes are set into the broad planes of the face. The eyes stare beyond the onlooker as if their gaze is fixed on Heaven where resides the ultimate authority. This is an image of power and Christian faith, and the message that it conveys almost overwhelms the human individualism of the portrait.

Painted Portraits.

Few of the imperial portraits survived to modern times, except for marble sculptures. While portraits were also painted on wood in hot, colored wax, only one such rendering exists today: a portrait of the family of the emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 c.e.). These wooden portraits were sent to the far corners of the empire and set up in public places when a new emperor ascended the throne. The best examples of portraits come from Roman Egypt. They are mummy portraits painted on wooden panels and placed over the face of the corpse that is then wrapped in long bands of white linen. The portrait painters used the encaustic technique, mixing their pigments with hot wax and then applying them to the smooth surface of the wooden panel. The dry climate of Egypt has preserved the wood and the colors have not faded. The faces show the man or woman in the prime of life. They were probably painted some years before the time of death. There are no side-views or three-quarters views; the pose is always frontal, and the eyes transfix the viewer with a sober, almost melancholy gaze, conveying a sense of spirituality. Their eyes are windows to their souls. Hundreds of these portraits have been found in the Fayum province of Egypt west of the Nile River, and they date mostly from the second and third centuries c.e. They show how portrait painting developed in the Roman Empire in the years following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 c.e. It is interesting to compare them with imperial portraits of the same period. The medium is different and these portraits from the Fayum portray ordinary people, not emperors. Yet one can detect a similarity in spirit. Both suggest that the everyday life with its troubles and turmoil is not all there is to life.

Forerunners of the Art of Illumination.

The troubled third century produced another type of portrait: miniatures on glass set against a gold-leaf background. One exquisite example has survived which bears the signature of the artist: Boumeris. He is otherwise unknown. His portrait group shows a mother and two children, a girl and a boy, painted on a glass roundel (a round object) four inches (10.16 centimeters) in diameter. The portrait, dating to about 230 c.e., shows the mother and her children full-face and unsmiling. Another example, which is unsigned, shows a man painted in a roundel 2.7 inches (6.86 centimeters) in diameter. This is exquisite work, and only the well-to-do could afford portraits such as this one. They are, however, forerunners of the art of illuminating texts and paintings printed on vellum which is one of the glories of art in the Middle Ages.


introduction: Two wall-paintings from Pompeii show women artists at work. One shows a woman painting a statue, the other a woman seated at her easel. Most of the ancient painters, men as well as women, are only names to us, and they would not have been known at all except that Pliny the Elder mentions them in his Natural History. Pliny garnered his information from earlier sources, and in one of these sources, Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 b.c.e.), he found a reference to a woman who worked as a portrait painter in Rome, sometimes painting with a brush and sometimes using the encaustic technique. Her name was Iaia, and she came from Cyzicus in north-west Asia Minor. Pliny compares her to Sopolis and Dionysius. We know nothing of Sopolis; Dionysius was a portrait artist who painted only men.

Iaia, who came from Cyzicus and remained unmarried all her life, worked at Rome when Varro was a young man and she painted portraits on ivory, of women mostly, sometimes using a brush and sometimes a spatula (for applying molten colored wax). She painted a large picture of an old woman which is at Naples, and also she painted a portrait of herself using a mirror. No artist worked more swiftly than she; yet the excellence of her art was such that her paintings sold for far more than those of the most celebrated artists of her day, Sopolis and Dionysius, whose works fill our art galleries.

source: Pliny, Natural History. Book 35. Chapter 147. Translated by James Allan Evans.


Euphrosyne Doxiadis, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt (London, England: Thames and Hudson; New York: Abrams, 1996).

Ludwig Goldscheider, Roman Portraits (Oxford, England: Phaidon, 1945).

Christine M. Havelock, Hellenistic Art. The Art of the Classical World from the Death of Alexander the Great to the Battle of Actium (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968).

R. P. Hinks, Greek and Roman Portrait Sculpture. 2nd ed. (London, England: British Museum Publications, 1976).

Sabine G. MacCormick, Art and Ceremonial in the Later Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Gisella M. A. Richter, The Portraits of the Greeks. Rev. R. R. R. Smith (Oxford, England: Phaidon, 1984).

Moses S. Slaughter, Roman Portraits (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969).

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