Roman Art III : Portrait Sculpture
by: P. Dionysius Mus

We know from literary accounts that from early Republican times on, meritorious political or military leaders were honored by having their statues put in public places. This habit continued to exist until the end of the empire a thousand years later. Unfortunately, we do not know the first hundreds of years of this Roman tradition. Not one portrait has yet come to light that can be dated before the first century BC. The earliest example found in this category is the statue of Aulus Metellus, also called 'L'Arringatore' (see figure 1), possibly of Etruscan origin, because of the inscription below the statue in Etruscan language and some formal evidence. But the gesture and his clothing, an early toga, are definitely Roman. What makes the figure remarkable is its serious, prosaically factual quality, down to the neatly tied shoelaces.

Very important in Roman portraiture is the seriousness, consciously intended as a positive value. The Roman portrait, like the portrait of an unknown Roman (see figure 2) may strike us at first glance as nothing but a detailed record of facial topography, but yet this is not really the case. The wrinkles are true to life, but the carver nevertheless treated them with a selective emphasis designed to bring out a specifically Roman personality: stern, rugged, and iron-willed in its devotion to duty. Its peculiar flavor reflects a patriarchal Roman custom of considerable antiquity. At the death of the head of the family, a waxen image was made of his face, which was then preserved in a special shrine, or family altar. At funerals, these ancestral images were carried in the procession. An example can be seen in figure 3, which shows an unknown man holding two busts of his ancestors, presumably his father and grandfather. The work has little distinction, though the somber face of the dutiful Roman is strangely affecting.

As we approach the reign of the emperor Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), we find a new trend in Roman portraiture that reaches its climax in the images of Augustus himself. In his splendid statue from Primaporta (figure 4), we may be uncertain at first glace whether it represents a god or a human being. This doubt is of course entirely appropriate, for the figure is meant to be both. The idea of attributing superhuman stature to the emperor, thereby enhancing his authority, soon became official policy, and while Augustus did not carry it as far as later emperors, the Primaporta statue clearly shows him enveloped in an air of divinity. The emperor's gesture is familiar from 'Aulus Metellus' (figure 1), the face is a definite likeness, elevated but clearly individual, as we know by comparison with the numerous other portraits of Augustus. The breastplate illustrates Augustus' victory over the Parthians in 39-38 BC, which avenged a Roman defeat at their hands nearly 15 years earlier.

If we regard the Republican ancestral image tradition and the Greek-inspired Augustus of Primaporta as opposite extremes, we can find almost any variety of interbreeding between the two. The fine head of the emperor Vespasianus (figure 5, 75 AD) is a case in point. His humble origin and simple tastes may be reflected in the anti-Augustan, Republican flavor of his portrait. The soft, veiled quality of the carving on the other hand, with its emphasis on the texture of hair and skin, is so Greek that it immediately recalls the seductive marble technique of Praxiteles and his school.

It is not surprising to find a strong neo-Augustan, classicistic trend in the sculpture of the second century AD. This is especially true during the reigns of Hadrianus and Marcus Aurelius, both of them private men deeply interested in Greek philosophy. We can sense this introspective quality in the equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (figure 6), which is remarkable not only as the sole survivor of this class of monument, but as one of the few Roman statues that remained on public view throughout the Middle Ages. The image showing the mounted emperor as the all-conquering lord of the earth had been a firmly established tradition ever since Iulius Caesar permitted an equestrian statue of himself to be erected in the Forum that he built. The wonderfully spirited and powerful horse expresses his martial spirit, but the emperor himself, without weapons or armor, presents a picture of stoic detachment. He is a bringer of peace rather than a military hero, for so he indeed saw himself and his reign.

The portraits of the 'soldier-emperors' from the third century, like M Iulius Philippus ('Philip the Arab', figure 7) are among the most powerful likenesses in all of art. Their facial realism is as uncompromising as that of Republican portraiture, but its aim is expressive rather than documentary. All the dark passions of the human mind - fear, suspicion, cruelty - suddenly stand revealed here, with a directness that is almost unbelievable. There is a psychological nakedness about it that recalls a brute creature, doomed and cornered. Clearly, the agony of the Roman world was not only physical but also spiritual. That Roman art should have been able to create an image of a man embodying this crisis is a tribute to its continued vitality.

Stranger still is the head of Constantine the Great (figure 8), the first Christian emperor and reorganizer of the Roman state, who became sole ruler in 324 AD. Although it shows more individuality, the face is hardly a portrait in the proper sense of the term. No mere bust, this head is one of several remaining fragments of a huge statue from the apse on Constantine's gigantic basilica. Although imperial sculptures, including other colossal statues of the period, show the ruler standing, this one probably depicted him seated nude in the manner of Iupiter, with a mantle draped across his legs. The head alone is eight feet / 2,5m tall. Everything is so out of proportion to the scale of ordinary people that we feel crushed by its immensity. We may call it superhuman, not only because of its enormous size, but even more so perhaps as an image of imperial majesty. It is reinforced by the massive, immobile features out of which the huge, radiant eyes stare with hypnotic intensity. All in all, the colossal head conveys little of Constantine's actual appearance, but it does tell us a great deal about his view of himself and his exalted office.
© 2001-2017 Societas Via Romana