Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Roman Portrait Sculpture: The Stylistic Cycle

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The development of Roman portraiture is characterized by a stylistic cycle that alternately emphasized realistic or idealizing elements. Each stage of Roman portraiture can be described as alternately "veristic" or "classicizing," as each imperial dynasty sought to emphasize certain aspects of representation in an effort to legitimize their authority or align themselves with revered predecessors. These stylistic stages played off of one another while pushing the medium toward future artistic innovations.


Beginning with Augustus, the emperors of the imperial period made full use of the medium's potential as a tool for communicating specific ideologies to the Roman populace.

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In the Republic, the most highly valued traits included a devotion to public service and military prowess, and so Republican citizens sought to project these ideals through their representation in portraiture. Public officials commissioned portrait busts that reflected every wrinkle and imperfection of the skin, and heroic, full-length statues often composed of generic bodies onto which realistic, called "veristic" (12.233), portrait heads were attached. The overall effect of this style gave Republican ideals physical form and presented an image that the sitter wanted to express.


Beginning with Augustus, the emperors of the imperial period made full use of the medium's potential as a tool for communicating specific ideologies to the Roman populace. Augustus' official portrait type was disseminated throughout the empire and combined the heroicizing idealization of Hellenistic art with Republican ideas of individual likeness to produce a whole new scheme for portraiture that was at once innovative and yet fundamentally based in familiar aspects of traditional Roman art. Augustan (07.286.115) and Julio-Claudian (14.37) portrait types emphasized the youth, beauty, and benevolence of the new dynastic family, and in doing so, Augustus set a stylistic precedent that had lasting impact on Roman portrait sculpture up to the reign of Constantine the Great.


Classicizing idealization in portraiture allowed emperors to emphasize their loyalties to the imperial dynasty, and even legitimize their authority by visually linking themselves to their predecessors. Tiberius (r. 14–37 A.D.) (1994.230.7) was not actually related to Augustus, but his portraits portray a remarkable, and fictionalized, resemblance that connected him to the princeps and helped substantiate his position as successor. Even Tiberius' successor Caligula (r. 37–41 A.D.) (14.37), who had no interest in continuing Augustus' administrative ideals and was much more concerned with promoting his own agenda, followed the Augustan and Tiberian portrait tradition of classical and idealized features that carried a strong "family" resemblance. However, during the reign of the emperor Claudius (r. 41–54 A.D.), a shift in the political atmosphere favored a return to Republican standards and so also influenced artistic styles. Portraits of Claudius reflect his increasing age and strongly resemble veristic portraits of the Republic. This trend toward realism eventually led to the characteristic styles of the second imperial dynasty: the Flavians.


The turbulence of the year 68/69 A.D., which saw the rise and fall of three different emperors, instigated drastic changes in Roman portraiture characterized by a return to a veristic representation that emphasized their military strengths. Portraits of Vespasian (r. 69–79 A.D.), the founder of the Flavian dynasty, similarly show him in an unidealized manner. During the Flavian era, sculptors also made remarkable advancements in technique that included a revolutionary use of the drill, and female portraiture (38.27) of the period is renowned for its elaborate corkscrew hairstyles.


The cycle continued with the portraits of Trajan (r. 98–117 A.D.), who wanted to emphasize symbolic connections with Augustus and so adopted an ageless and somewhat idealized portrait type quite different from that of the Flavians. His successor Hadrian (r. 117–38 A.D.) (08.170.118; 08.170.120; 99.35.177), however, went a step further and is noted as being the first emperor to adopt the Greek habit of wearing a beard. The textual interplay that was developed in the treatment of Flavian women's hairstyles was now more fully explored in male portraiture, and busts of the Hadrianic period are identified by a full head of curly hair as well as the presence of a beard. The Antonines modeled their portraits after Hadrian, and emphasized (fictional) familial resemblances to him by having themselves portrayed as never-aging, bearded adults (33.11.3). Continued development in Roman portrait styles was spurred by the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–80 A.D.) and his son Commodus (r. 177–92 A.D.), whose portraits feature new levels of psychological expression that reflect changes not only in the emperors' physical state but their mental condition as well. These physical embodiments of personality and emotional expression later reach their fullest realization in the portraits of the Severan emperor Caracalla (r. 211–17 A.D.).


In contrast to the full curls typical of Hadrianic and Antonine portraits, Caracalla (40.11.1a) is shown with a short, military beard and hairstyle that were stippled across the surface of the marble for a "buzz-cut" effect, also called "negative carving." He is also shown with an intense, almost insane facial expression, which evokes his strong military background and, according to some scholars, reflects his aggressive nature. This portrait type is credited as having a profound effect on imperial portraiture in the turbulent years to follow his reign, and many of the soldier-emperors of the third century sought to legitimize their rise to power by stylistically aligning themselves with Caracalla. As time went on, these stylized aspects became increasingly prominent, and soon a pronounced attention to geometry and emotional anxiety permeated imperial portrait sculptures, as evident in the bronze statue of Trebonianus Gallus (05.30; 05.47). This increasing dependency on geometric symmetry and abstraction contributed to the highly distinctive portraiture utilized by the Tetrarchy, a system of imperial rule based on a foundation of indivisibility and homogeneous authority shared by four co-emperors. The portraits of these Tetrarchs emphasized an abstract and stylized communal image; individualized features were forsaken in order to present them as the embodiment of a united empire. This message sought to quell the fears and anxieties born out of years of civil strife and short-lived emperors, and so in this extreme example, the portraiture of the Tetrarchy cannot be defined as the representation of individuals, but rather as the manufactured image of their revolutionary political system.


The portraiture of Constantine the Great (26.229), who defeated his rivals to become sole emperor in 326 A.D., is unique in its combination of third-century abstraction and a neo-Augustan, neo-Trajanic classical revival. Constantine favored dynastic succession and used the homogeneous precedents of his predecessors to present his sons as his apparent heirs. However, he also sought to imbue his reign with aspects of the "good" emperor Trajan, and is depicted clean-shaven and sporting the short, comma-shaped hairstyle typical of that emperor. He further disassociated himself from the Tetrarchs and soldier-emperors by having himself portrayed as youthful and serene, recalling the classicizing idealism of Augustan and Julio-Claudian portraits. In this way, Constantine's portraiture encapsulated the Roman artistic tradition of emulation and innovation, and in turn had great impact on the development of Byzantine art.

Rosemarie Trentinella
Lifchez/Stronach Curatorial Intern, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art