Marble, h. 29 1/8 in. (74 cm.)
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace and Philodoroi Gifts, 2011 (2011.87)
The young emperor Severus Alexander (r. A.D. 222–235) is wearing the toga contabulata, with its boardlike set of folds (the sinus) across his chest and a diagonal fold behind that extends over his left shoulder and down his back. The type is distinctive of later Roman portraits in which the subject is shown in formal civic dress, as opposed to in military attire as imperator (commander in chief) or in a heroic, semidivine pose. Severus Alexander, who died violently when he was only twenty-six, was the last of the Severan dynasty of emperors, and he was followed by a rapid succession of rulers and usurpers during the remainder of the troubled third century A.D. The bust may have been produced as one of a series under imperial control, or even in imperial workshops in Rome, and then set up in a prominent public place, perhaps with other imperial portraits representing his predecessors or with other members of the imperial family. The head, which is carved with great skill and sensitivity, combines a sense of growing maturity and power with a still visible youthful delicacy.