H. 37 1/2 in. (95.2 cm)
Bequest of Mary Clark Thompson, 1923 (26.229)
Constantine was the first Christian emperor of Rome, and his reign had a profound effect on the subsequent development of the Roman, and later Byzantine, world. Constantine's reign marked a distinct shift away from the administrative system set up by the emperor Diocletian in 293 A.D., which saw the division of the empire into four territories each governed by one of four imperial partners. This Tetrarchy was founded on the idea of homogeneous authority; all four emperors were depicted together in portraits emphasizing their unity and indivisibility in order to bolster their strength and present the image of a unified empire. Although Diocletian's intent had been to permanently do away with dynastic succession, Constantine's aim was to establish a new dynasty and to found a new capital, named Constantinople after himself. He also succeeded in reunifying the empire with the defeat of the last of his former tetrarchic colleagues, the Eastern emperor Licinius.
Although the court and administration no longer resided at Rome, Constantine was careful not to neglect the old imperial city and adorned it with many new secular and Christian buildings. The most famous of these is the triumphal arch, the Arch of Constantine, which still stands near the Colosseum. This work contains reused material from earlier monuments, a practice that was not only economical but probably also intended to shed reflected glory on the emperor by associating his reign in a very direct and practical way with that of famous "good" emperors from the past. This desire to link himself to his revered predecessors greatly influenced Constantine's official portraiture, and contributed to the revival of certain classicizing features that had been absent from imperial portraiture for over a century.
The full breadth of Constantine's portraiture demonstrates a remarkable evolution: early coin portraits show him in the manner of the Tetrarchs with a stubble beard and blocky physique, while later portraits such as this one, made after his assumption of sole power, show a significant change. In an effort to disassociate himself from his immediate predecessors, Constantine adopted an official image that recalled the calm, youthful faces of Augustus and Trajan. This colossal portrait head once surmounted an enormous statue of the seated emperor, and displays many features characteristic of Augustan and Trajanic portraiture. Most notably, Constantine is clean-shaven and his cap of hair is thick and arranged in comma-shaped locks across his forehead (compare this with the portrait head of Augustus (07.286.115). As part of his plan to reorganize the empire, Constantine's portraiture offered a new iconography to match his new regime.
This monumental head, as in smaller portraits and coins of Constantine, presents the emperor as detached from the real world. It lacks the intimacy and individual expressiveness of earlier imperial portraits. Constantine gazes into the far distance with his eyes lifted as if to heaven. The symbolism is clear and sets the stage for the iconography of the early Christian and Byzantine world, where the emperor was seen as God's regent on earth.