The collection of Roman portraiture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art spans the full scope of the subject, from the time of the Roman Republic to the reign of Constantine the Great (26.229). The collection comprises examples in a variety of media, most significantly sculpture and coins (08.170.118; 08.170.120; 99.35.177), but also gems (1994.230.7), glass, and painting (18.9.2). This great diversity of material reflects the various uses, both public and private, for which the Romans created their portraits. Roman portraiture is also unique in comparison to that of other ancient cultures because of the quantity of surviving examples, as well as the complex and ever-evolving stylistic treatment of human features and character.
Roman Portraits: Uses and Re-Uses
Private portrait sculpture was most closely associated with funerary contexts. Funerary altars (38.27) and tomb structures were adorned with portrait reliefs of the deceased along with short inscriptions noting their family or patrons, and portrait busts accompanied cinerary urns that were deposited in the niches of large, communal tombs known as columbaria. This funerary context for portrait sculpture was rooted in the longstanding tradition of the display of wax portrait masks, called imagenes, in funeral processions of the upper classes to commemorate their distinguished ancestry. These masks, portraits of noted ancestors who had held public office or been awarded special honors, were proudly housed in the household lararium, or family shrine, along with busts made of bronze (52.11.6), marble (12.233), or terracotta. In displaying these portraits so prominently in the public sphere, aristocratic families were able to celebrate their history of public service while honoring their deceased relatives.
In the Republic, public sculpture included honorific portrait statues of political officials or military commanders erected by the order of their peers in the Senate. These statues were typically erected to celebrate a noted military achievement, usually in connection with an official triumph, or to commemorate some worthy political achievement, such as the drafting of a treaty. A dedicatory inscription, called a cursus honorum, detailed the subject’s honors and life achievements, as well as his lineage and notable ancestors. These inscriptions typically accompanied public portraits and were a uniquely Roman feature of commemoration.
The express mention of the subject’s family history reflects its great influence on a Roman’s political career. The Romans believed that ancestry was the best indicator of a man’s ability, and so if you were the descendant of great military commanders, then you, too, had the potential to be one as well. The intense political rivalry of the late Republican period gave special meaning to the display of one’s lineage and therefore necessitated its emphasis, manifested in such traditions as the cursus, wax imagenes, and funerary processions, as an essential factor for success.
With the establishment of the principate system under Augustus (07.286.115), the imperial family and its circle soon came to monopolize official public statuary. Official imperial portrait types were principally displayed in sebasteia, or temples of the imperial cult, and were carefully designed to project specific ideas about the emperor, his family, and his authority. These sculptures were extremely useful as propaganda tools intended to support the legitimacy of the emperor’s powers. Two of the most influential, and most widely disseminated, media for imperial portraits were coins (08.170.118; 08.170.120; 99.35.177) and sculpture, and official types laden with propagandistic connotation were dispersed throughout the empire to announce and identify the imperial authority. Scholars believe that official portrait types were created in the capital city of Rome itself and distributed to the provinces to serve as prototypes for local workshops, which could adapt them to conform to local iconographic traditions and therefore have more meaningful local appeal. Coins by their very nature are easily and quickly dispersed, reaching countless citizens and provincial residents, and thus the emperor’s image could be seen and his power recognized by people all across the vast empire.
Conversely, in the instance of the “bad” emperors such as Nero and Domitian, whose reigns were characterized by destructive behavior and who were posthumously condemned by the Senate, imperial portraits were sometimes recycled or even destroyed. Typical effects of a damnatio memoriae, a modern term for the most severe denunciation, included the erasure of an individual’s name from public inscriptions, and even assault on their portraits as if brought against the subject himself. Imperial portraits of “bad” emperors were also removed from public view and warehoused, often later recycled into portraits of private individuals or emperors of the following decades. A recarved portrait is relatively easy to recognize; certain features such as a disproportionate hairline or unusually flattened ears are typical signs that a bust had been altered from an earlier likeness.