Roman Portraiture: Elegance and Power


Marble bust of Pompey, ca. 50 B.C.

Nowadays, we are used to politicians projecting a positive image of themselves. As soon as we turn the television on, we see this or that candidate visiting hospitals, holding children, helping the homeless etc. Is this a modern phenomenon, brought about by “democratic” discourse? Of course not. Propaganda is not a modern idea. Medieval cathedrals, the Parthenon, the Pyramids all yearn to reach a propagandistic aim. Nevertheless, I find ancient Rome to be a most fascinating example of how specific individuals sought to portray themselves in the eyes of their fellows and, indeed, in the eyes of a modern audience.

Verism: Republican Values and the Power of Old Age

Already in ancient Rome, the leading figures of society strived to depict themselves in a respectable light. In the Late Republic, Verism aimed at portraying an individual with all his (generally it is a he) imperfections, such as warts and wrinkles. The origin of this practice lies in the masks, paraded across the Forum, during a funeral. These masks or imagines, as they were known, were originally made out of wax, moulded as death masks directly from the deceased. Their function in a funeral procession highlights a most significant aspect of Roman society. They served the purpose of reminding the bystanders of all the achievements of a family. Thus, while the funeral was about the dead person, it was also about the whole family, whose honour and prestige were determined by the great deeds of its members. From this practice, then, the portrait of individuals was translated to everyday life. Rather than being used only in funerals, by the Late Republic portraits could be present in the rich households as a way to remind the visitors of the ancient prestige.


Julius Caesar coins

Verism, however, does not necessarily portray reality. The subject’s imperfections could have been accentuated, making them almost surreal. What is important to understand, though, is that these facial features serve a political propaganda. In the Republican period, old age was an essential requirement for the most prestigious political positions. In order to be part of the Senate, the main political body of Rome, a patrician should have been at least forty-two years old. Artistic expressions of old age, therefore, should remind any viewer of the austere and the experience required to become a politician. Warts, wrinkles and furrows showed the person’s authority, wisdom and military prowess, essential requirements for a political life. In the Late Republic, however, politics starts to shift away from tradition. With the rise of prominent figures, like Caesar and Pompey, portraiture presents different features. At the same time, the propagandistic overtone is still preserved.

Pompey and Caesar: The Struggle For Imperium

The portraits of Pompey and Caesar changed the style and use of portraiture. Pompey, for instance, abandoned the veristic style, opting for a more idealised version. His portraits were deeply influenced by the Hellenistic East. If we pay attention to the general’s hairstyle, we would note a strong similarity with Alexander the Great’s hairstyle. Of course, this is not a mere coincidence. After the conquest of the East, Hellenistic culture and wealth fascinated Rome. Similarly, everyone knew the deeds of Alexander: a young Macedonian prince who defeated the formidable Persian Empire. By copying Alexander’s hair, Pompey wanted to show that he had similar qualities to the young Macedonian and that he could reach the same prestige. The portraits of Julius Caesar were more veristic then Pompey’s. However, his face appeared on coins. While it was common to find ancestors on coins, a living person was not an acceptable practice. By doing so, Caesar wanted to show that the Roman people were indebted to him for their wealth, prosperity and peace.


Marble statue of Augustus Caesar

Augustus and the Julio-Claudians: The Continuity of Power

Beginning with Augustus, the medium of portraiture reached its propagandistic apogee. Statues of the Imperator began to circulate throughout the Empire, combining the heroicising idealisation of Hellenistic Art with the Republican ideals. The final product was innovative, yet respectful of Roman tradition. Portraiture under Augustus and the Julio-Claudians puts emphasis on youth, beauty and the benevolence of the imperial household. The classical elements of Augustan portraits allowed his successors to follow his model, hence showing their allegiance to the family and the dynasty. Although Tiberius (14-37 AD) was not biologically related to Augustus, his portraits present fictional similarities to the princeps, showing continuity in the dynastic succession. Even Caligula (37-41 AD), not interested in continuing Augustus’ policies, expressed a degree of continuity in his portraits. With Claudius (41-54 AD), however, the style of portraiture changed, returning to the old Republican standards. Portraits of Claudius reflect his old age. The accentuation of these features brought about the style of the second Roman dynasty: the Flavians.

The Flavii: The Return to the Past and Glamour

After a turbulent year (68/69 AD), in which four emperors succeeded one another, Vespasian was elected as imperator. Perhaps, the sheer violence of this short period compelled portraiture to go back to a more veristic style. After all, showing one’s aging features highlighted his military strength, much needed in times of war, especially civil war. Portraits of Vespasian (69-79 AD) show him in an unidealised manner. At the same time, however, artists improved their use of the drill, reaching remarkable effects, especially on female portraiture. Portraits of wealthy women display detailed craftsmanship in its elaborate corkscrew hairstyles.



As we have seen, ancient Roman politicians were interested in their own propagandistic depiction as much as our politicians are. Power entices us and we would do anything to preserve power, either by showing affiliation to a great leader of the past, or by displaying useful values. What should fascinate us, though, is the immutable perception of art as a means for an end: namely, a means for authority, power and prestige.

– Luca Ricci

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