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Roman Portrait Sculpture: Artists & Overview

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Portraiture was a crucial part of Roman culture, immortalizing Roman leadership through sculpture. This lesson reviews the cultural history of Roman portrait sculpture, including its content, phases, and functions.

Staring into Ancient Faces: Introduction to Roman Portrait Sculpture

Roman sculptures allow us to peer into the faces of people who lived over 2,000 years ago in exquisite detail. Since they are carved in nonperishable materials - mostly marble and bronze - Roman sculptures survive well in the archaeological record, much more so than paintings. As a result, Roman portraits provide some of the best information available to us about how the Romans saw themselves and the human form.

The Republican Period: Origins of Roman Portrait Sculpture

Roman Republican portrait with ancestor busts
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Roman Republicancestral lineageverismimagines

Rather than being limited to royal audiences, however, Roman portraits were located in public places to openly broadcast a leader's glory. The portraits were also meant to glorify Roman ideals, including political service, bravery, and military accomplishment. Wealthy Romans were also able to obtain private portrait sculptures to adorn their tombs, insuring glory and continuing family legacies.

The Imperial Period: Portraits of Divine Emperors

Augustus Caesar portrait
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Imperial RomeAugustus Caesarclassicism

For instance, one of Augustus' self portraits, excavated in the 19th century, shows a youthful Augustus in military clothing with images associated with different deities, including Jupiter, the god of war, and Venus, the goddess of fertility, who he claimed as his ancestor. Historians believe that many of Rome's sculptors were actually Greek, and that large numbers of Greek sculptures survived at the time for inspiration. Roman portraits were also mass produced on coins, making them a portable part of everyday life throughout the Roman Empire.

After Augustus, Roman portraiture continued to be strictly controlled by the emperor, although styles shifted between classicism and verism, depending on current social values. Later in time, Marcus Aurelius popularized the expression of emotions in Imperial Roman portraiture. The Roman Emperor Caracalla portrayed himself in an aggressive, militaristic manner, while other Roman emperors were shown as contemplative.

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