Analysis of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome's great emperors, so it's not surprising that there's some great artwork of him. In this lesson, we'll check out the emperor's equestrian statue and see what it tells us about Rome at that time.

Equestrian Statues

Imagine living in a society without mass-produced forms of communication, and where only the wealthy are literate. If you want to honor the emperor for something great, what do you do? How about a statue?

In the Roman Empire, emperors were celebrated through a very specific form of sculptural portrait called an equestrian statue, which is a carved or cast figure of them seated nobly on a horse. That pose likely came from their role as a leader of the armies, but the pose also became a popular way to honor the emperor for civic victories as well as military ones. Equestrian statues were also seen as a gift to the people, since these life-sized statues were displayed as public works of art that made the city more beautiful and reaffirmed the greatness of Rome.

So, the Romans liked their equestrian statues, and over 20 of these expensive and elaborate sculptures once adorned the city. Since then, most have been destroyed (generally melted down to be used for bells or coins or things). One, however, has survived. The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius is one of the most important surviving works of Roman art, and the best example we have of ancient equestrian portraits. All hail the emperor!

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius
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The Statue

Let's get to know this great work of art. Emperor Marcus Aurelius' statue was built sometime around the 170s CE, and is made of gilded bronze. At 11 feet 6 inches tall, it's an impressive portrait. The emperor appears especially imposing, and that's partly because he and the horse were built on different scales. He's out of proportion, but not so much that it looks strange. It's just enough to make the emperor look a little larger than life.

While we do not know who the artist was, it's clear that he or she was an extremely talented sculptor. The statue was originally created using a time-intensive process called lost wax casting, in which a wax copy of the statue is made, a cast is built around it and the molten bronze is poured in, melting away the wax and replacing it with metal. More likely than not, this statue was cast as several smaller pieces that were then soldered together. Bronze statues were hard to make, required great skill, and were expensive (especially once you covered it in gold). It was a medium fit for an emperor.

Marcus Aurelius

So, who was this emperor, and why did he get such a cool statue? Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome from 161-180 CE. He's considered to be one of the greatest emperors that Rome ever had; he was a model of civic virtue, a philosopher, architect, and warrior. You may notice the curly hair and beard on this statue. Most Romans had shaven faces and short, straight hair. Marcus Aurelius here is actually trying to look Greek. Why? Again, he was a philosopher and intellectual, a master of the Greek classics. Most of his portraits show him with this beard, indicating that he always wanted to be remembered more as a philosopher than anything else.

Although he did not like war, he recognized its necessity for the Roman people and the stability of the empire. Marcus Aurelius spent most of his reign fighting Germanic tribes in Northern Europe, reaching a major victory over several around 176 CE.

We don't know exactly when Marcus Aurelius' equestrian statue was completed, but many historians believe it was around the date of the Germanic victory. There are some clues in the statue that suggest this. For one, the emperor is wearing the tunic of a civic leader as well as the senatorial ring, not the uniform of a military commander. Marcus Aurelius greatly preferred to be seen as a philosopher emperor rather than a warring one, so this could explain his outfit choice. However, many historians also suggest that the lack of military attire implies that the war against the Germanic tribes was over. In that context, this statue would have been a symbol of the return of peace, and of Marcus Aurelius re-dedicating himself to political matters.

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