Roman Portraiture Art

Roman portraiture art and its function in Roman society

  • Daniel de Jong - Faculty of Law & Faculty of Arts

Museums all over the world display statues from the Ancient world. A statue of Apollo with his lyre displayed in the garden of Versailles in Paris is for instance an artwork which refers back to the Greek world. Even though the statue represents Apollo, a figure of the Greek mythology, it is almost certain that this particular statue was not made during the Greek world, but it is a Roman copy of an original Greek statue. To a large extent influenced by Greek culture, the emerging Roman republic and the early Roman empire used these Greek statues for their own purposes. The function of what are now considered to be examples of great artwork depends on the period they were made in.

Statue of Apollo with his lyre, Versailles France, Marble copy of a Greek original
1. The late Roman republic and realistic artworks
2. Early Roman Empire and the idealization of emperors
3. Christianization of the Empire and the decrease of statues
4. Sources

1: The late Roman republic and realistic artworks

The principal source of influence of the masterpieces of Roman art is the Greek world. This Greek influence on the Italian peninsula started with the settlement of Greek colonies on Italian soil and was enforced by the Greek influence on the Etruscan Culture.[1] The Etruscans formed a bridge between Greek and Roman culture since the Etruscan sculptures are strongly influenced by Greek art.[2] But there were direct contacts between Rome and Greek colonies and with Greek itself, especially when Rome conquered the eastern Mediterranean in the second century B.C.[3] The majority of artists who were working in Rome were Greek because Romans were both interested in original Greek sculptures and the copies of these sculptures.[4] However, it would not be right to call the Roman art a bad copy of the earlier Greek art only because the Romans were influenced by the Greeks. The artwork did not simply repeat the work of Greek sculptors, Roman artists added their own ideas and therefore, Roman art is the result of an evolution.[5] Both the public and the private statues or busts mostly depicted men, even though there are also some example of busts representing rich Roman women. Furthermore, the majority of female portraits in Roman art are goddesses. The portraits made by Roman sculptors during the last centuries of the Roman republic were public statues of men. A marble copy of a bronze statue made by Kresilas shows the characteristics of this type of art. The statue depicts an older man, Pericles, without any emotional expression, a late Roman republican ideal of men who were successful in life.[6]

Bust of Pericles, Staatlichen Museen Berlin, Marble copy of a bronze Greek portrait, around 430 B.C.

At the same time late republican portraits for the public and the private sphere could show realistic features and portraits with a realistic physiognomy are of members of privileged Roman families. They were either used to depict daily life scenes of rich families, such as a person's hunting skills or his achievements on the battlefield, or to realistically depict a bust of a family member. A good example of this type of private portraiture is the bust of an old man, showing folds and bulges.[7] These kind of portraits were either used during funeral ceremonies or they were placed on tombs of the dead. These images of the dead played a role in the aristocrat families to show their family ancestry and achievements. The function of the private statue for commemorative purposes during funeral ceremonies resulted in a clear distinction between the statues made for public and for private purposes.[8]

Marble portrait bust of an old man, Rome, 1st century B.C.
Marble statue of a Roman citizen carrying the busts of his ancestors. Togatus Barberini, Capitoline museums Rome, 1st century B.C.

2: Early Roman Empire and the idealization of emperors

The Hellenization of Roman art was mainly of interest for the ruling classes in the late Roman republic. Based on land ownership, this governing class in Rome was constituted of a group of very rich families. They began to use Greek art as a political instrument. By adopting Greek culture, they copied the greatness of the Hellenistic politics and culture.[9] As Roman political influence grew, artists specialised more and more in the art of busts or portraits, which were no longer only used for private purposes. The first emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, who reigned the newly constituted Empire from 27 B.C. till the year 69, were represented by highly idealized portraits, which emphasised the characteristics of the emperors.[10] At first sight, these imperial portraits seem to depict a bust of an emperor, just the way the family portraits of the late Roman republic were made but there is a difference between the two categories. A great example of such an idealized sculpture is the Statue of Prima Porta, which portrays the first emperor Augustus. The statue is sculptured for its political propagandist functions supporting the newly established Empire, and not for its use in family spheres. Augustus s being depicted as both a military leader who brought peace, and as a divine emperor of the newly established Roman empire. Once the empire had firmly been established by the Julio-Claudian dynasty, from the Flavian dynasty onwards, portraits were no longer as idealized as the Augustus Prima Porta. [12]

Augustus of Prima Porta, Vatican museums Rome. Marble statue of the first emperor of the Roman Empire

3: Christianization of the Empire and the decrease of statues

The Roman Empire could to some extent also be called monolithic since it had a monarch who was seen as a god, but in general Romans prayed to more than one god, which were often latinised versions of ancient Greek gods.[12] In the year 323, the emperor Constantine made Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire. This had several consequences for the development of Roman art, including Roman portraiture art.[13] Roman temples were filled with statues of gods and emperors, but in the newly established state religion this practise was out of the question. The amount of statues and busts which were commissioned for religious purposes dropped dramatically. Furthermore, Pope Gregory I did contribute to the decrease of crafted portraits in marble since he promoted another form of artwork, paintings. He allowed paintings to be made in churches as an instrument to glorify God and to teach the illiterate part of the population about the Christian religion. Artworks were used to represent the word of God, as written down in the Bible: architectural churches, paintings and mosaics were the means to show God s message to the people.[14] The church became the place for the faithful who could be amazed by the paintings and mosaics on the ceiling of the various churches. Unlike Hellenistic art, early Christian art did not attempt to represent human beauty or the daily life of men, Christian art showed above all the sacred character of the Christian God.

Feeding the multitude, basilica San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, mosaic, made in 520.


  1. Dominique Briquel. La Civilisation Etrusque. Paris: Fayard 1999. pp. 157-160.
  2. Marie-Anne Caradec. Histoire de l'Art: Questions de Cours et Commentaire d’Oeuvres. Paris: Edtions d’Orgaisation 2003. pp. 81-82.
  3. Mortimer Wheeler. L'Art Romain. Paris: Themes & Hudson 1992. p. 11.
  4. Ernst Hans Gombrich. Histoire de l'Art. Paris: Phaidon 2003. p. 117.
  5. Mortimer Wheeler. L'Art Romain. Paris: Themes & Hudson 1992. p. 24.
  6. Michael Siebler. Art Grec. Paris: Taschen 2007. pp. 76-77.
  7. Ibid. p. 101
  8. Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli. Rome: le Centre du Pouvoir, l'Art Romain des Origines a la Fin du deuxieme siecle. Paris: Gallimard 2010. pp. 99-103.
  9. Marcel le Glay. Rome I: Grandeur et Declin de la Republique. Paris: Perrin 2005. p. 194.
  10. Marie-Anne Caradec. Histoire de l'Art: Questions de Cours et Commentaire d'Oeuvres. Paris: Edtions d'Orgaisation 2003. p. 95.
  11. Ibid. p. 96.
  12. Mortimer Wheeler. L'Art Romain. Paris: Themes & Hudson 1992. p. 14.
  13. Ernst Hans Gombrich. Histoire de l'Art. Paris: Phaidon 2003. P.133.
  14. Ibid. pp. 136-137