The portrait as an individual likeness, truly reproducing the features of its subject and, at the same time, exhibiting the style and technique of the artist, has been practised at various times in human history. It was a popular art form among the Romans, serving either to produce the true likeness of a person still living, or as an artist’s interpretation of the personality of someone the artist had never seen. Portraiture implied a value judgment on a person, which was necessarily reflected in the finished work. Compared with Greek antecedents, such as the fifth- century image of Pericles or the fourth—century representations of Socrates or Alexander, it is evident that Roman portraits tended to be more realistic in their physiology and psychology.
We have already seen how important a role busts and statues played in Roman political and social life. This is confirmed by textual evidence, by inscriptions, especially those on the bases of statues, and by the thousands of surviving examples housed in the museums of Rome and other parts of the former Empire. The greatest concentration of identifiable portraits is to be found in Rome, particularly in the Vatican and Capitoline museums. From museum catalogues, it is possible to follow the development of the phenomenon, from imperial portraits done in the metropolis, and provincial replicas of the same, to private likenesses reflecting changing tastes. It is generally accepted that images of the Roman emperors need to be interpreted in terms of their period. But st is equally important to take into account geographical factors, and the difference between portraits executed in the round and in relief. Thus, the relationship between realistic portraiture and the portraiture of commemorative or narrative reliefs is an original aspect of Roman art. In such cases, one needs to be aware of she model used by the sculptor and the portrait’s purpose in relation to imperial propaganda.
The Romans used portraits, as did the Greeks to some extent, for two main purposes: to glorify living individuals and to commemorate the dead. The most characteristic form of celebratory portrait was a statue, generally set up in a public place, the execution and installation of which had social, economic and political implications. A funerary portrait, on the other hand, was essentially private, normally of concern only to the family of the deceased. Yet there was a clear desire to have this portrait seen by as many people as possible. In the upper echelons of society, the two functions were often combined in the practice of public funerals, during which busts of the dead executed in lightweight materials, and normally kept in the home, were taken in public procession to the forum. Such ceremonies served to justify the monopoly of power enjoyed by certain families, in that they stressed the virtue of dead ancestors and the services that they had rendered to the community.
Funerary portraits were produced, and have survived, in large numbers. We shall return to this subject in a later chapter. Stelae sometimes carry a faithful likeness, sometimes an idealized portrait, of the deceased, but the purpose is documentary. Inscriptions give supplementary information as to the age, social background, occupation and activities of the person commemorated. Such potraits, originally confined to the upper classes in Rome, spread downwards through society around the mid-first century BC. Subsequently, and particularly in the provinces, there was little distinction between serious official portraiture and the simplifications of so-called plebeian art. A good example is the funcrary cippi (grave markers) at Taranto.
In the city of Rome, celebratory statues were set up in important locations, such as the Capitol, the forum and the Rostra. Although some locations were more important than others, the points stressed by historical sources are the themes of these statues, the circumstances which gave rise to them, and their sponsors. Having oneself depicted wearing a toga or breastplate, or riding on horseback, does not seem to have been the preserve of the emperor and his family. Nude statues were very rare. In Republican times, public statues were almost exclusively erected in honour of present or former magistrates. We can distinguish two main categories: those ordered by the Senate for important services rendered to the State, generally military in character and associated with a triumphal procession, and those erected by provincial towns, communities or associations close to Rome in gratitude for favours granted by their Roman patrons. According to Pliny, there were so many of this latter category that in 158 BC the Censors banned them from the forum, which was becoming cluttered with statuary. Under the Empire, most portraits were of the Emperor and his family, both in Rome and the provinces. Celebratory statues dedicated to other persons became increasingly rare. Among the triumphal statues portraying the imperial entourage, those incorporated into the magnificent complex of architecture, sculpture and inscriptions in the Forum of Augustus, and later in the Forum of Trajan, are particularly worthy of note. They powerfully express the connection between the fortunes of Rome and the role of the imperial family.
Roman portraiture can be studied from various points of view, though special attention is often paid to problems of identification and style. A painstaking description of each anatomical or psychological detail is accompanied by observations on the material used, dimensions, state of preservation, subsequent restorations and origin of the works concerned. An attempt is made to establish the date of the original and identify the person portrayed. A date is suggested on the basis of clues as to the origin of the work, and the way the hair or facial expression has been treated. But long—established collections of Roman portraits are full of post—Renaissance copies or fakes, produced mainly in Italy. The Louvre collections, made up of works formerly belonging to royalty as well as the Borghese and Campana families, contain many examples. Prior to the purchase of an eleventh exemplar in 1958, of the ten portraits of Caracalla owned by the museum, six were only dubiously authentic, having been restored and reworked. To grasp the full artistic and iconographical value of a portrait, it is often necessary to appraise a piece as it would have been before restoration. There may be lingering doubts as to the authenticity of even recognized works. For example, a high-quality basalt portrait purchased from a dealer in 1956 by the Metropolitan Museum of New York was for many years considered to be a late Hellenistic work dating from the first century BC. It was then compared with a Vatican bust generally regarded as a key to the iconography of Philip the Arabian, and thought to be a portrait of that emperor dating from between 244 and 249 AD. From here it was only a short step to regarding the New York portrait as a work of antiquity and the Vatican bust as an eighteenth—century copy. Yet the latter was first recorded in 1778, and the New York portrait had not appeared on the scene until 1916. Today, laboratory analyses are a reliable guide to the authenticity of a piece. But in the absence of sources and precise indications as to origin, portraits are all too often authenticated and attributed merely on the say-so of connoisseurs of Roman sculpture.
Derived from the practices of specialists in Greek sculpture, the study of Roman portraiture often takes the form of a search for originals, working back from what arc considered to be copies. A second approach is to define the style of a period on the basis of a few works, or even just one. Clearly, this is unsatisfactory. To situate a work in its historical context, it is necessary to take into account a whole range of technical criteria, especially since most of the sculptors, not to mention the subjects, are anonymous. Hence the burgeoning literature dealing with iconographical detail: locks of hair, beards, nostrils, etc. Differing workshop traditions and characteristic tricks of the trade are often the basis on which portraits arc identified as being of this or that subject , whereas attention to the artistic conception in the true sense of the term would suggest that they represent o e and the same person. This means that when insufficient ought is given to the way workshops functioned, and particularly when precise numismatic evidence is lacking, the problem of identification is often tackled in the wrong way. If there were differences between workshops in the capital, must this not also have been, the ease in provincial centres? One of the major defects of certain lines of approach is to consider all newly discovered works solely in relation to the works of a given time, forgetting that workshop practices may have persisted beyond any limited period.
Portraiture was subject to very varied influences. Consider for instance the Egyptian realism of Central- Italic art. Italo-Etruscan influence may well lie behind the Roman patrician custom of keeping wax images of ancestors in the home. The adoption of longer-lasting materials was then a normal stage in the development of portraiture. The oldest Roman portrait that can be identified with any certainty is that featuring on the gold coins of Titus Quinctius Flaminius. The work of a Greek artist, it was struck in commemoration of a victory in 597 BC. From gemstones, it is evident that Hellenistic portraitists were working for Roman patrons during the second century BC, but the first monumental portraits of proven authenticity date from a hundred years later. Although coins hearing the posthumous portrait of Sulla probably echo lost monuments from this period, Pompey is the first historical figure honoured with freestanding statues of which we have definite evidence. These date from the middle of the century. Republican portraiture is characterized by a purely naturalistic representation of the face. The psychology and emotions of the model are not captured in any great depth. The arid naturalism that gained ground in the early part of the first century BC, and is evident in most portraits of famous people of the time, has sometimes been interpreted as an expression of the conservatism of patrician circles or as illustrating the mentality of a nouveau tithe middle class. It is easy to forget that, quite apart from the wishes of the patron, the general atmosphere in which artists lived and woked has to be taken into account. Portraits of Pompey, Caesar and Cicero from around the middle of the first century BC exhibit the fascination with Hellenism then dominant in Rome, but signs of a desire to exteriorize feeling and the inner life were also beginning to appear. This tendency developed during the second Triumvirate, with increasing exploration of emotional and psychological factors. Attempts were made to capture a specific aspect of the subject’s experience. In portraits of Octavian and Anthony, inner tension, changing emotions and bridled passion are reflected in the movement of the facial muscles. If it is genuinely antique, the fine head of Egyptian origin belonging to the Cleveland Museum of Art — sometimes said to be of Mark Anthony but probably a portrait of C. Cornelius Gallus — raises a problem regarding the possible influence of certain works produced in Egypt on sculptors working in Italy. In iconography, this influence ii best seen in the spread of portraits of Alexander the Great. The best synthesis between the prevailing superficiality and this desire for greater expression was manifested in the portraits of Julius Caesar, movingly described by Suetonius. Combining physical features and aspects of personality, his description in its turn raises the question of the relationship between a literary portrait and its counterpart in stone.