Development of Roman Portraiture Art - Kori Alexander

British Museum
Bust of a Man, mid-1st century A.D.

The heyday of Roman portrait art was a period undoubtedly enabled by the expression of the various cultures subsumed by the tireless expansion of the Empire. In a plethora of avenues of intellectual thought, as well as in the fine arts, Roman contributions served as extensions and syntheses of the works of the civilizations it absorbed. Indeed, the brilliance of Roman portraiture art remains altogether indebted to the artistic endeavors of cultures conquered as a result of Roman military expansion. Out of the melting pot created by the coalescing of these cultures arose art committed to depicting the multi-dimensional aspects of character and personality.

The Western world was unique at the time. Rome was a power that could not be rivaled by any in the world, a civilization that crushed its adversaries in battle before they had a chance to develop to the level at which they would pose a threat. But, unlike conquerors of the past, they did not suffocate the lifelines of creation within these cultures. Roman policy dictated that its subjugate nations be allowed to continue self-ruling, so long as they paid taxes to Rome and served in the military of the Empire. Rome's defeated adversaries were not often obliterated; but rather, they were able to continue a modified way of life, so long as they were willing to swear allegiance to the Empire. This created a loosely knit community of subjugates that became dependent upon the stability of Rome for their protection. While Rome embraced foreign cultures and sought to export and disseminate their value, it squelched any military development within its conquered peoples. These factors created a hegemonic power, and the co-mingling of prior civilizations became a hotbed for new thought in arts, science, literature, and philosophy. Donald Spanel argues- quite successfully- in his book Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture that "the Western concept of portrait is a work that reveals the inner and outer qualities of a person who cannot be mistaken for anyone else." (3). But, prior to the amalgamation of cultures which occurred under the blanket of Roman rule, the existence of portraiture art in this most archetypal sense has been widely debated. It certainly seems true that, prior to this period, the existence of portraiture served the specific purposes of honoring the most distinguished individuals of a society. The craft, prior to the existence of Hellenistic influence, did not seem to have specific aims unto itself.

Ancient Egyptian art presents what may be considered early forms of portraiture; but it does not seek to cultivate the nectar that would, ultimately, render the process of portraiture a form unto itself. That is, the endeavor to depict individual personalities in art. Spanel, in his musings on Egyptian Portraiture, notes that, "the modern analogue of the ancient Egyptian approach to artistic representation is cubism, in which the visual correspondence of an image to the model is emphatically denied and is replaced by the juxtaposed and manifold facets of the model's reality." Indeed, Egyptian art is most immediately associated with rigid, geometrically composed figures, variations on a type that remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Yet, even in operating under such an unyielding premise for style, Egyptian artists did not entirely neglect their attention from the distinct characteristics of the faces of individual persons.

Art historians, for example, have been able to note likeness' between artistic representations and mummified remains of Egyptian kings. This does not provide, however, a foolproof rationale for the portraits being rendered for the sake of depicting the "inner and outer qualities of a person." Rather, it may simply just reinforce our current knowledge of Egyptian religious practices. Denial of death was a notable feature of Egyptian culture. Egyptians recognized a distinction between the death of a physical body and the death of the human soul. They believed that when the human body died, the soul would remain in this world looking for a substitute residence. Should it be unable to find a likeness of its former self, it would wander confusedly until the end of days. Anxious, unhoused souls did not bode well, so the Egyptians did deviate from general type art to provide representations of individuals. Yet, because these representations were likely produced only to satisfy religious ends, they cannot be said to qualify (as least in a Western sense) as authentic portraits (Hinks, 9-10).

Furthermore, it is apparent that the aims of Egyptian artists lie in other avenues than those that would lead them to depict individual personalities. While facial characteristics do occasionally spring up, the likeness' depicted are form fitted to a sort of mold. They are intended to produce an image that will reflect the model as an adherent to the social, ethical and moral values of their culture. As the Empire commissioned funerary portraits, artisans were most likely not valued for- or expected to- render art that would reflect upon the individual and the true characteristics possessed by him or her. The principle was to make a lasting positive impression of the Empire and, accordingly, its absolute monarchs. A comparison between the mummified remains of Seti I and his depiction on the funerary temple at Abydos will display these points brilliantly.


Ancient Egypt
Relief from Temple of Seti I
New Kingdom - Dynasty XIX
Pericles; British Museum
Roman Copy
Hellenistic, or Greek, influence had much to do with the development of Roman portrait art. Greek art from the fifth century B.C. began to display a curiosity regarding individual characteristics. But, like the Egyptians before them, these portraits are still idealized likenesses. "The artist has started out with the known personality of Pericles, and has set out to create (sic.) the type of perfect statesman and embody it in a plastic shape" (Hicks, 14). Though it is infinitely more anatomically correct than the Egyptian portrait of Seti I, the two are comparable in their depiction of a type or mold, rather than the distinctive combination of facial traits and personal virtues that combine to build a personality.

The bust of Antisthenes from a century and half later is, however, a stark contrast. This Hellenistic portrait boasts a remarkable nose, an un-beautifully furrowed brow and deep-set eyes plagued by depth and shadow. The conception of the soul as the real "self" is attributed to Socrates, living from the later part of the fifth through the majority of the fourth century. This development in philosophical and psychological thought undeniably gains credence in the better works of the later half of the fourth century B.C. Antisthenes, next to Pericles, is like a Barbie doll next to Keith Richards. Comb-toothed skin and anatomical perfections have caved to flesh and character. Even the silver coinage, called tetradrachms, are revealing of the ongoing development of the approach to the portrait. The depiction of the double chin on Antichous I demonstrates technique akin to that of a caricaturist. Adjacent to an understanding of the character of the subject comes the comedy of imagining his wobbling chin and beakish nose. He looks meddlesome and physically weak simply as a result of his having these physical features. Yet, the tact of the artist in rendering this portrait of personality is not to be discounted. The artist must have taken some pains to ignore the minute detail of wrinkles, warts, moles, facial scars and otherwise to arrive at a singular concept of personality and, then, to rebuild all of these irregularities for the purpose of emphasizing only a few (Hinks, 33-35).

By the heart of the Roman Hellenistic period, personality is the crux of portraiture. The synthesis of Greek attention to an inner psychological context of thought combined with the distinctively Roman development of extracting every detail of physiognomic relativity renders masterful works like the stature of the Unknown Greek. He is more realistically alive than either the sculpture of Antisthenes or the silver tetradrachms. He is more anatomically clear than Antisthenes, whose Greek sculptor succeeded in giving his piece a definite suggestion of inner context but fell short of the fine wrought technique seen here. His facial irregularities are not caricatured into exaggeration or understatement. He seems real, as though one could walk up to him and shake his hand and have no more or less revealed (in terms of appearance) than they would from an ordinary person.

The Western concept of the craft of Portraiture first germinated under the ideal conditions of the Roman Empire and would lay the stage for works so precise and intuitively fashioned that, subsequent to the collapse of Rome, their attention to the portrayal of individual personalities would not again be rivaled until the end of the Middle Ages.

The Roman Empire was a fulcrum upon which stability and, accordingly- the fate the arts- rested. For the Western World during it's time, Roman culture possessed the power to ignite innovation. But, in its appetite for geographical expansion, it simply became too large, too gregarious to manage. At the same time, the collapse of order in the leadership which now lorded over the remnants of many ancient civilizations caused a chain reaction of smaller collapses in these subjugate provinces.

Rome tied everything together. And, when she fell, she took with her all of the cultures she had once consumed. After hundreds of years of Roman rule and Roman protection, these cultures had ceased to remain secular. The melting pot of Rome had deprived them of their own leadership, politics, culture and religion. The western world was to be steeped in the chaos and disorganization of the Dark Ages, and into this void disappeared the ripe conditions that had borne such authoritative portraits.

(references on file with instructor)

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