Roman portraiture

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Polybius (c. 200—118 bc) Greek historian

Pliny the Elder (23—79 ad) Roman statesman and scholar

Augustus (63—14 bc)


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Roman portraiture is esp. noted for its verism, the meticulous recording of facial characteristics including such unflattering features as wrinkles, warts, and moles. The origins of the veristic style remain obscure, but republican customs suggest that portraits were used by the Romans to exemplify noble behaviour. Polybius records the practice at the funeral processions of great men of dressing young men of the family in the clothes and death masks (see imagines) of those distinguished ancestors whom they most resembled; he and Pliny the Elder describe the ancestral portraits kept in genealogical order in noble houses together with a written record of the achievements of the dead. The right to keep and display such portraits was restricted to the nobility (see nobiles) and to the families of serving magistrates.

Most surviving republican Roman portraits date to the 1st cent. bc, when the ancestral portrait was used in the struggle for political leadership in the late republic. Some aspiring political and military leaders adopted the fashions of Hellenistic court portraiture, but Caesar favoured the veristic style, discrediting its republican origins by becoming the first Roman to have his own portrait on coins minted during his lifetime, and permitting his images to be carried on litters and set up on sacred platforms. Augustus developed an idealized image drawn from the repertoire of Classical Greece, but recognizably Roman in its often modest presentation. From the beginning of the empire, men and women copied court portraiture from images of the emperor and his family on coins and statues intended for wide use and public view at Rome and in the provinces. The veristic style continued to be used by some nobles, but was also adopted by freedmen who wished to celebrate the right of their families to Roman citizenship following legislation passed under Augustus; in the conventionalized portraits of freedmen and their families it is hard to trace the recording of individual features that was so marked a feature of republican portraiture of the aristocracy. Verism is also marked in the portraiture of emperors of modest origin such as Vespasian.

The Julio‐Claudian emperors and their successors were mostly clean‐shaven, though Nero and Domitian were occasionally portrayed bearded (see cosmetics). It is likely that his beard, comparable to that of Pericles, expressed Hadrian's commitment to Greek culture. During his reign women adopted the simple bun worn high on the crown, a revival of Hellenistic Greek fashion and a striking contrast to the elaborate tiered coiffures fashionable from the time of Nero to that of Trajan. Hadrian's adoption of the beard and the contemporary innovation of engraving the pupil and iris of the eye influenced subsequent imperial and private portraiture. Among beards there were idiosyncratic variations: Marcus Aurelius wore the long beard of the philosopher, and Septimius Severus a forked beard marking his interest in the cult of Sarapis. The soldier‐emperors and tetrarchs (see tetrarchy) of the later 3rd cent. were ill‐shaven rather than bearded, with close‐cropped hair. The clean‐shaven portrait was revived by Constantine I and his successors. Portraits, whether of imperial or private subjects, were made in a wide variety of media including silver, bronze, stone, terracotta, glass, mosaic, ivory, bone, and painted wood. Of the last the most striking examples are the mummy portraits made in the Fayūm, the only naturalistically coloured portraits to survive from antiquity (see painting, roman). Many of these seem to represent individuals as they appeared in life; some present a type still current in NE Africa. These and the limestone funerary reliefs of Palmyra offer the best surviving evidence for the wearing of dress and jewellery.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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