Rome’s history in four faces at The Met

Realism, ideal beauty, and military might—explore the evolution of Roman portraits and political imagery.


Portrait of a Man, late 1st century B.C.E., marble, 31.5 x 19.7 x 19.7 cm.; portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula, 37-41 C.E., marble, 50.8 x 18 cm; bust of the emperor Hadrian, 118-120 C.E., marble; and portrait of the emperor Caracalla, 212-17 C.E., marble, 36.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Jeffrey Becker and Dr. Beth Harris


Additional resources:

Marble portrait of the emperor Caracalla at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Marble portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roman Portrait Sculpture: The Stylistic Cycle on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Roman Portrait Sculpture: Republican through Constantinian on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Greek and Roman galleries, and we’re looking at a portrait. This is a Roman sculpture from the late 1st century B.C.

[0:17] We might be used to thinking about ancient Greek and Roman art depicting people ideally beautiful, but in the 1st century, there was a tradition of depicting people looking old and wise.

Dr. Jeffrey Becker: [0:28] The traits here that art historians tend to call “verism,” meaning truthfulness, seem to be motivated by an interest in projecting one’s experience, and maybe one’s reliability, in a changing political and economic landscape. Being wrinkled and having saggy jowls may be a way to project confidence with your official image.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] Sometimes these are associated specifically with portraits of the ancient Roman aristocracy, the families who have a long lineage and would display busts of their ancestors in their home, but that might not be true of all of these.

Dr. Becker: [1:03] In fact, in the 1st century B.C., we see a lot of new players in the game with so-called “new men” who have made it big in business, trading, landholding, who have no ancestry to speak of that’s famous, but still need to project this image of confidence in public.

Dr. Harris: [1:16] What I’m noticing about this figure is the repeated lines in his forehead, the way that his brow is pushed together so he’s got wrinkles between his eyes, lines around his mouth, and that sense of drooping skin at the bottom of his face.

Dr. Becker: [1:32] It’s also his receding hairline and these Venus rings on his neck. We’re supposed to read these as, “I’ve been around and I know the scene.”

Dr. Harris: [1:40] These sculptures were painted.

Dr. Becker: [1:42] We can perhaps imagine the application of paint to make the directionality of his gaze a bit more focused and to make his features stand out a bit more.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] Veristic portraits emerged during the period of the Roman Republic, where Republican virtues like perseverance and determination might have been valued. But Augustus, who becomes Emperor in the 1st century, begins a very different tradition. Let’s go look at a sculpture in this new Augustan tradition.

Dr. Becker: [2:10] We’re looking here at a marble bust of the Emperor Gaius, more commonly known as Caligula, a Julio-Claudian emperor who was in power for only four short years.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] So, shortly after Augustus. Augustus shifts away from that veristic tradition and makes his own image as it’s projected in portraits throughout the empire to be much more in line with Greek classical art, much more idealized.

Dr. Becker: [2:34] Augustus signals a turn away from the verism [and] towards this classical idealism, adopting in his own portraiture an eternally youthful athlete’s appearance.

[2:44] The Julio-Claudian emperors who follow him, including Gaius here, tend to hearken back to those Augustine choices.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] To me, he looks like an ancient Greek sculpture.

Dr. Becker: [2:52] Then they’ve succeeded. This idea of eternal youth, you would not be out of line if you thought of the god Apollo, who never ages and is always beautiful, in terms of never having any of the signs of age that the veristic portraits were trying to play up.

[3:06] Gaius here is following that playbook, and having this youthful image, even having a haircut that evokes that of Augustus. So the viewer would not have any trouble in inserting Gaius’ portrait into the lineage of Augustus’ family.

Dr. Harris: [3:21] This figure turns his head to the right as though he’s looking out at the horizon in this all-powerful way.

Dr. Becker: [3:27] He is sort of gazing beyond the plane where the viewer lives and reflects the fact that there is by now a tradition of turning dead emperors into deified individuals, adding the word “Deus” to their title.

Dr. Harris: [3:39] Although Gaius presents himself here as this timeless god-like figure who is perfectly young forever, the reality of his life and death is far different.

Dr. Becker: [3:50] In fact, his very short reign is quite unpopular. He makes a lot of enemies, which ends ultimately with his assassination and sanction against his image and his name after his death, which means that his name and public inscriptions may well have been erased with a chisel and that portraits like this one would have been taken down if not intentionally destroyed or disposed of in order to cancel the memory of him.

Dr. Harris: [4:14] This tension between the veristic tradition and this Greek idealizing tradition is one that continues.

Dr. Becker: [4:21] There is a back-and-forth tension. How should the Emperor look? How should his portrait respond to those of his predecessors? By the time we reach the end of the Julio-Claudians, this idealized, beautiful-person image will become a little bit less popular, and we’ll see more of the veristic tendency starting to creep back in towards the end of the 1st century A.D.

Dr. Harris: [4:38] We’re looking now at an early 2nd century portrait of the great Roman emperor Hadrian.

Dr. Becker: [4:44] Hadrian is so recognizable, especially because of his adoption of a beard in his official portrait type, which set him apart from his immediate predecessors.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] The wider face, and this wilder hair with more contrast of light and dark, too.

Dr. Becker: [4:58] We also see the sculptor beginning to use the technique of the drill more create the locks that frame his face. Hadrian’s haircut and Hadrian’s beard in fact reflect his deep, abiding love for Greek culture.

[5:09] Rather than thinking of the idealized athlete, which inspired Augustus’s portrait, Hadrian is thinking about the Greek philosopher, who would lead a philosophical school and perhaps write philosophical treatises. In embracing all of these Greek values of culture, literature, art, philosophy, he also projects the enduring legacy of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.

Dr. Harris: [5:28] This is a time when the empire is at its most stable. But we can look at another portrait that tells us that we’ve entered a very different period in ancient Roman history. Let’s go have a look at Caracalla.

[5:40] I feel in some ways like we’ve gone back to that veristic tradition. I see those wrinkles in the forehead and the brow pressed together. But here, instead of a sense of wisdom, there is almost a sense of fear and anxiety.

Dr. Becker: [5:54] Caracalla’s portrait shows us that images really do reflect the times in which they are made. While we see some of the same sculptural techniques, the message that is communicated is very different.

[6:04] Caracalla is in power in a time of great political and economic instability. His anxious face seems to reflect that reality.

Dr. Harris: [6:13] Caracalla comes to power at a time when emperors come from the military classes, not from the nobility. He has a beard, much like Hadrian, although it’s much closer-cropped. The beard seems to be indicated by lines that are incised into the stone instead of three-dimensional modeling of the stone.

Dr. Becker: [6:34] Instead of the philosopher’s beard of Hadrian, or more famously, Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla’s beard is more the military camp beard, the unshaven look.

[6:42] The haircut, which here the artist has made with a rough chisel, is the military camp haircut. Many of Caracalla’s 3rd-century C.E. successors will adopt this similar look, as if they’ve just come from the military camp or even just come from the battlefield.

Dr. Harris: [6:57] I’m noticing lines where his brow is pushed together, lines on the side of his mouth and nose. It almost forms this X shape that makes him look very stern.

Dr. Becker: [7:07] Very stern, very anxious. Perhaps what the intended effect is that we think he is very prepared and he is quite vigilant. His hasty appearance means that he is ready to do what he needs to do to maintain order.

Dr. Harris: [7:20] This is a time when emperors are assassinated and rule for shorter times.

Dr. Becker: [7:26] Caracalla is assassinated by one of his chief military officers while urinating by the side of the road.

Dr. Harris: [7:32] A not-very-noble death.

Dr. Becker: [7:34] No, but to someone who was, of reputation, brutish and tyrannical, maybe a fitting end.

Dr. Harris: [7:40] He’s on a high pedestal and that makes it hard for me to try to catch his eye. I have a feeling that, even if I were a foot taller, it would be hard to have a sense of looking him in the eye.

Dr. Becker: [7:51] We can notice that the artist has used the drill to accentuate the centers of the pupils. His up-cast gaze looks above and away from the plane of the viewer, and even in a direction opposite to that which his face seems to point, which makes him seem very abstracted. Perhaps this is another sign of his watchfulness.

Dr. Harris: [8:10] And his distance from the people.

Dr. Becker: [8:12] This is increasingly a problem in the 3rd century, where a steady stream of short-reigned emperors have to project a quick and readable image, and seemingly the time for nuanced and careful consideration of the emperor’s image has passed.

[8:28] Images speak volumes, and in the 3rd century C.E., we have to imagine that the ordinary Roman would have a hard time keeping track of who was in charge since there was so much turnover.

Dr. Harris: [8:37] It’s really fascinating to glean a history of ancient Rome just through the portraits.

[8:43] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Rome’s history in four faces at The Met," in Smarthistory, April 28, 2018, accessed June 13, 2024,