Roman portraiture


Apply computational tools to a large collection of Roman portraits, in the form of photographs of sculptures. The collection is available on request.

Related scrolls

Significant feature classifications

1) Wrinkle patterns in faces:

Wrinkles in male portraiture were emphasized in two periods of Roman art:

In the Republican period (esp. 1st cent. BCE):

In late antiquity (3rd century CE) onwards:

Emperor Trajan Decius (d. 251 CE):

Adult portraits of Emperor Caracalla (d. 217 CE at age c. 30) showed him with wrinkles (although he died young). He is also portrayed as angry, as if to inspire fear (+ with tilted head: giving an effect of drama):

The so-called "soldier emperors" after him (in the 3rd century CE) copied this “angry look”.

Emperor Philip the Arab:

Another soldier emperor:

Alexander the great with wrinkles (although he died young):

Female portraits rarely show wrinkles: women were usually represented at childbearing age.

Potential interest / findings:

a. For analyses: wrinkles may be deliberate expressions & manifestations of “gravitas”: the man who wears himself out for the good of the state!

b. Identification: wrinkle patters may identify emperors / people

2) Divine iconography:

Both emperors / empresses and ordinary people were represented with divine attributes, that is, they were shown as holding or wearing or being in the vicinity of an attribute connected to a god or goddess. The attribute marked an identification between the person represented and the god(dess).


Emperor Claudius as Jupiter (attribute: eagle):

Empress Livia as Ceres (attribute: wheat in hair):

Potential interest / findings:

There are very many examples, we just need to collect and classify them. This a potentially very interesting theme. Both imperial family members and ordinary people (the latter in funerary art) were portrayed with attributes of gods and goddesses. A book by Hemming Wrede, "Consecratio in formam deorum", argues that this "divinization" theme emphasizes personal traits which were expressed by association to a relevant divinity. For example, if I died and my husband wanted to express that he had appreciated my beauty, he could have my tomb portrait done with my face and with the body (and attributes) of the goddess Venus. Wonderful blends, in other words.

Of course, in political and public spheres, this has great communicative potential. For example, representing Empress Livia as the goddess Ceres, who is closely linked to fertility, underlines the fertility of the Roman state:,_from_Sicily,_about_AD_30-50,_Roman_Empire,_British_Museum_(15779028374)_(2).jpg

3) Bodies:

Muscular bodies copy but also present variations of earlier Greek prototypes.

Let's work on supplying examples of this.

4) Hair:

Hair style has potential for identification purposes. For example, one of the surest ways of identifying an Augustus portrait is by the hair locks known as the "lobster claw"-curls of hair over his right eye:




See also here:

Prof. Siri Sande tells me that also one of Augustus' grandsons (either Gaius or Lucius who were both adopted by the emperor) was represented with the Augustan "lobster claw".

His wife, Livia has either a "nodus" (knot) of hair over her forehead: e.g.

Or else she has mid-parted hair like this:

In general:

Prototypes for emperor portraits are found throughout the empire: they were based on standardized, distributed forms either a "gesso" prototype or a hollow shaped form (think of the Pompeii bodies). This means that they were sent directly from Rome: a centralized and controlled communicative regime.

Here are some sites with more examples of Roman portraits:

Roman emperors:

Roman portraiture:

Slide collection showing many portraits / heads: