Monday, April 12, 2021

A Trajanic Period Roman in Egypt

This morning while I was researching a Fayum portrait of a priest of Serapis in the collections of the British Museum, I came across this encaustic portrait of what appears to be just a common Romano-Egyptian.  Although his face is painted with skill, he wears no adornments or displays even a hint of status from his clothing.  Because of the quality of the portrait, he must have been somewhat successful in whatever occupation he practiced, whether it was that of a tradesman or even a legionary.  

The British Museum points out that his mummy, found in the necropolis of Hawara, was simply wrapped in coarse linen.  His closely cropped hair is similar to Roman court portraiture of the Trajanic period and he is said to confront the viewer directly in the Roman manner. The portrait appears to be an example of what became known during Trajan's rule as the portrait of the decennial, an image seemingly devoid of emotion with firm, calm features emanating authority and dignity.  Scholars view this portrait style as a detachment from Hellenistic influence and a merging between two previously separate types of portraiture - the official, honorary, portrait, and the private, often funerary, portrait.

Trajan himself is depicted in this style on Trajan's column where he is shown in conversation with one of his commanders.  With simplicity, the emperor is depicted nonchalant while explaining a plan to the general, fixing him in the eyes and relaxing the palms of hands in front of him, illustrating a relationship of trust and respect between him and the subordinate, devoid of any orchestrated rhetoric or gestures of courtesy.

Image: Mummy portrait of a man in encaustic on limewood found in the necropolis of Hawara in the Fayum region of Egypt, 100-120 CE, at the British Museum in London.  Image courtesy of the museum and Wikimedia Commons. The portrait emphasizes  maturity and physical strength, the latter expressed in the rugged physique and sunburned countenance.

Sunday, April 11, 2021


The Visigoths were an early Germanic people who, along with the Ostrogoths, constituted the two major political entities of the Goths within the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or what is known as the Migration Period. The Visigoths emerged from earlier Gothic groups, including a large group of Thervingi, who had moved into the Roman Empire beginning in 376 CE and had played a major role in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. Relations between the Romans and the Visigoths were variable, alternately warring with one another and making treaties when convenient. Under their first leader, Alaric I, they invaded Italy and sacked Rome in August 410 CE. Afterwards, they began settling down, first in southern Gaul and eventually in Hispania, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries CE.

The Visigoths were never called Visigoths, only Goths, until Cassiodorus used the term, when referring to their loss against Clovis I in 507. Cassiodorus apparently invented the term based on the model of the "Ostrogoths", but using the older name of the Vesi, one of the tribal names which the 5th century poet Sidonius Apollinaris had already used when referring to the Visigoths.

The Visigoths first settled in southern Gaul as foederati to the Romans, a relationship that was established in 418. However, they soon fell out with their Roman hosts (for reasons that are now obscure) and established their own kingdom with its capital at Toulouse. They next extended their authority into Hispania at the expense of the Suebi and Vandals. In 507, however, their rule in Gaul was ended by the Franks under Clovis I, who defeated them in the Battle of Vouillé.

In the March/April issue of Archaeology Magazine is an interesting article, "The Visigoth's Imperial Ambitions".  In it author Jason Urbanus describes excavations of the former Visigoth stronghold at Reccopolis. I was actually disturbed by the fact that the city contained none of the typically Roman civic features of a forum, bath complex, theater, circus, or arena for public entertainment even though Hispania had been a Roman province for centuries and the Visigoths were previously Roman foederati. Instead the heart of the city was an enormous palatial compound  containing structures for administration, religious activities, and luxurious dwellings for the aristocracy.  Urbanus says scholars think this layout centered primarily around the rich was an effort by the local elite to emulate portions of Constantinople. 

The surrounding urban structures underscored the city's role as a major fiscal center (they had their own mint) and industrial complex (much of it focused on importing or crafting luxury items for the wealthy) but I was dismayed by the lack of public facilities for bathing with their libraries and gymnasia, or entertainment venues.  Even Constantinople had the hippodrome and public baths! At least Reccopolis was the only city constructed by the Visigoths with an aqueduct which brought water from a few miles away.  In fact, at the time there were only five remaining functional Roman aqueducts in Iberia so the aqueduct at Reccopolis was viewed as an important symbol of power and, so the author thinks, civic pride. 

To me, though, it seemed that what I view as devolution to a feudal model focused on selfish elite with little or no sense of civic duty and their control of government and use of religion to extract wealth from the populace had already taken shape.

Image: Visigothic votive crown that was part of the so-called Guarrazar treasure.  The "treasure" consisted of several crowns (more than twenty), crosses, chalices and other objects of gold and gems in a chest.  Image courtesy of Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, Spain.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Julia Domna and the Severan Prophecy

Julia Domna was born in Emesa (present-day Homs) in Roman Syria, the youngest daughter of the high priest of Baal, Julius Bassianus. The family had enormous wealth and was promoted to Roman senatorial aristocracy. Before her marriage, Domna also inherited the estate of her paternal great-uncle, Julius Agrippa, a former leading centurion. 

In 187 CE, she married Severus, who at the time was governor of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis. The Augustan History relates that, after losing his first wife around 186 CE, Septimius Severus heard a prophesy of a woman in Syria who would marry a king. So Severus sought out Domna from one of Syria's most prominent families as his wife.

As empress, Domna was famous for her political, social, and philosophical influence. She received titles such as "Mother of the Invincible Camps" because, unlike most imperial wives, Domna remarkably accompanied her husband on his military campaigns and stayed in camp with the army. After the elder of her sons, Caracalla, started ruling with his father, she was briefly co-empress with Caracalla's wife, Fulvia Plautilla, until the latter fell into disgrace. Following the death of Severus in 211, Domna became the first empress dowager to receive the title combination "Pia Felix Augusta", which may have implied greater powers being vested in her than what was usual for a Roman empress mother. 

Domna is said to have committed suicide in 217 CE upon hearing of her son Caracalla's assassination in the course of his campaign against Parthia, on which she had accompanied him as far as Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey).

Image: A Severan Period mold-made lamp, 2nd century CE, terracotta, at the J. Paul Getty Museum (Villa).  This unusual moldmade lamp depicts  a woman dressed in a long-sleeved garment standing next to a truncated column, playing a harp, which leans on her shoulder. Her hairdo is similar to a style worn by Empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus . The Filling-hole is on top of the instrument and the wick-hole pierces its base. 


Friday, April 9, 2021

Roman interior design: The use of the color yellow

According to Greek mythology, the sun-god Helios wore yellow robes and rode in a golden chariot drawn by four fiery horses across the heavenly firmament. The radiant yellow light of the sun personified his divine wisdom. Yellow was also associated with gold and therefore wealth so was a popular color for interior decoration.

"The Romans called yellow ochre ‘sil’, and recognised four variants, in decreasing order of quality. Sil atticum, of Greek origin, was highly sought-after for the decoration of buildings, though due to the presence of limonite in its composition, it dehydrated and turned red when heated, as happened in many of the wall paintings of Pompeii as a result of the tremendous heat of the eruption of 79 CE."

"Sil marmorosum was considered the most suited and widespread ochre for fresco painting.  Sil pressum, which was dark, is a clay containing manganese oxide, corresponding to Sienna or Umber, and finally we have sil lucidum Galliae."

"A lead-based yellow pigment called spuma argenti was also used, which derived its name from being found in silver mines. Yellow was also obtained by roasting lead-rich minerals, in which case it was called puteolanum, or ‘from Pozzuoli’" -  From Pompeii sites. 

Pliny the Elder mentions a vegetable yellow color he termed "holochrysi." A golden color was also extracted from naturally occuring sulphuret of arsenic known as orpiment.  Orpiment was mined in Hungary, Macedonia, along on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, and in Syria. Its Latin name, auripigmentum, means “gold pigment.”  A container of this arsenic extract was found in the Baths of Titus and mentioned by Theophrastus in his writings according to the 1852 text, "Ancient and Modern Colours: From the Earliest Periods to the Present Time" by William Linton.

Fourth Style Wall Painting (c. 20 AD to c. 79 AD): Wall painting at the House of Vestals, Pompeii, display at Archaeological museum Naples. (PD)

Cubiculum from the villa of P. Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale, thought to have been originally painted between 40-30 BCE recreated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Triclinium (Room G) from a Roman villa at Boscoreale courtesy of Stanton Abbott Associates

Fourth Style Wall Painting (c. 20 CE to c. 79 CE): Wall painting at Room of Pentheus, the House of Vettii, Pompeii courtesy of Pompeii sites.

Roundel with putteolanum background from Pompeii courtesy of Pompeii Sites.

An example of a fresco with sil atticum background in the House of Menander in Pompeii, courtesy of Pompeii Sites.

Fresco of a harp player from a Villa at the foot of Mount Vesuvius (First century CE) (PD)

Atrium of the House of Menander in Pompeii with Sil atticum turned red from the heat of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius on the edge of the left wall courtesy of Pompeii sites

The highly toxic arsenic trisulphide known as orpiment courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Signal musicians in the Roman Legions

The ancient Olympic Games in Greece included contests of trumpet playing in 396 B.C.E. These contests were judged not by musicality but by volume of sound. The instrument used by the Greek trumpeters was the Salpinx, a reported copy of which is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This Salpinx measures 157 cm. and is made of thirteen cylindrical parts made of ivory with a bell made of bronze, as is the mouthpiece.

But, signal musicians used as an integral part of a military organization appear first in the Roman Legion. These musicians, called aenatores, utilized a wide variety of trumpets, and signals were sounded on these instruments which the Romans inherited from the Etruscans. The Etruscans were superb metallurgists and smiths, and must have been skilled in the making of bronze or silver trumpets. A collection of forty-three signals were used in the Roman Army.

Instruments in the Roman Legion included trumpets such as the Tuba which was conical shaped and about 117 cm. long. It was a straight horn that had a slightly flaring bell with no bends. The Cornu was a long curved instrument made of bronze, in the shape of a “G,” which was more of a modern french horn shape and was played with the bell placed over the shoulder. Another was the Buccina, which was in the shape of a “J” and was more like an animal’s horn. The Lituus was also shaped like the Buccina, in the shape of a “J.” - Jari Villanueva,

Vegetius described the use of these horns to give signals:

"The music of the legion consists of trumpets, cornua and buccinae. The trumpet sounds the charge and the retreat. The cornua are used only to regulate the motions of the colors. The trumpets serve when the soldiers are ordered out to any work without the colors,  but in time of action, the trumpets and cornua sound together. The classicum, which is a particular sound of the buccina or horn, is appropriated to the commander-in-chief and is used in the presence of the general, or at the execution of a soldier, as a mark of its being done by his authority. The ordinary guards and outposts are always mounted and relieved by the sound of trumpet, which also directs the motions of the soldiers on working parties and on field days. The cornua sound whenever the colors are to be struck or planted. These rules must be punctually observed in all exercises and reviews so that the soldiers may be ready to obey them in action without hesitation according to the general's orders either to charge or halt, to pursue the enemy or to retire. For reason will convince us that what is necessary to be performed in the heat of action should constantly be practiced in the leisure of peace."

My closeup of the Statuette of a Roman bugler, bronze, 100-200 CE, at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California. 

Statuette of a Roman bugler, bronze, 100-200 CE, at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California. The figure wears armor including a crested helmet and a cuirass with one row of pteryges. Over his cuirass is a cingulum, a ceremonial sash or military belt that is wrapped around the waist and tied at the front with a square knot to protect the bearer from evil. A cloak is wrapped around his left arm, which is extended to support a now-missing bugle. The figure’s right arm is bent to hold the instrument to his mouth as he moves to the right. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Cornu depicted on the Grand Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, 251-252 century CE, found in 1621 near the Tiburtina Gate in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

My image of the Cornu depicted on the Grand Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, 251-252 century CE, found in 1621 near the Tiburtina Gate in Rome.

Greek Mural painting depicting a trumpeter at the Archaeological Museum of Delos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde.

Musicians playing the salpinx (trumpet) and the hydraulis (water organ), Romano-Egyptian, 1st century BCE, from Alexandria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Roman musicians on the Zilten Mosaic, 200 CE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dulcem and

Relief with a scene of gladiator fight, perhaps part of a funerary monument, 1st century BC. Two trumpet players proclaim the victory of the duel. The winner raises his sword and awaits the verdict of the spectators, who decide life or death for the loser. Relief now in the collections of the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Roman nature of Neptune

Some scholars argue that Indo-European people, having no direct knowledge of the sea as they originated from inland areas, reused the theology of a deity originally either chthonic or wielding power over inland freshwaters for the god of the sea as contact was made with seafaring peoples. They then paired him with Salacia, the goddess of saltwater who subsequently came to represent the virile force of Neptune.  This conclusion was arrived at by the numerous findings of inscriptions mentioning Neptune in the proximity of such locations. Servius the grammarian also explicitly identified Neptune as the deity in charge of all the rivers, springs, and waters.

Before the 1st century BCE, the Romans thanked the god Portunus or Fortunus for naval victories, but Neptune supplanted him in this role by at least the first century BCE when Sextus Pompeius, younger son of Pompey Magnus, called himself "son of Neptune." 

Like Poseidon, Neptune was also worshipped by the Romans as a god of horses, under the name Neptunus Equester, a patron of horse-racing.  This may account for the marine-themed sculptures, such as dolphins, in the circus that were used to mark laps during each race. In Roman mythology, Neptune worked with Minerva to create the chariot.

Neptune was also considered the legendary progenitor god of a Latin stock, the Faliscans, who called themselves Neptunia proles. In this respect he was the equivalent of Mars, Janus, Saturn and even Jupiter among Latin tribes. 

The Neptunalia was the festival of Neptune celebrated by the Romans on July 23, at the height of summer. The festival included free and unrestrained merrymaking, and outings in the wood between the Tiber and the Via Salaria where springwater and wine were drunk to escape the heat. Neptune is one of only four Roman gods to whom it was appropriate to sacrifice bulls, the other three being Apollo, Mars and Jupiter, although Vulcan was also allowed the offering of a red bull and a red bull calf which symbolized the force of his forge.

Neptune is often depicted with two paredrae (accompanying deities), Salacia and Venilia, who represent the overpowering and the tranquil aspects of water. Salacia would impersonate the gushing, overbearing waters and Venilia the still or quietly flowing waters.

Neptune, the god of the sea, stands completely nude with his weight on his right leg. Originally, his raised right hand would have supported a trident, and he may have held a dolphin or ship's ornament in his left. Even with these attributes missing, the figure's unkempt hair, spiky crown of water plants, and mobile, restless-looking pose identify him as the sea god.

The elongated but muscular physique, small head, and majestic stance, as well as the way in which the figure’s arms extend into the space around it, derive from the innovations of the Greek sculptor Lysippos in the late 300s B.C.E. The mannered and almost playful exaggeration of the traits in this statuette, however, typifies a Roman revival of the style in the late 100s B.C.E. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Neptune in the caves of the gardens of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte in Maincy, France courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Velvet.

Fountain of Neptune by Antonio Della Bitta (1878) that I photographed in the Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Calchas and the prophesies of the Iliad

Despite the addition of a head of Serapis, recut and restored in the 18th century CE, the overall scene of a relief at the J. Paul Getty Museum portrays Calchas, the Argive soothsayer to whom Apollo had given the gift of prophecy. In Homer’s Iliad (II.300-30), the seer foretold that the Trojan War would last for nine years after observing a snake devour a mother sparrow and her eight chicks. The eclectic style of the relief combines the form of a late Classical Attic stele with landscape elements drawn from the Hellenistic repertoire. It was discovered in 1774 at Roma Vecchia in the Villa dei Sette Bassi, which belonged to the senatorial family of C. Bellicus Calpurnius Apolaustus. Such a panel may have decorated a library assembled by a cultured patron well versed in Greek literature. On the underside is a Latinized Greek inscription that reads XEANTHE—likely a version of Xanthe, the former name for Troy.  

It was Calchas who prophesied that in order to gain a favourable wind to deploy the Greek ships mustered in Aulis on their way to Troy, Agamemnon would need to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. Calchas also tells the Greeks that the captive Chryseis must be returned to her father Chryses in order to get Apollo to stop the plague he has sent as a punishment: this triggered the quarrel of the hero Achilles and Agamemnon, the main theme of the Iliad. As kings may do as they please, Calchas finds it necessary to lean on the support of a champion, Achilles, who opposes Agamemnon in assembly. Agamemnon refuses to accept the edict of Apollo that he should give up his prize, but bypasses it by taking Achilles’ prize. There follows "the wrath of Achilles," which is righteous anger on behalf of the divine will. With the help of the gods, Achilles struggles to restore righteousness.

Depictions of Calchas have also been found on 5th century BCE Etruscan mirrors and Calchas along with other characters of the Trojan War were popular subjects of 16th century tapestries.

Relief depicting Calchas observing a serpent attacking a nest of birds, 140-160 CE at the J. Paul Getty Museum. On this relief, a bearded man is seated in right profile on a four-legged stool (diphros) with carved legs and a cushion, and rests his feet on a footstool. With his left hand raised to his check in a contemplative gesture, he supports his left elbow on a gnarled staff held in his right hand. Beneath the chair is a griffin, the symbol of Apollo, god of prophecy. Over his left shoulder he wears a himation that covers his lower body, and sandals. Coiled around the tree in front of him is a snake, which menaces a nest of fledglings and two adult birds perched in the branches. The Pentelic marble head is ancient but does not belong to the original relief; it was recut and restored in the 18th century. The hairstyle and sober expression belong to a divinity, and a hole in the crown for the attachment of a kalathos identifies it as the head of the god Serapis.

Etruscan mirror depicting Calchas in the form of a haruspice, from Vulci, 5th century BCE, at the Vatican Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Waterborough.

The Prophecy of Calchas from a set of tapestries depicting The Story of Troy. late 16th century, from Macao, China, silk and gilt paper, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Trimalchio's reminder of mortality

The Romans frequently linked images of banqueting and death in both literature and the visual arts. In Petronius' satirical novel, the Satyricon (60s CE), Trimalchio, the crass, nouveau-riche host of a dinner party, brings out a small silver skeleton between courses. The skeleton has flexible joints, and after posing it on the table in various ways, Trimalchio recites a poem to the effect that life is short and should be enjoyed before becoming a skeleton like the one he displays. He declares: “Alas for us poor mortals. Thus we shall all be, after Hades takes us away. Therefore, let us live while it goes well with us.” This bronze skeleton may have been used in the same manner. Although now missing several limbs, it too is jointed in a way that allows it to be posed or shaken so that it jumps and dances. Several similar skeletons are known, including one in silver found at Pompeii. - J. Paul Getty Museum

This remembrance of mortality actually spawned an art movement in the 17th century known as "vanitas"  where artists emphasized the emptiness and futility of earthly items by using still-life arrangements for moral instruction.  These arrangements included skulls, candles, hourglasses, watches, rotting fruit, wilting flowers, and fraying books to remind viewers just how precious and fleeting life is.

Image: Miniature bronze skeleton, 2 5/8 inches tall, Roman, 25 BCE - 100 CE, at the J. Paul Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California. Made of bronze, this miniature skeleton features round eye sockets and a wide, grinning mouth with large upper teeth. Pin holes in the clavicle bone show that the arms were separately attached and moveable. The same is true of the pelvis bone where the left femur is still attached. The other end of the femur also has a pin hole for the attachment of the tibia. Only the pin remains of the right leg. The neck and head are also attached by pins. Most of the right-side ribs and both arms of the skeleton are missing 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The tragic boy emperor, Philip II

Philip II (Latin: Marcus Julius Severus Philippus; 237 – 249CE), also known as Philip the Younger, was the son and heir of the Roman Emperor Philip the Arab by his wife Marcia Otacilia Severa. When his father became emperor in 244, young Philip was appointed caesar at the age of only seven-years-old. In 247, he became consul, and was later elevated by his father to the rank of augustus and co-ruler.  Although ancient historians claim both Philip the Arab and his son were killed in battle by Decius.  

Decius was a distinguished senator who had served as suffect consul in 232, had been governor of Moesia and Germania Inferior soon afterwards, served as governor of Hispania Tarraconensis between 235 and 238, and was urban prefect of Rome during the early reign of Emperor Philip the Arab. In 248 or 249 Decius was sent to quell the revolt of Pacatianus and his troops in Moesia and Pannonia, a rebellion seen by some modern historians as emerging Balkan separatism.  After the collapse of the revolt, Decius let the troops proclaim him emperor. Philip advanced against him and was killed at Verona, Italy, in September 249. The Senate then recognized Decius as emperor, giving him the attribute Traianus in reference to Emperor Trajan, an emperor considered the ultimate example of a ruler at the time. According to the Byzantine historian Zosimus, Decius was clothed in purple and forced to undertake the [burdens of] government, despite his reluctance and unwillingness.  

Modern scholars do not think Philip II was with his father in Verona and suggest that when news of his father's death and the proclamation of Decius as the new emperor reached Rome, the Praetorian Guard murdered the 12-years-old. 

Bust of Philip II at the archaeological museum in Venice, Italy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Architas.

Previously crushed portrait of Philip the Younger from Asia Minor, 235 CE, bronze, at the J. Paul Getty Museum (Villa)

Portrait of Philip II, 247-249 CE, from the Chiragan Roman Villa, now in the Musée Saint-Raymond, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daniel Martin.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Veristic portraiture

 Verism first appeared as the artistic preference of the Roman people during the late Roman Republic (147–30 BCE) and was often used for Republican portraits or for the head of “pseudo-athlete” sculptures. Verism, often described as "warts and all," shows the imperfections of the subject, such as warts, wrinkles, and furrows. It should be clearly noted that the term veristic in no way implies that these portraits are more "real." Rather, they too can be highly exaggerated or idealised, but within a different visual idiom, one which favours wrinkles, furrows, and signs of age as indicators of gravity and authority. Age during the Late Republic was very highly valued and was synonymous with power, since one of the only ways to hold power in Roman society was to be part of the Senate. Yet to be in the Senate, a Roman patrician had to be at least forty-two years of age, which in ancient times was considered a mature stage of life.

It is debated among scholars and art historians whether these veristic portraits were truly blunt records of actual features or exaggerated features designed to make a statement about a person's personality. It is widely held in academia that in the ancient world physiognomy revealed the character of a person. Thus, the personality characteristics seen in veristic busts could be taken to express certain virtues very much admired during the Republic.

Verism, while the height of fashion during the Late Republican era, quickly fell into obscurity when Augustus and the rest of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (44 BC-68 CE) came to power. During this imperial reign, Greek Classical sculpture that featured "eternal youth" was favored over verism. It wasn't until after the suicide of Nero in 68 CE that verism was revived.

During the Year of the Four Emperors (68-69 CE) that resulted from Nero's suicide, when Galba, Vitellius, and Otho all grappled for the throne, verism made a resurgence, as seen in obverse portraits of Galba on bronze coins or marble busts of Vitellius. When Vespasian and his sons came to the throne the Flavian dynasty harnessed verism as a source of propaganda. Scholars believe that Vespasian used the shift from the Classical style to that of veristic portraiture to send a visual propagandistic message distinguishing him from the previous emperor. Vespasian's portraits showed him as an older, serious, and unpretentious man who was in every respect the anti-Nero: a career military officer concerned not for his own pleasure but for the welfare of the Roman people, the security of the Empire, and the solvency of the treasury.

Image: Portrait Head of a Man, Roman, late 1st century BCE, at the J. Paul Getty Museum. In the veristic style, the face is riddled with lines, grooves, and crevices. Several of these lines are carved into the cheeks and jowls and the flesh around the nose is sagging. The nose itself is bulbous and deeply lined with large nostrils. The eyes are small and narrow with bags underneath and crow's feet at the corners. The eyebrows are modeled and indicated by hatch marks. Three deep vertical furrows appear above the ridge of the nose and the mouth is downturned with deep lines in the corners. The ears are large and the hair is receding, rendered as quite short with hatch marks. The neck is very short with a number of folds. The top of the head is a roughly worked, sloping plane with an iron dowel in the center. 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The challenge of ancient portrait identification

 This portrait of a well-fed 3rd century CE Roman empress caught my attention because the woman appears to be rather plump, obviously not suffering deprivation during the most tumultuous period of the crisis of the Third Century.  The Getty does not speculate on which empress this woman is so I compared it to known sculptures and coin portraits of powerful women surrounding Alexander Severus.  The longer looped hair behind the ears appears in portraits of both the emperor's mother, Julia Avita Mamaea and his first young wife, Orbiana Sallustius but neither are portrayed as plump or with the bun on the top of the head.  I could find no images of his second wife, Sulpicia Memmia, however, and his third wife's name is unknown.

When Alexander was assassinated in 235 CE, he was succeeded by Maximinus Thrax.  The coin portrait of his wife, Caecilia Paulina, depict a rather hawkish woman with none of the distinctive characteristics of this portrait either.

After Maximinus Thrax was killed in Aquileia, the aged Gordian, in his late 60s, was pressured to take the throne  along with his son but their reigns lasted only 21 days with the younger Gordian killed in the battle of Carthage fighting against Maximinus' loyalists and his father hanging himself after his son's defeat. Although Gordian I struck a coin with his portrait, there appears to be no portraits of his or his son's wives.

Gordians' successors, Pupienus and Balbinus, lasted only a few months and, again, there appears to be no images of their wives.  That brings us to Goridan III, son of Antonia Gordiana, the daughter of Emperor Gordian I and the younger sister of Emperor Gordian II.  Although there is no images of his wife, Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, I was struck by a similarity in the soft shape of Gordian III's chin and that of the woman in the portrait. So I couldn't help but wonder if the female portrait may be his mother, Antonia Gordiana, or his wife, sculpted at the same time as Gordian IIII's portrait, which is now in The Louvre.

Portrait Head of an Empress, Roman, second quarter of the 3rd century CE at the J. Paul Getty Museum, courtesy of the museum.

Bust of Gordianus III. Marble, Roman artwork, between 242 and 244 CE. From Gabii now in The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen