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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

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