Floor | Roman Art
Imperial Portraits of Emperors and Their Families Gallery
In 31 BCE Octavian was victorious in the final, decisive battle of the Roman civil wars, at Actium off the western coast of Greece, against his opponent Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. After pursuing the pair to Alexandria, where they died, Octavian returned to Rome. His victory was publicly commemorated with numerous triumphal arches, altars, monuments, and statues. In the years that followed, Augustus explored the possibilities of art in all formats—coins, two-dimensional relief, free-standing sculpture, and architecture—to represent himself and secure his rule, setting a pattern followed closely by his successors. Over the centuries, the forums and other public spaces of the Roman Empire were filled with countless statues and monuments honoring the emperor and the imperial family.
The omnipresent image of the emperor was always intended to put his ruling virtues in perspective. Therefore, the portraits and public honorary statues followed a scheme familiar to all citizens: if the emperor wore armor, this emphasized his abilities as a general. Dressed in a toga, he presented himself as primus inter pares, “first among equals” or the empire’s most important citizen (formally, Rome remained a republic). In the short tunic and cloak of a traveler he referred to his role as administrator-in-chief, traveling tirelessly and visiting even remote regions. Equestrian statues of the emperor emphasized his subjugation of foreign peoples to the Roman Empire.
Only the facial features and hairstyle of the respective statues were individually designed; we can assume that this was done in close coordination with the emperor himself, who certainly wanted to determine how the public saw him. In our gallery of emperor portraits, you can find numerous examples of the different forms of imperial self-portrayal, and of course portraits of the imperial family. The emperor typically updated his portrait every few years, employing a slightly different hairstyle and facial features, creating what are known in art history as “types.” Types were not intended to reflect accurately the changes to the emperor’s appearance over time— for example, even in their latest portraits sculpted when they were in their 60s, Augustus and Hadrian never appear older than about age 40-45. Instead, types were commissioned to mark important events or occasions in the emperor’s career, such as the conclusion of a particularly significant war or an anniversary of his reign. Every time a new type was created, copies of it were circulated around the empire to be copied locally for placement on statues of the emperor. In the age of Julius Caesar, a Roman aristocrat might have had a handful of portraits made of himself, for placement in his private properties or in a public structure built by him. Starting with Augustus, one Roman aristocrat, the emperor, had thousands of copies of his portrait made, along with the portraits of his wife and children. These were the only members of Roman society who could be recognized from one end of the empire to another.