This is an 11 ⅞” marble bust of a bearded male figure, produced in Rome around the mid-2nd century A.D. by an unknown patron. A great amount of detail can be seen in the hair and beard. The nose of the bust has been damaged and is missing, and the eyes do not appear to have any discernible pupils or irises. The bust appears to utilise a mix of contrasting idealistic and veristic styles, as is evidenced by the square, idealized shape of the bust’s face and the more realistic wrinkles on the bust’s forehead.
The combination of these two styles is notable, considering the bust was produced well after verism had fallen out of popular use in Roman portrait sculpture. It seems likely that it was a very deliberate choice by the artist, rather than just a following of popular trends. The bust is severed at the neck, indicating that it is only a fragment of a larger piece. The form of this original peace is unclear; the head may be part of a simple bust, or it could even be part of a full-length statue that was later cut for ease of sale or transport. The absence of key identifying details, such as the nose and pupils, make identifying the subject depicted in the bust difficult; however, based on details that are present, it seems likely that this could be a portrait of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius.
Roman portrait sculpture, originally adapted from the Greeks, played an important role in Roman society. A Roman citizen might have a portrait made to honor the deceased, to celebrate a great social achievement, or simply to avoid fading into oblivion by literally immortalizing himself in stone. Portraiture was not an art form reserved for the elite and was popular across all social classes, such that local citizens and even freed slaves might have one awarded to them in honor of some grand contribution to their city. These honorific statues were typically displayed in public spaces, although many examples of private Roman sculptures exist, typically belonging to the elite.
The vast majority of Roman portraits were accompanied by an inscription identifying the person depicted and the reason for which the sculpture was made. Unfortunately, this bearded Roman head is the only surviving part of a larger piece, and the inscription has been lost. If it were present, there would be no question as to the identity of the subject.
Roman portraits were not necessarily accurate representations of the subject’s appearance. This was especially true for the Roman elite; oftentimes it was more important that the image was believed by the public to be a likeness, rather than being a true mirror-image of the person represented. Many Roman emperors, like Augustus, might choose to add physical characteristics that increase the sense of “family resemblance” to prior rulers within their dynasty in an effort to legitimize their claims to power. At the same time, it was important that imperial portraits be distinct and unmistakable
It is likely that the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, who oversaw a prosperous and peaceful state from 138-161 A.D., is being depicted in this bust. This can be supported through comparisons with other sculptures featuring Emperor Antoninus Pius, which share many distinct features with the bust. The most prominent of these can be seen in the hair and beard. Pius is almost exclusively depicted with a very similar beard and hairstyle as what is displayed on this bust. Additionally, depictions of Pius often show him with the same blockish, squared face seen in the bust, a style commonly used by the Romans to convey a sense of strength in leadership.
This sculpture highlights the important roles that portraiture played in Greek and Roman culture. The first role was that of public honorific structure. This type of portrait was primarily seen in a highly visible location like a forum plaza so as to construct an imposing image of the high-ranking figure. The representation could either be veristic or idealized. In veristic fashion, the portrait features every wrinkle and blemish in order to portray to the viewer a sense of wisdom that comes with old age.
Idealized portraits, on the other hand, emphasize the beauty and power of perfection. The Roman male portrait displays the wrinkles in the forehead; however, other blemishes are not present. The second role played by this portrait could have been a manifestation of wealth. The location of a portrait with such a role would have been within the owner’s own home. These portraits were private and only meant to be seen by certain individuals. The private role has much greater significance to the family than to the general public.
The portrait we have is simply a human head without a neck, yet it is certain that this was not its original form. Almost all portraiture of this kind was more extravagant in that it showed the person represented from the waist up or in some cases riding a horse (equestrian portrait). The fact that our male portrait consists only of a head can mean a few things. It is much easier to transport just the head over the full bust. The owner could have cut just above the neck in order to have the ability to move while keeping most of the sculpture intact. If it was more convincingly a representation of Emperor Antoninus Pius, we could assume that it may have been damaged in an effort by his enemies to defame the ruler (damnatio memoriae). All these hypotheses would be made concrete if we had an inscription for the portrait; without the inscription, modern audiences can only guess at the person represented and his role in society.