Roman Matron

2-3rd century Marble 11 ¼ inches x 7 ½ inches x 8 ¼ inches Rome, Italy


This bust depicts a woman who is either middle-aged or older. Her serious facial expression, which can be broadly characterized as veristic, is meant to convey true depiction of age. This bust was most likely part of a funerary niche demonstrating how she wanted to be represented for all posterity. The hole at the back of her head is likely where a metal bar was placed to uphold this piece.   

The history of these sculptured busts demonstrates a back-and-forth between veristic and classical depictions, ultimately resulting in variations during the reigns of different emperor’s. However, even the veristic depictions are questionable as true and accurate portraits of the person in his or her daily life. These busts were spearheaded by the emperors and public officials who mainly commissioned these works.

2-3rd century Marble 11 ¼ inches x 7 ½ inches x 8 ¼ inches Rome, Italy

Ultimately, regardless of the different intentions motivating the busts of emperors and the bust of this woman, some of the same questions may be asked of both: to what extent is the combination of veristic and idealized style intentional? They are also similar in that they were meant to leave an image of how he or she might have wanted to be presented and seen in life and death.

As discussed, this bust represents a middle-aged Roman matron who is depicted in a very realistic way. The Romans believed that all life was noble, so even the aged, wrinkled face that was sculpted here was considered honorable. Additionally, her face is very solemn and projects a seriousness that suggest female virtue. In this way, even though this portrait is very realistic, she is also idealized to show her as a dutiful wife, mother, and citizen.

The virtues represented by this portrait are symbolized by the Roman goddess Vesta who is the patron goddess of the hearth and domestic tranquility.

Vesta, Roman Bust

These values were very important to Roman culture as it idealized women who were able to keep a happy and healthy home, taking care of not only the household but the husband and children as well. There are many similar busts of Vesta, with similar facial expressions to this Roman woman, so although she is not directly related to the goddess, the imagery is meant to evoke ideas of these virtues.

The main function of the Roman Matron is to depict a healthy and good-looking female probably from a noble family. It was used to show how a woman had to look and how important she was for the Roman empire: she had the duty of bearing children and taking care of them ensuring a peaceful society, especially under Augustus.

The decoration does, in fact, relate to the function. The decoration includes a specific hairdo that would represent the latest trend, without it being too excessive. This would make the figure represented accessible and relatable. She could also provide a role model, too, for other Roman women, indicating how they should behave and comport themselves in their daily lives.

The specific object is of the utmost importance for the Roman Empire. It is first of all showing how women were also significant in the day to day activities of the empire. They were given the chance to to be represented in art and at that point in time. This was a delicate task as it held the risk of being perceived as glorifying women. Moreover, it showed and gave women an example, an aspirational point of reference, one displaying how important they were to the whole empire. It also showed how older women with wrinkles were valued as well, and it was a sign of how influential and wealthy these women were at a given point in time.

In Ancient Rome, private portrait sculpture was most closely associated with funerary contexts, and tombs were adorned with portrait reliefs along with short inscriptions. Many of the Roman funerary portrait sculptures were erected by one spouse forto the other, with more commissioned by husbands for their wives. Women tended to die at an earlier age due to difficulties during childbirth, the hardships of early marriage, and overwork. The majority of the honorees of Roman funerary altars were upper- and middle-class women who were commemorated in terms of their role as a wife, mother, or daughter.   

The slightly smaller scale of the portrait, in addition to the large hole in the back of the head suggests that this sculpture may have been displayed in a funerary niche in a columbarium – an underground, typically rectangular, communal tomb excavated to hold cinerary urns and boxes, as well as portrait busts of a noble Roman family and its freed servants. The hole was most likely attached to a metal bar that was affixed to the wall of the niche. This funerary context for portrait sculpture was rooted in the Roman tradition of the display of wax portrait masks, called imagines, in funeral processions of the upper classes to commemorate their distinguished ancestry.What is difficult about this bust is the fact that there is no inscription associated with it, facilitating its enigmatic quality.

Overall, this dossier has provided a thorough understanding of what the Roman Matron was, is, and signifies. All of the information given are pertinent to viewing and analyzing this bust. Specifically, the significance of the hair, the bust being a woman, and the hole representing that it most likely was part of a funerary niche. Although an inscription is not provided, we are able to understand the bust in its descriptions, meanings, and functions.

Funerary Portrait of a Woman, Roman, ca. 120-130 C.E. Marble, 25 x 17 x 9 1/2 inches. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 48-9

A Marble Funerary Portrait Bust of a Deified Youth or Prince, Roman Imperial, circa Late 1st Century A.D.

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