Roman Imperial Portraiture II

The Flavians

Titus Flavius Vespasianus assumed the throne in AD 69 after a year of civil war precipitated by the forced suicide of Nero and the collapse of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. To consolidate his power and legitimate the new Flavian dynasty, Vespasian assiduously distanced himself from his predecessor wherever possible.

That distance is clearly communicated by Vespasian’s official state portraits, which, in general, rejects the idealized and depersonalized Hellenism favored by Augustus and his successors. To emphasize his particular strengths and abilities, Vespasian revived the naturalistic, highly-individuated portrait style of the republic.

Whereas the Augustan portrait type is coolly composed and detached, with the mouth turned slightly downward and the head turned to the left (both conventions of Hellenistic portraiture), Vespasian’s effigy faces the viewer straight on and smiles broadly. With his bald head, hooked nose and wrinkles on display, there was little chance of associating him with his Apollonian predecessors.

At the same time that Vespasian strove to distance himself from Nero, he carefully avoided the appearance of usurpation by associating himself with the most recent acceptable Julio-Claudian, the deified Claudius. Like the rusticated columns Claudius had designed for the Porta Romana, his portraits innovatively combine the rough and the smooth–the aging emperor’s unflattering physical defects are depicted while the broad outlines of the Augustan model are retained.

Flavian portraiture essentially reiterates the Claudian formula: images of Vespasian, Titus, and, to a lesser extent, Domitian are naturalistically individualized but also have shared facial features. Along with his decision to complete the temple of the divine Claudius, left unfinished by Nero, Vespasian’s portraiture allies his dynasty with an admired figure of the past and defines him not as a usurper, but as an heir to the better aspects of the Julio-Claudian tradition.

The portraits of Vespasian’s son, Titus, continue the veristic trend. Along with an accurate record of his facial features, his full-length portraits depict the young emperor’s stocky build, receding hairline and short stature. Both Titus’s and Domitian’s portraits bear a close resemblance to his father’s, suggest the inception of a new, unidealized, dynastic portrait type.

Domitian’s few surviving portraits have surprising passages of realism, such as the Toledo bust, which depicts the empower wearing a wig to hide his baldness. As his regime became increasingly autocratic, Domitian realized that unflattering realism did little to enhance his image as dominus et deus. Thus, idealization became the order of the day, as seen in his spectacular, full-length cuirass image.

The statue takes the Augustus of Primaporta as its point of departure, but replaces the elevated, rhetorical, tone with the swagger and confidence of a young man in perfect physical condition. According to Suetonius, Domitian possessed none of those qualities, but when this masterpiece is compared to representations of Titus in the same guise, the effectiveness of the Domitianic Herrscherbild becomes painfully apparent. Accomplished, successful, admired figures like Titus are diminished by realism. Like Rigaud’s state portrait of Louis XIV, Domitian’s hyperbolic portrait proves that larger-than-life social roles require a grand manner that is beyond individuals and particularities.

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