Roman Imperial Portraiture III

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Hadrian and the Antonines

Over 130 sculpted and cast portraits of Hadrian survive, more so than any other emperor. Images of the emperor are not only numerous, they are of an extremely high quality, obsessively individuated and precisely detailed. This is not a function of imperial vanity. Greek philosophers and physicians at Hadrian’s court held that a person’s true essence was revealed in the outward signs of his physiognomy. A high degree of personalized naturalism was required to capture this essence. (After examining several Hadrianic portraits, modern physicians were able to diagnose the heart disease that eventually killed him.) This naturalism is quite different from the verism of republican portraiture, in which individuation served as a proxy index of traditional social virtues. Hadrian’s portraits take a more holistic approach to mimesis as opposed to the accumulative approach of the verist tradition in which details are heaped on.

The naturalism of Hadrianic portraiture is seen most clearly in the changing representation of his coiffure and facial hair. Born in Spain, Hadrian had a mop of thick curly hair and a full beard, a sign of his philhellenism. Due to these traits, his portraits resemble none of the representations of the previous closely-cropped, clean shaven emperors, including his predecessor, Trajan, also of Spanish origin. Categorization of the Hadrianic portraits, unsurprisingly, relies heavily on hair and beard style and length. The close-tracking of subtle changes, made possible by the high degree of detail, reveals 7-8 distinct phases in the development of Hadrian’s official image.

The official portraits of the Julio-Claudians and Trajan self-consciously made visual allusion to the portraits of Augustus as a way of expressing a dynastic and/or ideological connection with his reign. Flavian portraiture consciously avoided the hellenism of the Augustus type to distance its subjects from their predecessors. It is possible to read the novelty of Hadrian’s portrait type not only as the expression of philosophical concerns, but as a calculated polemic designed to differentiate his rule from that of his adoptive father, Trajan, whose vision of the empire’s purpose and future differed considerably from Hadrian’s own, as well.

To secure a succession of “good” emperors, Hadrian adopted his chosen successor, the steady and uncontroversial Antoninus Pius, on the condition that Antoninus adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his sons and successors. This political and legal arrangement among fours unrelated men founded the Antonine dynasty de novo. To lend authenticity to the gens antonia, portraitists constructed a fictitious family resemblance based largely on “grandfather” Hadrian’s hair and beard, on which the public images of his heirs would be based.

The facial features of the Antoninus portrait type have clearly been modified to resemble Hadrian’s and its coiffure and beard replicate Hadrian’s. The family hair style is updated for the diarchy of “brothers” Marcus and Lucius. The second generation portrait features very full heads of unparted, tightly curled hair (the result of advanced drilling techniques) and precisely trimmed, luxurious full and half beards

After decades of peace and prosperity, the Antonine cuirass portraits are not primarily concerned with the projection of military resolve and strength. In particular, the full-length portraits of Lucius Verus (who highlighted his natural blond hair with gold dust), are models of courtly elegance. Along with the serenely idealized visage and carefully styled hair, the poses of cuirass statues are exceptionally graceful. The cuirass images of Marcus Aurelius are not as foppish, but, like all his portraits, the care taken to register his philosophical and literary interests (seen in the drilled pupils of the upturned eyes). The overall effect is quite different from similar images of Domitian and Trajan.

Theatrical vanity and costume design come to the fore in the spectacular portraits of Commodus in the guise of Hercules. Underneath the lion skin, Commodus sports the same hairstyle and beard as his biological father. For the first–and last–time in Antonine portraiture, the resemblance might actually be familial.


The Antonine image outlived the Antonines. To legitimate his regime, Septimius Severus adopts the portrait type of the most recent dynasty to suggest political continuity after a period of civil war. His images, however, are eclipsed in the coiffure category by those of his Syrian wife, Julia Domna, whose eastern taste for wits created a sensation in Rome.

Their brutish son, Caracalla, opted for a no-nonsense military buzz cut that put an end to the era of the stylish Hadrianic hair portrait type and ushered in the baleful era of the bearded blockhead, an appropriately bad look for a bad time.


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