Roman Portraiture

Portraits were an essential part of Roman culture and one of its greatest contributions to art. The portrait was the image of power, of those who decided the fate of the empire, but it also showed the human side of its inhabitants, the citizens. Portraiture spread to every Roman province and represented all social classes, from patricians and senators to freedmen and lowly provincial magistrates. The likenesses of men, women and children were sculpted, in accordance with fashions established by the imperial court in Rome, to perpetuate their memory and build up Romanitas, a sense of belonging to the culture of Rome.

Its portraiture was one of the Roman world's greatest artistic contributions. Unlike the Greek portraits from which they were derived, Roman portraits strove to give each sitter a seemingly individualised expression while retaining a profoundly "typological" nature. However, in both official and private portraits, the artist sought to capture not only the model's physical features but also the virtues that characterised the Roman nobleman: virtus, clementia, iustitia and pietas.

The physiognomic portrait as a symbol of Romanitas was a phenomenon that spread to every province in the empire. The provincial elite enthusiastically embraced portraiture, not merely as the latest fashion but as the representation of an attitude that justified the social pre-eminence of the novi homines, who adopted the new political regime imposed by Rome along with its ideological and iconographic programme.

The richness and multiplicity of these likenesses make Roman portraiture an artistic expression that brings us face-to-face with Roman society, an opportunity afforded by no other culture until the advent of the Early Modern Era.