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Private portraiture

The first Roman portraits in the Republican period had two purposes: to honour citizens for outstanding service to the city by immortalising them in bronze sculptures erected in public places, and to preserve the memory of deceased members of the city's most prominent families in what were known as imagines maiorum. All of these portraits depicted mature individuals who, as per the dictates of fourth-century-BC Greek realism, were distinguished by their austerity and rigour. The model of the Greek thinker was reinterpreted in the light of Roman virtus to depict grave magistrates and strict administrators of family authority.

While the right to have a portrait made was limited to patrician families in Republican times, after Augustus the custom spread to the rest of society. Freedmen and citizens had their features carved in reliefs and busts, largely for funerary use.

The sober Republican style gradually changed under the influence of imperial portraiture, reflecting new civic models. However, despite changing styles and fashions, private Roman portraits never lost their realistic spirit, the artistic intention of faithfully rendering the features of a unique physiognomy. This "honest" quality makes them seem especially lifelike to the modern-day observer.