ARTH Courses | ARTH 209 Assignments

Roman Portrait Sculpture

Portrait of a man with busts of ancestors.

Polybius (2nd century B.C.) VI, 53: [When a prominent Roman died he was taken, in the course of his funeral procession, to the Rostra in the Forum where a son or other relative then gave a public eulogy recounting the virtues of the deceased.] After this, having buried him and performed the customary rites, they place a portrait of the deceased in the most prominent part of the house, enclosing it in a small wooden aedicular shrine. The portrait is a mask, which is wrought with the utmost attention being paid to preserving a likeness in regard to both its shape and its contour. Displaying these portraits at public sacrifices, they honor them in a spirit of emulation, and when a prominent member of the family dies, they carry them in the funeral procession, putting them on those who seem most like [the deceased] in size and build.... [The men so dressed also wore the togas and carried the insignias of the magistracies which had been held by the person whom they were impersonating.] One could not easily find a sight finer than this for a young man who was in love with fame and goodness. For is there anyone who would not be edified by seeing these portraits of men who were renowned for their excellence and by having them all present as if they were living and breathing? Is there any sight which would be more ennobling than this?

Pliny, Natural History XXXV, 6-7: But conditions were different in the atria of our ancestors where it was portraits which were looked at, and not statues by foreign artists, either in bronze or marble. Wax impressions of the face were set out on separate chests, so that they might serve as the portraits which were carried in family funeral processions, and thus, when anyone died, the entire roll of his ancestors, all who ever existed, was present. Genealogical lines of descent, in fact, used to be indicated, running back and forth between painted portraits. The family archive rooms were filled with scrolls and other records commemorating deeds done [by members of the family] during their magistracies. Outside the doors around the lintels there were also portraits of these great spirits along with spoils of the enemy fixed in position near them; not even one who bought the house was permitted to remove these spoils; and so the house celebrated perpetual triumph even though the masters changed.


Cicero, De natura deorum, I, 3-4:
There are and have been philosophers who hold that the gods exercise no control over human affairs whatever. But if their opinion is the true one, how can piety, reverence or religion exist? For all these are tributes which is our duty to render in purity and holiness to the divine powers solely on the assumption that they take notice of them, and that some service has been rendered by the gods to the race of men. But if on the contrary the gods have neither the power nor the will to aid us, if they pay heed to us at all and take no notice of our actions, if they can exert no possible influence upon the life of men, what ground have we for rendering any sort of worship, honor or prayer to the immortal gods? Piety, however, like the rest of the virtues, cannot exist in mere outward show and pretence; and with piety, reverence and religion must likewise disappear. And when these are gone, life soon becomes a welter of disorder and confusion. In all probability disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all virtues.

Gallery of Republican Portraits

Portrait of a man, c. 50 BCE.

Death mask

Man with busts of ancestors, first century BCE.

Portrait of Pompey the Great, copy of a 50 BCE original. Note the similarity of the hair style to that of the Lysippos portrait of Alexander the Great:

Terracotta portrait, 1st c. BCE.

Arringatore: Aulus Metellus, 1st B.C.

Republican General, c. 75-80 BCE.

Poseidon from Melos, mid. 2nd c. BCE.




Relief from Temple of Neptune, Rome, late 2nd or early 1st c. B.C.

(formerly known as the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus

Census taker on left with Mars standing at altar on right.
suovetaurilia(sus=pig; ovis=sheep; taurus=bull)
Wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite
Athena from the frieze of the Great Altar of Pergamon, c. 180 B.c.