Q& A and quiz

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Basil Devenish- Meares, Dorset Dr Peter Ste­wart is di­rec­tor of the Clas­si­cal Art Re­search Cen­tre and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of clas­si­cal art and ar­chae­ol­ogy, Ox­ford Univer­sity

AIn gen­eral, the Ro­mans cer­tainly

re­garded por­trait stat­ues and busts as true to life, and those por­traits that pay a lot of at­ten­tion to in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic de­tails like wrin­kles and fa­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties are very plau­si­ble. Per­haps we should work on the as­sump­tion that im­ages of fa­mous Ro­mans were ac­cu­rate ex­cept when there is a good rea­son to doubt it.

On the other hand, many Ro­man por­traits are highly ide­alised. For ex­am­ple, the youth­ful im­age of the first Ro­man em­peror, Au­gus­tus, which owes a lot to the tra­di­tion of clas­si­cal Greek sculp­ture, con­tin­ued to be used even when he was in his sev­en­ties. There’s no doubt that the artists who de­signed such por­traits had an agenda: they wanted to present as pos­i­tive an im­age as pos­si­ble, some­times al­lud­ing to ear­lier rulers, so a de­gree of ar­ti­fice was in­volved.

Can an­cient de­scrip­tions help us? For ex­am­ple, the sec­ond-cen­tury AD writer Sue­to­nius men­tions the ap­pear­ances of ear­lier em­per­ors (his ac­count of Au­gus­tus is a good deal less flat­ter­ing than the sculp­tures). Per­haps, but such au­thors are not ob­jec­tive ei­ther. In an­cient thought, phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance was linked to char­ac­ter, so even an ap­par­ently truth­ful de­scrip­tion is loaded with sig­nif­i­cance.


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