The excellence of Roman portraiture has long been recognized. During four centuries, artists produced a succession of often masterly portraits, changing in style from generation to generation. The long history of the Roman Empire--its achievements and limitations--is vividly reflected in the personalities and styles of these portraits.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a valuable collection of Roman portraits--over a hundred busts, statues, and heads, in marble, bronze, and other materials, both in the round and in relief. They comprise examples dating from the Republic to the Flavian age, from Trajan to Constantine. The whole development of Roman portraiture is here represented.
We may begin our study with several realistic heads of stern Republicans (nos. 1-7), which bring before us the rugged, virile men to whom Rome owed her rise to power. Foremost among them are two marble busts (nos. 1, 2) that invite comparison with the leaders of the American business world. The sculptors who carved these powerful heads inherited the Greek tradition of form and profited by the experience of the past. As late Greek and late Etruscan portraits were realistic, it was natural that the same style should be maintained in the early Roman heads. Realism, moreover, was stimulated by the old Roman custom of making waxen images of the faces of the dead. And it suited the temper of Republican Rome. In comparing these heads with the realistic portraits of Hellenistic Greece we are struck by fundamental differences, as well as a general likeness. The Greeks were philosophers, idealists. The Romans were men of action, realists. They were laying the foundation of the Roman Empire, whereas the Greeks had founded European philosophy, art, science, and scholarship--achievements which almost make us forget their conquest of the East.
Several heads on engraved gems depict well- known leaders of late Republican Rome. One resembles portraits identified as Julius Cæsar (no. 12); three represent Marcus Junius Brutus (nos. 9-11); one of the latter has a dagger in the field, recalling the part Brutus played in the murder of the great Julius.
With the reign of Augustus (31 B.C.- A.D. 14) a new style was initiated. The portraits of Augustus and of the Julio-Claudian house show a restrained classicism in striking contrast to the realism of the Republican heads. It is obvious that Rome, by the end of the first century B.C., had become a cosmopolitan center, with Greek influence of the earlier, classical periods paramount in art. Doubtless the temperate character of Augustus, which dominated the history of his time, influenced also its artistic expression in the direction of idealism.
Several certain and possible portraits of Augustus are included in the collection (nos. 16- 27), among them three cameos, a diminutive ivory head (no. 20), and a colossal marble one (no. 16). The latter, with its wide-open eyes, is one of the few which convey in some measure the penetrating radiance of Augustus's eyes referred to by Roman writers. It reminds us of Suetonius's description: "He had clear . . .