Roman Portrait Bust

c. AD 100

Gallery 1, Classical Sculpture


Focus on the Object

The Ashmolean has just acquired a remarkable portrait bust of Parian marble from around AD 100. It is of a distinguished individual posed in a dramatic posture and wearing the heavy crown of a priest.

The bust is an unusual and striking piece, with real force and character. It should be from one of the major cities of the Aegean area in the late first century AD. It represents a mature, clean-shaven man wearing a thick priest’s crown patterned with laurel or olive leaves. Such crowns were made of metal, usually gold, and marked holders of civic priesthoods. The subject has thick, curly hair—longer than the society norm of his day—also a sign of a priest. The large eyes and dynamic posture draw on Hellenistic images and expressed a leader’s vigour and energy, here exercised in the realm of an important city office.

The sharp specifying individuality of the portrait—especially the age-lines, huge ears, and the thin-lipped mouth—draw on Roman portrait ideas that had been thoroughly internalised among the city elites of the Greek east in this period. Similar marble portraits from the Aegean area come for example from Kos and from Smyrna, but the new bust combines this older self-image with an unusual swaggering turn of the head. Under the early Roman empire, the local aristocracies that ran the cities cultivated in their portraits a calm impassive hauteur beside which the new bust is remarkably expressive. The Ashmolean has other sculptured marbles from the Aegean in this period to which this bust forms an excellent complement.