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Portraits of the Mid Third Century

To illustrate the style of portraiture during the 250's AD, I include art from the periods before and after, for comparison.  There is an excellent discussion of this subject in MacMullen's wonderful book "Roman Governments Response to Crisis 235-337AD."



Early imperial portraits were often of Greco-Roman style.  The emperor was portrayed with a serene near-angelic look of power and benevolence (except perhaps Lucius Verus).  Coins sometimes show these emperors in heroic bust style, sporting muscles that they probably didn't have.


Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian, Sabina.



In contrast to Greco-Roman godlike portraits, it became the fashion of the mid third century to portray emperors in impressionistic style.   Instead of  supreme calm and wisdom, their faces showed asymmetrical expressions such as having one eyebrow might be raised.  The third century emperors portraits show concern, and the strain of their position and they looked truly human.  The marble bust and bronze coinage of this period are to me, the pinnacle of Roman art.

Was it the invasions of Goths and Persians, the Plague, and the civil wars showing the stress of the times through art as some have suggested?  Not likely; art doesn't walk in lock-step with every turn of history, and the 260's were no easier time for the Romans, but art to a another turn under Gallienus that that had nothing to do with the character of history.


Top row: Maximinus, Philip, Trajan Decius

Bottom row: Trebonianus Gallus, Trajan Decius



During the reign of Gallienus, the emperor's portraiture returned to the Classical style except that he was shown in an even more angelic form.  Gallienus' eyes were often shown looking to the heavens (later, Christian art adopted this to portray the piety of martyrs, and was also used to depict the devotion of Constantine on coins) and sometimes he wore the crown of Ceres.


Art of the Tetrarchs and Constantine

After Gallienus, portraiture lost it's life like qualities.  The realism in art reached a peak in the 250's, and Gallienus' portraits were perfect in natural form although shown in a glorifying manner.  The portraits of the later emperors were made on much larger scales (the colossal head of Constantine for example) but the natural look is gone.  You can see this on the coins of the period too. 

Constantius, the Tetrarchs, Constnatine


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