It is haunting to look into the faces of ancient people long dead, especially when they appear to be looking back at you. There are many thousands of examples of ancient and medieval portraits surviving from past civilizations for whom depicting the human form was acceptable – almost all, for that matter, prior to the rise of iconoclastic Islam. Many of these portraits, however, are either stylised or idealised and whilst they may display certain individualistic traits, they often lack the convincing sense of having captured an individual as they genuinely appear.
This, however, is not the case with Roman realism. Whilst the Greeks tended to make the features of their sculptures and reliefs more uniform and ideal, the Romans were into warts and all verism.
People are too often ready to criticise Roman art as somehow secondary to Greek – at worst, they are seen as a bunch of unimaginative copyists and imitators, who never had an original idea of their own, whilst at best they are considered to have adopted and perfected existing styles and techniques. Inevitably the Romans borrowed heavily from their predecessors – both Greek and Etruscan – just as any artist of any time is guided and influenced by the artistic context in which they operate. After all, their empire spread from a city once ruled by Etruscan kings in close proximity to the long established Greek colonies in southern Italy. The Greeks had taken landscape painting, mosaic design and sculpture to such a level, that there was little room left for progress so far as technique was concerned. Take a look at this life-size Hellenistic bronze of a boy jockey and racehorse from the 2nd-3rd century BC.
Perhaps, despite the astonishing skill and beauty of Roman art, it is for these reasons that we think of the Roman contribution as far more pragmatic – architectural, technological, logistical. After all, the Romans invented concrete, the arch, aqueducts, waterwheels, the monumental dome, the force pump, greenhouses, hydraulic mining and the multifunctional pocket-knife to name a few.
Yet the ancient world was by no means all Roman hardware and Greek software, so to speak. The Romans invented glass-blowing, for example, and, despite its fragility, we have countless examples of astonishingly fine Roman glassware to admire.
It is also important to remember that by the end of the 1st century BC, the Roman world incorporated all of Europe, West and East, including Greece of course, North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East – a world rich in artistic traditions including and predating Greek contributions and refinements, and one that blurred the boundaries between “Roman” and other artistic traditions. The vast international, multicultural enterprise that was the Roman Empire, the world’s first truly global superpower, continued to thrive for centuries beyond this, during which time the blending of these cross-cultural influences continued. The Roman “Baroque” of the thriving second century AD is the technical high-point of this multicultural enterprise. In AD 212 Emperor Caracalla passed an edict extending Roman citizenship universally across the Empire. From thereon, where can one truly draw the line across this huge cultural melting pot as to who was Roman or otherwise? Consider traditions such as the Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits of Roman Egypt – a classic example of this cultural blending.
Yet, irrespective of all this, there is one outstanding and significant and distinctly Roman contribution to art – veristic portraiture. Whereas the Greeks were dreamers who preferred idealised figures and faces – most of which appear post-coital – the Romans tended towards an almost painfully acute realism.
Frowns, double chins, jowls, bushy eyebrows, laugh lines, stern expressions, baldness, all abound in Roman realist portraiture. And the portraits themselves are hauntingly life-like. This is no approximation of an individual’s appearance, but rather an exquisite rendering of a person’s insecurities, burdens, life experience and temperament.
Artistically the tradition derives from an early Republican habit of keeping family death-masks in the house, usually displayed in niches in the walls. Wax portrait heads of ancestors were also displayed in public processions. With the early Romans being so focussed on discipline, both within the family and public life, one can imagine how effective being watched by ones ancestors might be as a means of keeping one in line. There was also a certain distaste for the indolence of Greek and Etruscan life and Roman realism was not merely a reflection of their austere virtues and military traditions, but also a reaction against the rendering of people with a divine aspect. The Romans, despite their love of Greek art, liked to keep it real when not romanticising the mythical past.
Part of the appeal of Roman realism is that it constitutes an appreciable form of commemoration to which I can relate. These days, we probably wouldn’t be happy if the only image we had of our parents looked nothing like them, but rather some stylised, or idealised representation. Sure, we want them to look their best, but we do want them to look at least somewhat like they did in life. So it was for the Romans.
Consider this head of Julius Caesar, for example.
Bearing in mind the skill of Roman realist sculptors, one gets the sense that this is actually what Julius Caesar looked like (though the amount of hair atop his head might be an exaggeration.) How many ancient figures, apart from certain prominent Romans, can we convincingly recognise as clear and distinct individuals and feel we have a real sense of their features? With the exception of some excellent earlier Greek examples – take Socrates, for instance – we have very few life-like portraits from antiquity outside the Roman period. Alexander the Great has a recurrent uniformity to his images, yet still they look like a gloss – an idealised, air-brushed image of a god-like youth.
His face contains some pathos, yet I remain unmoved by it. Only with Roman realism do I feel convincingly that I have come face to face with people from the classical world.