Buste of Constantin
Buste of Constantin

From Nero's full head of hair to Constantine's diadem - political change translated into statues of Roman emperors

Between approximately 50 BC and 400 AD, the Roman Empire was ruled by more than fifty emperors. Each emperor had statues and busts made of himself that could be seen all over the Roman Empire. How the emperors were portrayed - in a toga, for example, or with a long beard, with wrinkles, in heroic nude - is representative of political changes, demonstrates historian Sam Heijnen. He will defend his thesis on 4 February 2022.

A Roman emperor could not be everywhere at once. Therefore, in a world without mass media, he ensured that statues and busts of him could be seen everywhere in the Roman Empire. How the emperors were portrayed was constantly subject to historical change. For example, in the third century, emperors often chose statues with a stern look. This was appreciated by the Roman soldiers, by whom they were often chosen.

For his research, historian Sam Heijnen analysed the images of Roman emperors between circa 50 BC and 400 AD to find an answer to the question: how were emperor portraits used to make changes in imperial rule understandable? For his research, Heijnen himself compiled the Roman Imperial Portraits Dataset: a dataset of some 2140 Roman emperor portraits. 'By far, the most surviving emperor portraits were chiselled out of marble,' says Heijnen. 'That shows that statues of more precious materials such as bronze, silver and gold were often melted down. Nevertheless, my data set can provide valuable insights into the development of political representation in antiquity.'


Heijnen looked at, among other things, the official 'portrait types', the prototype of the emperor's portrait that was issued with the consent of the emperor and his entourage and then reproduced on a large scale in the Roman Empire. Heijnen: 'By far, most emperors followed the imagery of their immediate predecessor to show the continuation of imperial power. Emperors such as Augustus and Constantine even had portrait types issued for their successors during their time as emperors, for which they themselves served as models. Emperors also drew on examples from the past. For instance, the locks of hair on the forehead of Emperor Gallienus (253-268 AD) were accurately modelled on those of Emperor Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). Gallienus was thus presented as a 'new Augustus'.

Continuity was therefore very important, observes Heijen. 'At the same time, new elements were introduced alongside the traditional patterns of representation. The existing visual language was therefore constantly being 'recalibrated'.'

Toga, Military Armour or Heroic Nude

Heijnen also investigated which body types were dominant in certain periods and why. He identified three: the emperor depicted in a toga, in military armour or in heroic form.

'There seems to have been a clear preference for the toga and the heroic nude in the first century AD. However, in the second and early third century, statues and busts in military garb are over-represented,' says Heijnen. 'The political climate, among other things, played a role. After the civil wars of the late Republic, Augustus, for instance, chose to emphasise his civil and religious deeds and tone down his military image. His statues were mainly of toga and heroic nude. From Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) onwards, statues and busts again favoured the military breastplate. In Hadrian's case, it represented prosperity and victory, despite being hardly involved in any military campaigns.'


'Where the statues and busts once stood can only be determined for about 20 per cent,' says Heijnen. However, it does show that they stood in all the main buildings and locations of Roman society, both public and private. In local communities, specific preferences arose for certain sizes or types of statues. 'In some cases, new portraits of emperors were mirrored, down to the last centimetre, on existing emperor portraits to create a coherent whole,' says Heijnen. 'There was apparently a need to maintain local customs. Honouring the Roman emperor was or became a local 'tradition'.'

Suspicious change

The Roman world was dominated by tradition. Change was suspect. Different groups in Roman society had different expectations about what an emperor could or should look like. 'It was of crucial importance that emperors adhere to these expectations', says Heijnen. 'If they did not, they took a risk. Nero's hairstyle and corpulence, Hadrian's beard, Caracalla's stern look and Constantine's diadem may not have been unprecedented in Roman society as a whole, but they were certainly 'new' expressions of imperial portraiture. These were also precisely the aspects that were negatively assessed by ancient authors. Traditional imagery was needed to communicate political changes in a comprehensible way'.

Sam Heijnen defends his thesis Portraying Change: The Representation of Roman Emperors in Freestanding Sculpture (ca. 50 BC - ca. 400 AD) on 4 February 2022, from 12.30.

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