Faces from Ancient Rome

Bust of a Byzantine Emperor

I am still thinking of my visit to the Getty Villa yesterday. One thing the ancient Romans knew how to do was sculpt faces. In sculpture, in the images on coins, the goal was to create a recognizable image, even if it was uncomplimentary. And some of the later Roman emperors were nothing to look at. In a previous post, I showed the museum’s statue of Caligula, with his inverted triangle of a face radiating pure evil. I can’t imagine our current emperor—I mean president—accepting such uncomplimentary honesty.

Unidentified Poet or Philosopher

Take a look at this face. The original is unidentified, but the museum thinks he must be a poet or philosopher. In any case, he is old and he has the facial expression of a man who is constitutionally set in his ways. The lines on his face, the slight lopsidedness of his features, the sneer on his lips—this is a man beholden to nobody.

The Slave Boy Martial—Deceased

Finally there is a bust of the slave boy Martial, dead before his third birthday sometime in the second or third century AD. The boy must have been cherished by his owner, because he or she went to the trouble of commissioning this bust for a funerary monument.

Three faces—all very different—all very alive. Walking through the rooms of the Getty Villa, I was acutely conscious that these three individuals were real people. No attempt was made to idealize them. Some two thousand years ago, more or less, they walked the earth looking very much like the busts that commemorated them.