Installation of Roman portraits from the Museum of Classical Arhcaeology.
Portraits of Romans of the Republic (509 - 29 BC) are unflattering. Those of the early Empire (after 29 BC) have fewer lines, plumper cheeks and livelier, younger faces. Both demonstrate a conscious political manipulation of portrait types that drew on earlier traditions and inspired later European styles.
Greek portraits did not emphasise the characteristic features of a particular subject, but rather the ways in which that individual conformed to a more general type. These types could be occupational, like the bearded philosopher, or aspirational – most rulers wanted to look like Alexander the Great.
The unpretentious portraits of Republican Romans make a complex statement. They were not Greek, and did not claim autocratic power or divine status like Greek kings. Portraits also displayed the signs of age and experience and signalled the distinguished family the subject belonged to.
In nineteenth-century Europe, surviving fragments of classical portraits were reproduced in collections of plaster casts. Portrait busts of powerful men and scholars emulated their style.