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Work Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus (Emperor from AD 193 to 211)

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

L'impératrice Julia Domna

© Photo RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Lepetoukha C.

This colossal head with its large, almond-shaped eyes accentuated by joined eyebrows, is a portrait of Julia Domna, the Syrian princess who became empress in AD 193 and died in 217. This sculpture is one of a series of imperial portraits that were discovered in the forum of Verecunda, in Algeria. The simplified treatment of the face and hair betray the provincial origin of this work, which is not, however, without a certain majesty.

A hieratic portrait

This is a frontal representation of Julia Domna, her face framed by a mass of hair styled in waves on either side of a central parting. The overall symmetry is disturbed only by the eyes, which are looking to the right. Particular attention has been paid to the front view: the hair was carved in detail on the front of the sculpture only, and the rest left unfinished.

A colossal statue to the glory of the living empress?

A rivet under the head indicates that it was once attached to a statue which must have been about 3 meters tall. Colossal dimensions such as this were usually reserved for posthumous representations, however this work was found in Algeria, where (as in other African provinces) Roman imperial effigies were often of monumental proportions, whether posthumous or otherwise. It should not, then, be assumed this work was necessarily produced after Julia Domna's death in AD 217.

An imperial prototype, and a provincial adaptation

Roman official portraits were almost always modeled on prototypes created in Rome itself; in the case of Julia Domna, a second portrait on display at the Louvre, in the same room (Ma 1103), was probably carved from the same model as the present example.
Provincial sculptors, however, often only had access to such prototypes through more or less faithful copies, drawings or casts; this explains the variations that can sometimes be observed in relation to the original Roman models.
Moreover, crude, unsophisticated work is often identified as originating from provincial workshops. Schematization is certainly visible in this example, with its simplified, almost geometrical treatment of the eyes and flesh.
This tendency to abstraction was an early feature of art in the imperial provinces, although it appears to have resulted from the difficulty of working with marble rather than from a deliberate stylistic choice. We should consider the head in its original context, however - not only did the simplification of the features enhance the majestic effect of the colossal statue, but the distance between the head and the ground meant that the sculptor had no need to concentrate on superfluous facial details.
Julia Domna's head was found in the forum of Verecunda, together with other colossal portraits, including that of Septimius Severus (Ma 1119). They represented the last emperors of the Nervan-Antonian dynasty, and the first emperor of the Severan dynasty with his family. These works, which were produced by various artists and at different times, constitute a group that is irregular in quality but representative of the confrontation between official imperial sculpture and local tradition.

Bibliography

F. Baratte, "Les Portraits impériaux de Markouna et la sculpture officielle dans l'Afrique romaine", MEFRA, 95, Paris 1983, 2, pp. 785-815.
K. de Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris 1996, p. 366, n 168.

Technical description

  • L'impératrice Julia Domna

    Vers 205 - 210 après J.-C.

    Markouna près de Lambèse, Algérie

  • Marbre

    H. : 62 cm.

  • Missions Renier, 1851 et Héron de Villefosse, 1874

    Femme de Septime Sévère (empereur de 193 - 211 après J.-C.)

    N° d'entrée MNB 783 (n° usuel Ma 1104)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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