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Work Marcus Aurelius (Emperor, 161-180 CE)

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

The emperor Marcus Aurelius

© RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Lepetoukha C

This extremely fine portrait bust was made in Greece, after an archetype sculpted in the Roman imperial workshops in 161CE, the year in which Marcus Aurelius became emperor. Although the bust remains faithful to the official iconography, it is distinguished from copies done in Rome by the influence of the Greek sculptural tradition evident in its execution, lending the emperor the air of a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BCE.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, recognizable by his curly hair and protruding eyes, is shown here wearing a cuirass. Beneath the mass of hair, rendered in less detail than in most portraits of this type, the lowered face with its distant gaze has a grave and meditative air. The cuirass, partly hidden by a cloak fastened over the right shoulder, is decorated with a gorgoneion or Gorgon mask in the center and a grotesque eel-legged figure on the right shoulder-piece.

Grave goods

The bust was found in a tomb at Probalinthos, near Marathon in Attica. This same tomb yielded a portrait of Herod Atticus (Ma 1164) and another of Lucius Verus, joint emperor with Marcus Aurelius (now in Oxford). This association was by no means fortuitous, for the philosopher Herod Atticus was both friend and teacher to both emperors. It is possible that the tomb is his: it is known that Herod Atticus had a villa in the Marathon area, where he had been born and where he died in 177 CE.

A Greek work after a Roman model

The Greek origins of this bust of Marcus Aurelius, suggested by the site of the find, are confirmed by stylistic analysis. For although this portrait, like all imperial portraits, is modeled on a bust from the imperial workshops - in this case on an archetype produced on the occasion of the emperor's accession - it is distinguishable from Roman work by its manner of execution. The generous but sober style, exemplified by the limited use of the drill in rendering the hair, while unusual in Roman sculpted portraiture is closer to the Greek tradition.
Furthermore, although the iconography generally accords with that of the Roman model, it also contains echoes of Hellenistic art. The emperor's appearance, with his lowered face and meditative expression, recalls the portraits of fifth- and fourth-century Greek philosophers, while the gorgoneion on the cuirass traditionally decorated the armor of Athena, tutelary goddess of Athens, and also that of Alexander the Great.
The artist, probably Greek in origin, has thus succeeded in respecting the constraints of official iconography while at the same time imbuing his work with the artistic tradition to which he himself belonged.

Bibliography

J. Charbonneaux, "Portraits du temps des Antonins", Monuments Piot, vol. XLIX, Paris, 1957, p. 76, fig. 11

K. de Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1996, n 99, p. 226

Technical description

  • The emperor Marcus Aurelius

    C. AD 161

    Provenance:

  • Marble

    H. 62 cm

  • Found by Fauvel in 1789. Choiseul-Gouffier Collection until 1818
    Pourtalès sale, 1865

    Emperor from AD 161 to 180

    Inventaire NIII 2535 (n° usuel Ma 1161)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art. Rome and the provinces in the 3rd century AD
    Room 26

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