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Work Portrait of the Emperor Gallienus

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

The emperor Gallianus

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Lepetoukha Charlotte

This blunt, straighforward portrait of the emperor Gallienus was created at the beginning of his reign, when he inherited a significantly weakened Roman Empire. The portrait's typology indicates the emperor's desire to project himself as an inspired, powerful leader. This effigy was clearly intended as a piece of authoritarian propaganda. Through its borrowings from the Greek sculptural canon, it is also the artistic testimony of an emperor who was a noted lover of Greek culture.

The emperor Gallienus

This head, originally part of a statue or a bust, is a portrait of the Roman emperor Gallienus, who reigned as co-emperor with his father Valerian from AD 253, and alone from AD 261-268. The very blunt expression leaves no doubt as to his identity: the broad forehead, the aquiline nose and the pronounced furrow in the upper lip are all prominent traits familiar from Imperial portraits and coinage produced during Gallienus's reign.

The portrait as a political tool

This type of portrait would have been created after Gallienus became sole emperor, when his father was taken prisoner by the Persians. In a crisis-ridden Empire, whose unity was threatened by barbarian invasions and challenges to Imperial authority from individual provinces, Gallienus sought to reassert the emperor's power.
Portraits such as this present him as an authoritarian and resolute man. The inspired upward gaze emphasizes his visionary strength: Gallienus is depicted as an enlightened leader capable of restoring order and prosperity. The portrait is clearly intended to serve the emperor's political aspirations; distributed throughout the empire in the form of statuary and on coins, it became an instrument of propaganda.

The "Gallienic Renaissance"

The reign of Gallienus was marked by a return to Hellenic tastes. The emperor, steeped in Greek culture, thought of himself as a Philhellenist, like Hadrian. Gallienus was interested in the Neo-Platonist philosophy of Plotinus, and was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries - secret rituals held annually at Eleusis in honor of the goddesses Persephone and Demeter. In portraiture, this renewed interest in Greek civilization inspired the emergence of a particular typology, characterized by abundant hair and an upturned gaze, and directly inspired by Hellenistic of images of Alexander the Great and his successors. The simple, formalized composition of the head is also reminiscent of classicizing art, and portraits of the divine Augustus.
At the same time, the portrait shows a tendency towards schematization, notably in the treatment of the hair and in block-like, structured forms of the face. The trend towards greater abstraction in art, evident in Imperial portraits of the third century, is used here to reinforce Gallienus's imperious expression and glorify his character.

Bibliography

Spätantike und Früher Christendum, Francfort, 1982, n 13, p. 393
De Kersauson (K), Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris 1996, n 227, p. 482

Technical description

  • The emperor Gallianus

    C. AD 261

  • Marble

    H. 39 cm

  • Former collection

    Emperor from AD 261 to 268

    Inventaire MR 511 (n°usuel Ma 512)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art. Christian Syria
    Room 29

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Additional information about the work

The tip of the nose has been restored.