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Work The Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117)

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

L'empereur Trajan

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Lepetoukha C.

This bust of the emperor Trajan corresponds to an archetype created at the beginning of his reign, which brought a troubled period to an end. This context explains the obvious reference to portraits of Augustus: the emperor's serene countenance, constructed according to the classical principles of balance and moderation, reflects his desire to introduce a new era of stability and prosperity to the Roman Empire.

Trajan (AD 98-117)

This bust, which is truncated at mid-torso in accordance with a new development in Roman portraiture, represents the emperor Trajan in heroic nudity. The short hair is styled forward into a full fringe, divided in the middle. The face, turned to the left, looks stern with its fixed expression and tight mouth. Wrinkles at the corner of the eyes and folds in the neck represent signs of age in an otherwise idealized portrait.

Optimus princeps

The emperor Nerva chose Trajan, an officer in the Roman army, as his successor. This adoption procedure put an end to the crises of succession that had occurred within the hereditary dynasties, threatening the stability of the Empire during the latter half of the first century AD. In this troubled context, Trajan's image needed to be reassuring, perceived as a guarantee of stability; it therefore borrowed directly from Augustan iconography in an obvious symbolic maneuver. A certain resemblance is indeed apparent in the hairstyle and clean contours of the portrait.
This work was therefore intended as an expression of political ideology as well as a representation of the prince's moral qualities: his calm, resolute expression suggests self-control, a quality not shared by his arrogant and immoderate predecessors. This portrait already presented Trajan as the "optimus princeps" (the best of princes), a title bestowed upon him in AD 113: a man of honor in the service of Rome, and a rigorous, exemplary officer.

A return to classicism

This portrait is one of a series derived from an archetype created in the official Roman workshops, which dates, judging by the hairstyle, from the beginning of Trajan's reign. The rendering of the hair in precisely chiseled, triangular locks indicates that the original was a bronze. The quality of the bust in the Louvre suggests it was produced in an official workshop, at a date close to that of the prototype.
Apart from the symbolic reference to the image of Augustus, the idealization of the subject recalls Augustan classicism: an economy of means (perceptible in the simple rendering of the smooth, luminous flesh, and the simple marble ridge that indicates the eyebrows) gives the work its grandeur and majesty. The naturalistic details such as wrinkles and folds in the neck recall the art of the Flavian period, however. This portrait is therefore a veritable synthesis - the expression of a certain naturalism, together with the symbolic inheritance of Augustan classicism.


K. de Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris 1996, n 25, p. 70.

Technical description

  • L'empereur Trajan

    Vers 100 après J.-C.

  • Marbre

    H. : 56 cm.

  • Ancienne collection Albani. Saisie napoléonienne ; échangé en 1815 , 1815

    Empereur de 98 - 117 après J.-C.

    (n° usuel Ma 1250)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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