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Work Imperial group as Mars and Venus

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

Imperial group as Mars and Venus

© 2008 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This group reproduced the features of the of the Emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina, until her head was replaced during the late second century by another portrait, probably of Lucilla, wife of Lucius Verus. It reflects the Hellenizing taste and the neoclassical style in fashion during this period. Hadrian (117-138 CE), the first Roman emperor to be portrayed as a god during his own lifetime, is depicted as Mars, god of war.

An imperial couple: Hadrian and Sabina

Discovered near Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome just before 1620, this group entered the Louvre after its purchase by Napoleon I from Prince Camille Borghese in 1807. Sculpted during the early second century CE, it originally depicted the Emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina. However, the group was later altered, for reasons that remain unknown. The head of the female figure was changed and replaced by another ancient portrait: the features and hairstyle, essential indicators for the dating of Roman portraits, indicate that this is a late second-century portrait, probably of Lucilla, wife of Emperor Lucius Verus (161-169 CE). If this is indeed the case, Lucilla may have reused this group to the glory of her dead husband. By substituting her own portrait for that of Sabina and making Hadrian's features more anonymous in order to turn him into a generic figure, she would have elevated Lucius Verus to the status of god. The plinth may be modern.

Mythology in the service of imperial propaganda

Hadrian was the first Roman emperor to have himself represented as a god during his lifetime. Until that time, members of the imperial family had only attained this honor and achieved immortality after their death. Here the couple is likened to the lovers Mars and Venus, gods of war and love, following a model that probably originated during the reign of Augustus, in a group created by Pasiteles, a Greek sculptor then active in Rome. The image of Hadrian is more idealized than that of Sabina. The emperor is represented as a heroic nude, bearing the military attributes of Mars: the crested helmet, baldric, two-edged sword and breastplate, laid on a tree trunk which serves as a support for the figure. In this allegorical portrait, intended as imperial propaganda, Hadrian presents himself as the guarantor of the empire's peace and prosperity.

References to Greek art

This ideological purpose is served by conspicuous references to Greek art. During his reign, from 117 to 138 CE, Hadrian encouraged a return to Greek classicism in the realms of art and literature. This group is thus a full-blown manifestation of this philhellenic policy and the neo-Attic revival. In its cool composure, Hadrian's portrait takes its inspiration from athletic figures of the classical period such as the Mars of Alcamenes (late fifth century BCE). The female figure, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the semi-naked Aphrodites of the fourth century BCE and the Hellenistic period, after the manner of works by Praxiteles. The general pose of the goddess recalls that of the Venus of Capua (National Archeological Museum, Naples). The detail of the drapery delicately skimming her hips is comparable with that of the Venus de Milo (Ma 399), but the sculptor has covered her breast, which it would be improper for the wife of the emperor to reveal.


K. de Kersauson, Musée du Louvre. Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris, 1996, pp. 144-7, n 59.
K. Kalveram, Die Antikensammlung des Kardinals Scipione Borghese, 1995, pp. 210-11, n 95, fig. 66.
H. Knell, Actes du XIIe congrès international d'archéologie classique , Athènes 1983, 1988, 3, pp. 145-50, pl. 28.
D.E.E. Kleiner, Latomus, 40, 1981, pp. 539-40, fig. 9.
H. Wrede, Consecratio in formam deorum : Vergöttlichte Privatpersonen in der Römischen Kaiserzeit, Main-sur-Rhin, 1981, pp. 269-70, n 195, n 299.
E.E. Schmidt, Antike Plastik, 8, 1968, pp. 85-93, fig. 2.

Technical description

  • Imperial group as Mars and Venus

    Between AD 120 and 140
    Reworked c. AD 170-175

  • Marble

    H. 1.73 m

  • Former Borghese collection. Purchased in 1807 , 1807

    Inventaire MR 316 (n° usuel Ma 1009)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art. Rome and the provinces in the 3rd century AD
    Room 413

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