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Work Theodosius II (Emperor from AD 408 to 450)

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

The emperor Theodosius II

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Lepetoukha C.

This head is the only known sculpted portrait of the emperor Theodosius II. The hieratic quality and schematization of its features are characteristic of a tendency that emerged in Roman art from the third century onward, and which became firmly established during the late fourth century. This new approach to portraiture gave the emperor a spiritual, timeless dimension which reflects the power of his role as a political and religious leader.

An imperial portrait

The subject's imperial status is emphasized by a finely detailed gold-plated diadem. His hair is styled in a thick fringe over his forehead, its strands indicated by vertical incisions.
The long face is dominated by the rapt gaze of the huge eyes, whose impact is amplified by deeply hollowed pupils and finely sculpted, arched eyebrows.

Theodosius II and the Eastern Roman Empire

The head's resemblance to portraits of other members of the Theodosian house identifies it as the only known sculpted representation of Theodosius II, emperor of the East from AD 408 to 450. When Theodosius I died in 395, the Roman Empire was divided into two parts. The Western empire was gradually carved up following the barbarian invasions, and finally disappeared when the last Western emperor died in 476; however, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire survived as a functioning political entity until the Turkish conquest of 1453.
By the time of Theodosius, the emperor's role had changed beyond recognition in comparison to the early days of the empire. Theodosius II ruled as an absolute monarch, and launched an unprecedented effort to codify all Roman imperial legislation since the year AD 312 - resulting in the so-called Theodosian Code, published in 438. The emperor was also the temporal head of the Eastern Christian church; in 431, he summoned the Council of Ephesus, which proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God.

The demise of classical art

Imperial portraits made in the last days of the Roman empire reflect the new ideology of power. The sober style and hieratic quality of this representation transfigured the emperor's image, giving him a timeless, spiritualized dimension.
This artistic development grew from a tendency to abstraction which emerged in Roman art from the third century onward, becoming more pronounced in the fourth and fifth centuries. Official portraits, whether marble effigies or ivory diptychs, were produced with an ever-increasing concern for stylization; this is perceptible here in the treatment of the eyes and hair. Deliberately stylized features and a taste for ornamental detail took precedence over classical sculptural preoccupations with volume and contours, signifying a complete break with the naturalistic tradition.
This disaffection for three-dimensional sculpture is characteristic of the age; it marks the end of classical art, and the beginning of medieval forms of representation. The tendency developed in Byzantine art, which similarly sought to represent a sublimated image of the role of emperor, based on stylized features and, in particular, an exaggerated emphasis on the eyes.


R. Delbrück, Spätantike Kaiserporträts von Constantinus Magnus bis zum ende des Weistreich, 1933, p. 217 sqq.
Exposition "Visages du Louvre, chefs-d'oeuvre du portrait dans les collections du Louvre", Musée National d'Art Occidental, Tokyo, 18 sept-1er déc. 1991, n 36, p. 89.
K. de Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris 1996, n 251, p. 536.

Technical description

  • The emperor Theodosius II

  • Marble

    H. 29 cm

  • Royal collection since the 16th century

    Emperor of the East from AD 408 to 450

    N° d'entrée OA 9056 (n° usuel Ma 1036)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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