by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

The Gaze of Rome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 16 March 1996
Louvre, Paris
Portrait bust of Crassus, 1st century BC



Republican Rome was naturally hostile to cults of real and living personalities, but the lessons of Alexander were not lost on Augustus Caesar when he became the first Roman Emperor in 31 BC. The Emperor could not be everywhere at once, indeed might never set foot in parts of the Empire - hence the need for his constant presence in bronze and stone. This change in the political system ushered in a whole new age of Roman portraiture, centering on the figures of successive emperors, their wives and children, but expanding rapidly to include generals, aristocrats, soldiers, wealthy citizens and even their slaves.

About 150 such sculpted heads, busts and statues are on show in 'The Gaze of Rome: Portraits from the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire', an intelligent and thoughtfully-presented joint exhibition staged by the Spanish national museums of Merida and Tarragona and the Musee Saint-Raymond at Toulouse. The venue is the somewhat bizarre-looking 19th-century Acquario Romano in Piazza Manfredo Fanti, near the Termini Station, but the circular internal space here provides a good setting and light for the sculptures (which will be there till 25 April).

Augustus resisted being treated as a god in his lifetime, but emperor-worship became a sign of loyalty that held the multi-racial Roman state together. So long as subjects paid lip-service to the Emperor's divinity, they were free simultaneously to follow more or less any other cult they wished to - the reason why Christianity, with its claims to absolute truth, collided head-on with the authorities. When Christianity triumphed, imperial images were systematically destroyed, not so much because they were pagan artworks, but because of the emperors' pretention to god-like status. It is fortunate, therefore, that so many of these revealing and intriguing portraits did nonetheless survive even in far-flung corners of the Roman world.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023