Roman portraiture during the Republic is identified by its considerable realism, known as veristic portraiture (Figure 4). Verism refers to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the subject’s facial characteristics. The style originated from Hellenistic Greece; however, its use in the Republican Rome and survival throughout much of the Republic is due to Roman values, customs, and political life. As with other forms of Roman art, Roman portraiture borrowed certain details from Greek art but adapted these to their own needs. Veristic images often show their male subject with receding hairlines, deep winkles, and even with warts. While the face of the portrait was often shown with incredible detail and likeness, the body of the subject would be idealized and does not seem to correspond to the age shown in the face (Figure 3).
The popularity and usefulness of verism appears to derive from the need to have a recognizable image. Veristic portrait busts provided a means to remind people of distinguished ancestors or to display one’s power, wisdom, experience, and authority. Statues were often erected of generals and elected officials in public forums—a veristic image ensured that a passerby would recognize the person when they actually saw them.
The Late Republic
The use of veristic portraiture began to diminish during the Late Republic, in the first century BCE. During this time civil wars threatened the empire and individual men began to gain more power. The portraits of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, two political rivals who were also the most powerful generals in the Republic, began to change the style of the portraits and their use. The portraits of Pompey the Great are not fully idealized, but nor were they created in the same veristic style of Republican senators. Pompey borrowed a specific parting and curl of his hair from an older and renowned general, Alexander the Great (Figure 2). This quote served to link Pompey visually with likeness of Alexander and to remind people that he possessed similar characteristics and qualities.
The portraits of Julius Caesar are more true to life than Pompey and more clearly follow the veristic style. Despite staying closer to stylistic convention, Caesar was the first man to mint coins with his own likeness printed on them (Figure 1). In the decades prior to this, it had become increasingly common to place an illustrious ancestor on a coin, but putting a living person, nevertheless your own self, on a coin broke the boundaries of Roman propriety. By circulating coins issued with his image, Caesar directly showed the people that they were indebted to him for their own prosperity and therefore should support his political pursuits.
The creation and use of death masks demonstrates Roman veneration of their ancestors. These masks were created from molds taken of a person at the time of their death. Made of wax (but also bronze, marble, and terracotta), death masks were kept by families and displayed in the atrium of their homes. Visitors and clients who entered the home would have been reminded of the family’s ancestry and the honorable qualities of their ancestors. Such displays served to bolster the reputation and credibility of the family. Death masks were also worn and paraded through the streets during funeral procession. Again, this served not only a memorial for the dead, but also to link the living members of a family to their illustrious ancestors in the eyes of the spectator.