Ancient History & Civilisation





The Climax of Imperial Sculpture

The outstanding sculptural achievements of the second century AD were imperial reliefs; the supreme masterpieces of the third century were imperial portraits.

The characteristically Roman method of depicting the emperor’s achievements upon a relief had already found important expression in Augustus’ Altar of Peace, the Arch of Titus, and Trajan’s Column. The Column of Marcus Aurelius, completed after his death(?c. 190–5) to celebrate his German victories, resembles its Trajanic forerunner in that its pictures narrate a story of war which winds spirally upwards in successive scenes. Yet the Column of Marcus has entered a new and more sensitive world. For its sculptors are not content with Trajan’s extrovert record; instead they tell a tale of humanity and pathos. Now that the wars of Rome have become a much more serious matter, they are seen no longer as an ordinary busy activity but as a grim and sordid necessity of burnings and executions. There is a deeper feeling for sufferings and deaths, and especially for those of the barbarians, who are no longer just untutored enemies – as they were on Trajan’s monument – but anguished human beings. This is a world of fear and horror. It is also full of the supernatural, given haunting shape in the half-personalised Miracle of Rain which was believed to have saved the imperial troops (p. 191). There is a novel artistic spirit too, and an emotional striving for essentiality and effect which banishes all illustrative detail in the interests of centralisation. The deeply incised and undercut designs leap out from an abstract, shadowy space, and the emperor, now a size larger than the companions who attend him like disciples, turns not to them but to the people who are studying the column.

The reliefs of the Arch of Septimius Severus at Rome (203) are worse preserved than those of the Column of Marcus, but not entirely different in character. Yet there has already been a development, for the figures are more squat, and an intricate division between scenes, shown in a bird’s-eye perspective, conveys the impression of a textile surface. Probably this sort of pattern was inspired by popular paintings, now vanished, such as those which Septimius exhibited at his Parthian Triumph.1 His arch at Lepcis Magna (c. 203) has a panel depicting a siege with the same map-like, spatial narrative convention. But another scene on the Lepcis monument, showing the ruler in his chariot, introduces a novel and almost medieval technique, two-dimensional rather than plastic, that concentrates upon rhythmical repetitive symmetry and rigid frontality.

The principle of symmetry, which increasingly gains artistic favour from now on, had already been favoured by certain Roman medallions. A century later this type of balanced composition had become as normal on Roman coinage as the schematic fire-altars on coins of Sassanian Persia. Some of the artists of the Lepcis arch have been traced to a long-lived school of sculpture at Aphrodisias (Kehre) in Asia Minor. But the emphatically frontal presentation of the imperial figure, which recurs on the small Gate of the Silversmiths at Rome (204), comes from a good deal farther east than Aphrodisias, being typical of the fringe regions between the Roman and Parthian empires. Frontality had, it is true, been seen before on Greek and Roman reliefs and coins, but this stiff hieratic posture recalls saviour-gods at Palmyra in the Syrian desert, and Dura and Hatra in Mesopotamia.2Many centuries earlier there had already been frontal portraiture in western Persian lands.3 A contemporary analogy seems to have been the Greco-Buddhist art of northern India. This is very close to Palmyrene work. This may have come eastwards by sea via the Persian Gulf.4 Parthian and Persian kings, too, are occasionally shown facing the spectator, like potent talismanic images.5

The chariot on the arch of Lepcis is partly frontal and partly in profile, but coinage shows how these chariot scenes rapidly assumed a complete heraldic frontality, first in the eastern provinces and then later at Rome.6 When the Lepcis relief shows the central, frontal Septimius among other figures, he – even more emphatically than Marcus Aurelius on his column – is united not with them but with the reverential spectators, at whom he is gazing as the Boddhisatva gazed at his worshippers. This is an onslaught upon the emotions rather than an approach to the mind, a spiritual revolution that led to the frontal, symmetrical mosaics of the Byzantine age.

During the hundred years after Septimius’ Arch at Lepcis, the principal masterpieces of historical relief were achieved not at Rome but among the Sassanian Persians. The massive reliefs of the middle and later third centuries commemorating their victories improve upon the precedents which Parthia had handed down from the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian empires, but were still not motion-pictures, like those of the Romans, since they concentrate instead upon symbolic scenes which convey the quintessence of triumph.7 There are also occult implications, for the representation of a victory magically enhanced the glory of the prince.

But until the very end of the third century this imposing series of reliefs was not paralleled by any further exploration of the same medium at Rome. In a culture which still retained certain humanistic values, the new methods, with their frontal, symmetrical emphasis, did not lend themselves to the old narrative expositions of human beings and their deeds. Yet relief design was still very active in the Roman empire. There was admirable silver-work, more or less naturalistic in style.8 There were also reliefs on innumerable sarcophagi (p. 188), and upon this more restricted scale artists in sympathy with official ideas perpetuated the tradition of the large historical relief by utilising the medium to glorify the imperial dead. At least two types of theme were employed for such purposes. One of them was the scene which incorporated philosophers and sages, representing a Hellenic thread in the spiritual and artistic movements of the day (p. 95); a sarcophagus of this kind is topped by a three-dimensional reclining figure that may represent the transient emperor Balbinus (238).9 Other sarcophagi seem to show rulers, or their illustrious kinsmen, upon their reliefs, and particularly in the middle of elaborate, contorted battle scenes,10 paralleled by almost equally intricate intertwinings of figures on coins and medallions. These battles represent the annihilation of death and evil by the victorious dead. In scanning their unplastic carpet-like textures, the eye fastens on the central horseman, who emerges from congested planes of tormented combatants in grandiose, superhuman serenity. The Ludovisi sarcophagus, in which the genre reaches its height, shows a central imperial personage who has been identified (without certainty), as Hostilianus (d. 251) the younger son of Decius.11 The technique of the sculptural relief is still being used for official or quasi-official publicity; although, like the portraits of the day, it is publicity of equivocal value, eloquent of an age of brutality and pain (p. 93).

The historical relief proper, according to the tradition of the Arch of Titus and the Columns of Trajan and Marcus, was revived by the arch which Galerius erected at Thessalonica (Salonica) in celebration of his Persian victories (296) – and in knowledge of the reliefs the Persians themselves had recently been making. The small-scale figures of Galerius’ Arch, abandoning space and perspective, recall sarcophagi. Two main types of composition are employed; one is a lively movement in a single direction, and the other is static and hieratic, displaying immobile figures that confront the outside world in the tradition already suggested by a few works under Septimius a century earlier. The four rulers appear in an ‘epiphany’, much larger than their audience, and Galerius, addressing his troops, surmounts the whole pyramidal composition, and symbolises the imperial control which reflects a divine eternal harmony.

The flat, stocky and unnatural shapes of these figures are reproduced with further distortions upon the arch which Constantine commissioned in order to commemorate his victory over Maxentius (312). These laterally moving compositions, more stylised than those of the Arch of Galerius, resemble the lines of uniform figures in third and fourth century wall-paintings,12 and point forward to Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna.13 The scenes of Constantine addressing and distributing largess to his troops again employ a rigidly symmetrical, centralised method. The emperor himself is the central figure, unmoving and yet the sole creator of action. His subjects, who provide the framework of this glory, are massed lines of undistinguishable figures, like the immobilised, subjugated corporations and labour-gangs of the time (pp. 58 ff).

Contemporary artists were not incapable of classical naturalism when a touch of this was wanted. For example the heads of Constantine and his colleague Licinius on the arch are fine examples of the transitional phase before schematisation was complete (p. 95). But in the same way as other portrait-sculptors were rejecting this humanistic element, so also the designers of the mass-scenes on the arch are instead inspired by an ancient, crude and forceful popular art. This had always lived on in the provinces and the cultural underground, and now for the first time, during an age when emperors were of provincial and peasant origin, it had welled up to dominate a principal imperial frieze. Constantine dispensed grants of tax-immunity to encourage the sculptors, painters and mosaicists who put the artistic themes of his age into effect.14 Their broad, coarse renderings in a sort of woodcut style seem, by classical standards, deficient in technical skill. But those standards are no longer applicable. Just as there was now no objection to introducing old imperial reliefs, of an entirely different style, alongside the new ones on Constantine’s Arch, and just as his architects were so neglectful of the traditional harmonies that they imported a variety of old, ready-made capitals for their new churches, so too these artists, pseudo-primitives rather than primitives, rejected classical delicacies, idealisms and realisms as irrelevant. They were representing not human beings but major imperial and spiritual movements in which the individual mortal frame possessed trifling significance except as a tiny component of the massive automaton.

In the evolution of the imperial portrait between Marcus Aurelius and Constantine a similar series of developments occurs, but with richer, more varied and more sensational results. For portrait sculpture, within the space of only a few years, passed through a series of artistic changes scarcely less far-reaching than those which transformed French painting in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

There were still many private portrait-busts of the utmost skill,15 but the distinction of the age lies in its imperial portraits, which echo with incomparable brilliance the successive individual or official personalities of the emperors and their families. In times of stress, when new rulers needed to assert themselves quickly, their features had to be made familiar to the people with all possible rapidity, in every main square and public building throughout the empire. Elagabalus sent Rome a portrait of himself as high priest in advance of his own arrival,16 and emperors employed also the most distinguished professional sculptors of the day. For the same reason careful attention was dedicated to coin-portraits (which often enable us to identify the busts), since their superior mobility gave them an even wider circulation. A coup d’état was habitually accompanied by a monetary issue, to serve as army wages and donatives; so that there were pretenders whose coins, even after the briefest of reigns, are still not too rare today.17 Much more limited than these pieces in circulation, but often equal in artistic excellence and variety to the finest sculptural achievements, are the portrayals of imperial personages on the commemorative medallions, bronze in the second century and mainly gold from the mid-third century onwards, which were distributed by the emperors to officers and other favoured persons.

Marble portrait busts of the second century AD show the increasingly free use of a drill in order to produce contrasts of high-lights and shadows, which exercise their maximum effect, not in the dimness of a modern museum, but under the strong Mediterranean sun for which they were designed. The portraiture of Marcus Aurelius, in which these tendencies are well developed, is more significant than most of his better known, blanker portraits suggest.18 His pensive Hellenic idealism sometimes verges upon a spirituality traceable to slightly earlier portrait-styles in Asia Minor and Greece; a recently discovered gold head believed to represent him reminded its first viewers of ‘a saint in church’. Certain of his other heads show how classicism was moving towards the more stereotyped symbolic formulas of late antiquity. But there were generally several different styles in operation at the same time, and artists depicting Marcus’ colleague Lucius Verus and son Commodus often preferred various amusing mannered or baroque treatments, concentrating on polished satiny surfaces which show a new sensuous appreciation for the texture of flesh.

Septimius, in order to conceal the advent of grimmer times, reverted to propaganda recalling the Golden Age of the Antonines, whom he claimed as his ancestors in spirit and by adoption. Consequently, the naturalistic bearded heads on his medallions continue the richly elaborate technique of the previous generation. His portrait busts, too, go back to Marcus and Verus, but with certain technical and psychological changes. Volumes are more solid, the lavish hair with the curls of the god Serapis is closely integrated with the skull (p. 226), and in anticipation of future styles the eyes (incised since early in the second century) are sometimes raised to heaven, gazing up with exalted emotion to the gods who were the emperor’s companions (p. 171).19 The coins, for their part, occasionally show schematic, linear methods of depiction which likewise point towards the future. Meanwhile the portrait-busts of the Syrian ladies of Septimius’ house display a new, subtle and confident sensibility which reflects their strong, un-Roman characters, and political and intellectual power. Picturesque coiffures help to form sinuous or geometric patterns of line and form. The disturbing turn of these heads and eyes reinforces the suggestion, apparent in some of the heads of Septimius, that the spirit, a mere alien sojourner in the human frame, can be detected behind and beyond its features: self-contained and self-centred humanism is coming to an end.20

Among the most remarkable portraits of the age are the nervous, scowling, Alexander-emulating busts of Caracalla, with restless head and wrinkled brow: an outstanding example of the baroque portraitist’s new kind of face, stamped by destiny, excitement and violence. This is no longer a philosopher on the throne; although his official name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Caracalla’s harsh violence has abandoned the Antonine synthesis in favour of a more excitable and defiant self–assertion. Hellenic locks, too, have been replaced by short neat curls, which eastern local coinages also now begin to show in stylised patterns.21 A marble bust, which may represent Caracalla’s murdered brother Geta, makes this hair-style into a close-cropped skull-cap, symbolising military puritanism against Hellenic culture,22 according to a convention which became widely accepted in the years ahead. Roman coins (217–18), and then portrait-busts of Severus Alexander and particularly Maximinus I (235–8), sketch this sheath-like hair and beard with light, rapid pointillist strokes of the chisel,23 drawing upon the illusionistic techniques of painting with the aid of tints to flesh and hair which have now vanished.

Naturalistic and schematic tendencies are now balanced one against the other, and it is just this balance and tension that gives the portraits of this age their claim to be the most remarkable (as well as the most accessible to modern taste?) that Rome ever produced. A single solid line is sometimes used for the eyebrows, drawing attention to the up turned eye beneath the heavy eyelid. The Severan tendency to stress the eyes is enhanced, for in this spiritual age they seemed the mirrors of the soul (cf.p.122), and the region about them fascinated portrait-painters for its character-revealing properties. But nothing must distract attention from the rolling intensity of the eyes themselves, emphasised by sharply outlined pupils and deeply drilled iris. Rolling sideways as well as upwards, the glance is phosphorescent with the inner life and light of that divine ecstasy which philosophers and religious writers were trying to describe.24

Yet this inner man, on whom the sculptor so ardently concentrates, is not yet by any means spiritualised to the point of glassy immobility. On the contrary, this close examination shows him to be a prey to appalling uneasiness, doubt and distrust. Such representations reach a climax in the 240s and early 250s under Philip, Decius and Gallus. Their portraits, like those on the coinage, are overwhelmingly expressive of this age of emergency. The strange thing is that the rulers should have wanted to be represented like this – rather as the Spanish royal family were content to be shown as imbeciles in Goya’s paintings. These Roman crisis-emperors were not stupid, but they look desperately worried, and portrait-sculptors and artists of outstanding gifts, unfortunately anonymous, were brought in to display these worries with incomparable skill. They made it very clear that the emperors shared the distresses of their subjects, and carried the cares of the world upon their shoulders. But it almost appeared, from these masterpieces, that the burden was too great for them: as indeed it was. Either the talent of outstanding artists ran away with them and overcame the requirements of publicity, or this corresponded with the image of the ruler that the imperial chancery thought was needed – embodying all the anxieties of the times, needing the people’s help; with an added trace of desperate condottiere defiance, and just a touch of scepticism about the total possibilities of this material life.

The climax of this style appears in a superb portrait of Philip the Arab (244–9) – a new aggressive, barbarian type who has nevertheless risen to the traditional dignity of his imperial office. His personality is revealed in one highly-charged moment; this is the zenith of the traditional Roman artistic endeavour to hold on to what is personal and characteristic by a sudden transitory, impressionistic snapshot glimpse. Yet the method is no longer a loving delineation of realistic detail but a single, simplifying strike and sweep. That, in an otherwise all too human portrait, is the contribution made by the schematic tendency of this age. The central motif is a lowering of brows, accompanied by contractions of the mouth and forehead muscles. Philip’s mobile features, the expressions flickering over his face, are eloquent of suspicion and repressed turbulence.25 This was the age of Plotinus, who, seeing art as an outcome of material evil (p. 144), spoke of its need to illuminate the body by the soul,26 and declared that the ugliness of a living being is more beautiful than the beauty of a statue.

Similar disturbances are expressed by a violently asymmetrical, anxiously gazing Decius, and by the grotesquely tormented brow of his successor Gallus.27 Ever stronger, now, above the eyes and beside the nose and mouth, are the furrows that declare extreme strain. And yet there are already signs of this intense gaze becoming more stationary. A slight stiffening of features, and hardening of anatomy, and simplifying of volume, have already begun to remodel and distort the face into inorganic forms which correspond not to the human shape but to deeper movements within its soul and the universe. Whatever these men feel, and they feel strongly, is on the way to becoming a generalised rather than an individual feeling.

These tendencies were to return in extreme forms later on, but the development is not continuous; the history of imperial portraiture is no straight line but an oscillation of alternating phases and fashions. For at the height of the military and economic crises and artistic movements resulting from them, Gallienus turned back from the harrowing delineations of his predecessors and caused his sculptural and numismatic portraits to be executed in a pronouncedly classical, Hellenic style, reminiscent at first of Augustus and then more particularly of Greek monarchs and Hadrian who had favoured their tastes.28 This classicism, which was to continue alongside newer trends in the Byzantine empire, showed even more durable powers of survival than the various provincial, proletarian and archaic elements that might temporarily assume greater emphasis (p. 90). Sometimes classical factors are an unconscious contribution – the ordinary tools and traditions of the trade –but the plastic Hellenism of these portraits of Gallienus, with their softened, slightly bearded features and flashing gaze of pride, is deliberate. And yet the revival, like all valuable revivals, was not a complete one; these portraits were not as old-fashioned as they might seem. The underlying forms show new rigidities, facial features are only surface-deep. The tension of humanity and transcendence, of nature and schematisms has reached a brief precarious equilibrium. Momentary dispositions and moods still receive attention, but the inner quest for invisible reality is on the point of beginning to overshadow them. A new world order is not far off.

Gallienus’ partial reversion to classicism corresponded to his personal Hellenizing tastes. Like Augustus and Hadrian, he had been initiated into the mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis (p. 186). And yet this personal element is not the whole explanation. For there was also a strong contemporary vogue for the spiritualised, inspiring portraits of philosophers and holy men. These heads, often identified (inconclusively) with their most distinguished contemporary representative, Gallienus’ friend Plotinus, infuse a new ascetic sanctity into the ancient idealistic tradition of depicting philosophers.29 So the Hellenizing tendencies of the 260s extended beyond Gallienus himself. Furthermore, the most Hellenic and classical of all the portraits of the age are those not of Gallienus but of his hostile contemporary Postumus, ruling in the western provinces.30 These heads appear on his gold pieces, while other coins of Postumus innovate by remarkable near-frontal portraits recalling the strong trend towards similar poses in sculptural reliefs (p. 88). Frontal coin-portraits have a few Greek and Roman precedents, but there is special relevance in the coinage of Parthian and Persian kings.31 For although the treatment of Postumus’ head is naturalistic, its posture, like theirs, brings the ruler before his subjects in the manner of an oriental god, and the way is cleared for the future hieratic, immobile frontality of coin-portraits in the early fourth century and the Byzantine empire that was to follow.

From now on there was no single, unified official art of portrait-sculpture, but a greater autonomy among regional schools. For example, a distinctive series of heads produced at Aquileia include a bronze bust of Claudius II Gothicus which, in so far as it shows any classicism at all, is Roman and not Greek, for the Hellenic revival was not pursued by the successors of Gallienus at Rome. Slowly but steadily schematic elements grew, with exclusive stress on the eyes and other features which determine the spiritual expression. This spirituality was still enlivened with contrasting realistic touches in a provoking, strongly shaped portrait of Carinus (283–4).32 His gaze waits for a message from distant regions; and yet it also reflects his own subtle individuality. The face is a receptacle, a prison, from which the spirit looks outwards, searching ‘nervously, uneasily for some meaning beyond a world that lives by the sword’.33 But the relationship of soul and body is no longer a union or blend; it is a contradiction. The aesthetic components that make up a portrait have become disjointed, and cry out for a new synthesis.

And so, rather as nineteenth-century impressionism was superseded by the structural solidity of Cézanne, the impressionistic realism of the third century now gave place to more massive, simplified and permanent lines. But here the comparison ends, for the artistic changes of c.AD 300 displayed none of the attention to nature which Cézanne united with his search for form. Or rather, the analogy of Van Gogh, or even of the cubists, may be substituted for Cézanne. For this was no longer the realism of nature, but an attempt to depict the hidden, eternal reality of the inner world: the art of Diocletian, Licinius and Constantine is the supra-realism of magic.

Cubist conceptions, which the structure of Carinus’ head had already begun to approach, took command of the portraiture of Diocletian and his three fellow-rulers and their immediate successors. Even more than in contemporary reliefs, the upsurging of subterranean, proletarian, peasant, provincial art-forms, and their mingling with the new ideas of the day, contributed to an artistic revolution comparable with the changes taking place in political and social life. While art of a more traditional kind sporadically continued, and in the west still attained important results as late as the joint reign of Constantine and Licinius (310–24),34 many coins of Diocletian’s reformed currency (c. 294) and contemporary medallions already displayed a style of incised, harsh angularity and dry linear flatness, strongly advancing and emphasising tendencies already apparent for many years on issues of the eastern provinces (p. 92). But above all, these coins show square, cropped, neckless portraits alien to all classical humanism and emphatic in their brutal rejection of any mortal weakness or refinement.

Meanwhile portrait-sculptors were producing similar and even more peculiar results. The new style was an oriental one, for, just as the most radical coin-heads are those of Syrian Antioch, the two most extreme sculptural examples, both perhaps identifiable with Licinius, come from Egypt.35This same deliberate rejection of traditional Greco-Roman values is shown in an even more startling form by two groups of full-length figures of embracing Augustuses and Caesars in military uniform.36These representations are unrealistic and stylised and symmetrically balanced, and the rulers are indistinguishable one from another; this total sameness is pointed out and praised by contemporary flattery as a feature of their eternal unanimous concord.37 Carrying to ultimate lengths the block-like, squat deformity of contemporary relief-work, the smouldering, menacing blankness of these nightmarish facial masks is a product not of technical failure and decadence (seen in such art by Gibbon) but of the sculptors’ new and unclassical, indeed anti-classical, interpretation of their peasant emperors and of life itself (p. 90).

By the time Constantine had become sole emperor (324), the old plastic language, especially in the east but also to a considerable extent in the west, had largely been jettisoned. Man and nature were reduced to a code which needed to be read. Life had stiffened into impersonality; and people are no longer individuals. But they are not yet entirely abstractions. That final and total spiritualisation was the work of Constantine. From now on the magnified faces of emperors stare immobile, with eyes surrealistically enlarged, into a distant world we cannot see38–just as Constantius II moved not a feature when he proceeded through the streets of Rome(p.71). These heads, built up with a minimum of detail into a system of concentric arches including the arching brows that stress the steady gaze, are cult objects like the colossal statues of Persian monarchs,39 and Christian icons of the future. The effigies of Constantine and his successors were idols animated with divine presence, in contrast to the demons believed to inhabit pagan images.40 The disturbing formulas of Diocletian and Licinius have given way to the unapproachable gravity of this hypnotic gaze into unending space. Such was the ‘divine face’, the ‘sacred countenance’, in which the artist of the Christian epoch saw a mirror reflecting the eternal order.

He, like his master, has not wholly forgotten the tranquil orderliness of the empire of Augustus of which they were both still the heirs.41 But he has only remembered the Augustan portrait in order to recast it in the idiom of a new world. That world, with its assurance of human inadequacy, had erected serene immutability and transcendence into the merits that were praised in emperors.42 But these were also qualities which inevitably brought the specific Roman art of portrait-sculpture to an end. Rulers now only needed a two-dimensional art to express the aims of themselves and their church, and this new artistic style, which had reached its decisive stage under Constantine, remained to inspire the mosaics and other arts of the Byzantine empire.

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