Marble bust of the emperor Hadrian wearing military dress

From Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Lazio, Italy
AD 117-118

This portrait bust was found at the Villa Adriana, the Roman emperor Hadrian’s magnificent country residence near Tivoli, outside Rome.

In ancient Rome, the dedication of public statues was governed by rules concerning location, material and iconography. This was even more important when it concerned imperial images. Official portraits were an extremely important way for Roman emperors to reach out to their subjects and their public image was defined by them.

There are hundreds of surviving imperial statues, which show us that there were only three ways in which the emperor could officially be represented: in the battle dress of a general; in a toga, the Roman state civilian costume; or nude, likened to a god. These formats powerfully and effectively evoked the emperor’s role as commander-in-chief, magistrate or priest, and finally as the ultimate embodiment of divine providence.

We know from ancient literary sources that Hadrian was particularly keen to project a strong military image and in this bust we see Hadrian presented as the commander-in-chief.

Sculpted portraits of Hadrian show a remarkably naturalistic detail – a deep, diagonal crease in both earlobes. We now know there is a strong link between these creases and coronary artery disease. They are caused by the collapse of blood vessels in the earlobe, one of the early symptoms of the disease. It is impossible to say if Hadrian suffered from this illness, but the existence of such a life-like element in his portraits brings a strong sense of naturalism to them.

www.britishmuseum.org

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