Roman Portraiture

A huge aspect of Roman art was portraiture and may have stemmed both from the Republican funerary masks, created for the dead elite and hung in their houses, and the Roman desire to be remembered.

Portrait of family of Septimius Severus - Altes Museum - Berlin - Germany 2017.jpg
Portrait of family of Septimius Severus. Altes Museum, Berlin.

Republican Period

Roman Republican portraiture is characterized by verism influenced by Hellenistic portraiture, and survives mainly as marble and bronze sculpture. Roman portrait busts are thought to derive in part from death masks or funerary commemorations, as elite Romans displayed ancestral images in the atrium of their home.

The bronze bust of L. Junius Brutus, late 4th – early 3rd c. BC. Capitoline Museum.

Portraiture in Republican Rome was a way of establishing societal legitimacy and achieving status through one’s family and background. Exploits wrought by one’s ancestors earned them and their families public approbation, and more; a pompous state funeral paid for by the state. Wax masks would be cast from the family member while they were still living, which made for hyper-realistic visual representations of the individual. These masks would be kept in the houses of male descendants in memory of the ancestors once they had passed. These masks served as a sort of family track record, and could get the descendants positions and perks.

Imperial Period

With the establishment of the principate system under Augustus, the imperial family and its circle soon came to monopolize official public statuary.

Augustus of Prima Porta.

Official imperial portraits were carefully designed to project specific ideas about the emperor, his family, and his authority. These sculptures were extremely useful as propaganda tools intended to support the legitimacy of the emperor’s powers and so took a step away from Republican verism and became idealised portraits.


The excavations of Pompeii unearthed Roman fresco portraiture of those who lived in the city before its destruction.

Terentius Neo and his wife. House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii.

Fayum Mummy Portraits

These are a type of naturalistic painted portrait, which covered the faces of bodies that were mummified for burial, on wooden boards attached to upper class mummies from Roman Egypt.

A young woman, 3rd c. AD. Louvre.

About 900 mummy portraits are known at present. The majority were found in the necropolis of Fayum. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are frequently very well preserved, often retaining their brilliant colours seemingly unfaded by time.

Funerary Portraits

While the Roman elite commemorated themselves with busts and statues, the lower classes, especially freedmen and soldiers, captured their likenesses on their own funerary monuments.

The Grave relief of Publius Aiedius and Aiedia, 30 BC, Pergamon Museum, Berlin. (c) Anagoria

For Portraits on glass, see Roman Glass.

Back to Roman Art