In Focus: Head of Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus
By Gail S. Myhre
Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus
Roman, ca. 14 A.D.
The Michael C. Carlos Museum, Atlanta
© Michael C. Carlos Museum
One of the finest examples of Roman portrait sculpture in existence, this famous bust of the Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C.-37 A.D., Emperor 14-37 A.D.) resides in the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
The bust itself was taken from a larger than life size statue, and is nicely illustrative of the uses of Roman art in promoting the political agendas of the rich and powerful. A statue of this size would have been set up in a public place, such as a bath or gymnasium, in much the same way public gathering places today display the American flag – as a symbol and reminder of loyalty and patriotism, and as a point of identification for Tiberius' subjects. The back of the head of this particular statue, made separately, may have included a veil, identifying the Emperor as pontifus maximus or chief priest.
Romans in general, and Roman public figures in particular, made use of the portrait bust as a sort of publicity or advertisement, communicating through them specific virtues or ideologies which the subject was supposed to have embodied. None understood this visual communication better than the Julio-Claudian emperors, particularly Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.D., Emperor 27 B.C.-14 A.D.), under whose influence the style of portrait bust began to turn away from what is called the veristic style, which had flourished in the Republican era and which emphasized its subjects' every wrinkle and flaw, and towards a more aesthetically idealized Hellenistic form known as classicizing.
In the case of Tiberius, he deliberately adopted Augustan forms of portraiture as being those which promoted him most directly as the legitimate heir not only to the empire but to the entire classical Greek tradition which Augustus had preferred and promulgated during his reign. We see this idealization continuing and being expanded upon throughout the Imperial period, coming to its apogee with the famous colossal head of Constantine (272-337 A.D., Emperor 306-337 A.D.) which now stands at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
It happens that we have a contemporary physical description of Tiberius written by Suetonius (69 A.D.-after 130 A.D.) in De Vita Caesarum (The Twelve Caesars); this description is quoted in the captioning of the bust in the Carlos Museum:
Tiberius was strongly and heavily built, and above average height. His shoulders and chest were broad, and his body perfectly proportioned from top to toe. His left hand was more agile than his right, and so strong that he could poke a finger through a sound, newly-plucked apple or into the skull of a boy or young man. He had a handsome, fresh-complexioned face, though subject to occasional rashes of pimples. The letting his back hair grow down over the nape seems to have been a family habit of the Claudii. Tiberius' eyes were remarkably large and possessed the unusual power of seeing at night and in the dark, when he first opened them after sleep; but this phenomenon disappeared after a minute or two. His gait was a stiff stride, with the neck poked forward, and if ever he broke his usual stern silence to address those walking with him, he spoke with great deliberation and eloquent movements of the fingers.This description provides an excellent context to the piece as displayed, and lends a certain connection with this calm, idealized image in marble.
From your Guide: Gail S. Myhre, Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in Roman art and history who also appreciates a wide variety of Modernist movements. You may read all of her Special Exhibition Reviews here.