Portrait head of Julius Caesar
The adopted son of Julius Caesar, Augustus (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.) became the first emperor of Rome in 27 B.C., founding the Julio-Claudia dynasty. Many portraits of Augustus were erected throughout the empire in order to convey his political and social beliefs and to validate his claim to power. To distinguish his rule from that of the earlier Roman Republican period, when gravitas (seriousness) and age were emphasized in portraits, Augustus was always depicted as youthful, as in this marble head. A distinctive hairstyle identifies the emperor: comma-shaped locks form a pincer in the center of his forehead.
Private portrait sculpture was most closely associated with funerary contexts. Funerary altars and tomb structures were adorned with portrait reliefs of the deceased along with short inspiration noting their family or patrons, and portrait busts accompanied cinerary urns that were deposited in the niches of large, communal tombs known as columbaria. This funerary context for portrait sculpture was rooted in the longstanding tradition of the display of wax portrait masks, called imagines, in funeral processions of the upper classes to commemorate their distinguished ancestry. These masks, portraits of noted ancestors who had held public office or been awarded special honors, were proudly housed in the household lararium, or family shrine, along with busts made of bronze , marble , or terracotta. In displaying these portraits so prominently in the public sphere, aristocratic families were able to celebrate their history of public service while honoring their deceased relatives.
In the Republic, public sculpture included honorific portrait statues of political officials or military commanders erected by the order of their peers in the Senate. These statues were typically erected to celebrate a noted military achievement, usually in connection with an official triumph, or to commemorate some worthy political achievement, such as the drafting of a treaty. A dedicatory inscription, called a cursus honorum, detailed the subject’s honors and life achievements, as well as his lineage and notable ancestors. These inscriptions typically accompanied public portraits and were a uniquely Roman feature of commemoration