Looking at Art

A Roman Emperor’s Tough Guy Image

The Met’s portrait of Caracalla is a consummate example of art as propaganda

A marble head of Caracalla, made at the end of his life or shortly after his death, in A.D. 217, shows the emperor as a rough-and-ready soldier.


The George Bush action doll made its debut in September, with the president clad in a flight suit, to commemorate his landing on an aircraft carrier off San Diego last spring. This particular genre of portraiture may seem infelicitous to some, but the tradition of heralding civic leaders as military heroes reaches back to antiquity. No artists were more accomplished at this than Roman portrait sculptors, who at times risked their lives to capture the likeness of a ruler who wanted to burnish his claim to the imperial throne.

Born in A.D. 188, Caracalla was a rough-and-ready soldier, son of the Libyan-bornemperor Septimius Severus. His father’s portraits retain the beard and long curls of a contemplative philosopher-emperor, a fashion introduced by the Antonine dynasty in the 180s, but Caracalla’s violent assumption of the throne in 211 was heralded with portraits showing the usurper with close-cropped hair, ready for a helmet at a moment’s notice, and an unfussy stubble beard. These two differences mark a formal break with the last generation of portraiture. Caracalla’s new look was an overnight success and dominated Roman art for a century, until the emperor Constantine (A.D. 312–325) allowed his hair to grow out a bit in a mop top, recalling portraits of the emperor Trajan and his golden age (A.D. 98–117).

This marble head of Caracalla was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1940, along with fragments of the statue from which it was broken. Caracalla adopts his customary sharp turn of the head, as if signaling vigilance for assassination attempts or military provocations. Recalling a physiognomic trope of the Roman Republic, he wears a scowl, suggesting this time not the sober dedication to matters of state but an impatient, indomitable spirit. When the features were highlighted with paint—as the hair, eyes, and lips likely were—his expression would have seemed even more immediate.

After his murder in 217, Caracalla was deified by his successor, Macrinus, in a cynical move to establish his own credentials. Intentional defacement might nonetheless have led to the damages inflicted on this particular sculpture, which likely dates from the end of Caracalla’s life or shortly after his death. Because this ranks as one of the finest surviving examples of his portraits, it may well have been prominently displayed in public—perhaps in a temple or an official building. It is fully carved in back, suggesting that it was shown in the round. Caracalla is often depicted in a military cape, with a clasp at the shoulder, so this statue would have been a dramatic monument in any public setting.

Modern-day campaign commercials seek to portray politicians in a variety of lights. A solitary sculpture can register only one point of view, and in this case, the subject is seen as an accomplished soldier, watching over the borders of a restless empire, perhaps less self-assured than determined to prevail. While the formula is repeated in dozens of surviving examples—in portraits in the round, reliefs, bronzes, gems, coins, and other media—this one stands out as among the most virtuosic in the sure quality of the carving. The psychology of this tormented man—in our mind’s eye, we overlay the humorless grimaces of warriors throughout human history—is at once open to us and impenetrable. To a Roman of Caracalla’s time, the image would have been as intimidating as Uncle Joe’s statuary in 1930s Russia and probably the object of as much distrust.

To a modern viewer, the potency of masterful political art gains in stature as its particular circumstances fade. Upon Caracalla’s death, the Roman Empire teetered on self-destruction, and the tough-guy image he projected is all the more poignant because we know the ultimate fate of this civilization. While the engine of state would eventually grind to a halt after ceaseless assaults from without, the visual vernacular of ancient Roman portraits lives on as powerfully as ever—emulated in everything from televised images of leaders taking heroic poses during times of strife to plastic dolls.

Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a Leadership Fellow at the Yale School of Management and is currently at work on a book titled The Quality Instinct, an exploration of how some people find their way to becoming connoisseurs.

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