Head of Hadrian
Ca. 117—120 CE.
Cedar Rapids (USA), Museum of Art

Head of Hadrian.

Ca. 117—120 CE.

Cedar Rapids (USA), Museum of Art.

Private collection.
Formerly in an English private collection.
This over-life-size head shows a mature, robust man with long curly hair, short beard and moustache. The treatment of the base of this bust suggests that it was intended to be inserted into a separately sculpted body, a common Roman practice especially for imperial portraits. The perfunctory treatment of the back of the head contrasted with the careful rendering of hair under the chin strongly suggests that the original setting for the statue was high above the viewer. The large scale, although not an exclusive imperial prerogative, suggests that this may be a portrait of an emperor.

There is a more obvious clue to the identification: the physical appearance of this man. He looks like the emperor Hadrian who ruled Rome from A.D. 117 to 138. The most distinctive attribute is his beard. Hadrian was the first Roman emperor to wear a full beard and moustache. One of the few literary descriptions of his appearance provides a possible explanation: “He was tall of stature and elegant in appearance; his hair was curled on a comb, and he wore a full beard to cover up the natural blemishes on his face; and he was very strongly built”.1 Another reason for this fashion may have been the obvious connotation beards had with the Greek world. As mentioned in the Introduction, Hadrian was the most hellenized Roman emperor. Some sources suggest that his Greek was better than his Latin. From very early times, Greek men almost always wore full beards (cf. figs. 3, 6—9; cat. 9) but Romans were clean-shaven (cf.figs. 1—2, 14; cats. 11—14, 20). Hadrian may have worn a beard not only for cosmetic reasons but also to establish an association with Greece, especially Greek intellectuals. Roman emperors, as well as ordinary men, followed this fashion in the years after Hadrian’s accession (cats. 23—25, 29, 31,35—36).

Approximately 150 portraits of Hadrian survive. Augustus is the only Roman emperor whose extant portraits outnumber those of Hadrian, although Hadrian ruled less than half as long. Max Wegner, the German specialist on Roman portraiture, has divided the extant corpus of Hadrian portraits into six basic types.2 There are many variants within each type and, of course, not all scholars accept Wegner’s classification nor his methodology. Space precludes a thorough discussion here of all the details which find parallels in Wegner’s types. Suffice it to say that the Riley head is closest to Wegner’s Type V. This group of portraits appears to represent Hadrian shortly after his accession to the throne when he was in his early forties. The particular treatment of the hair and beard (shorter than usual), the close set eyes and the heaviness of the jowl find close parallels on a Hadrian in Fossombrone.3

It is possible that the short beard indicates that Hadrian is in mourning. Roman men who were normally clean-shaven let their beards grow as a sign of mourning; those, like Hadrian, who wore beards, cut them short.4 The Riley head may be an official portrait representing Hadrian in mourning for his adoptive father Trajan, emperor from A.D. 98 to 117. This would corroborate the early date proposed here.


1 SHA, Hadrian 26.1-2.

2 Wegner, Hadrian, Plotina, Marciana, Matidia, Sabina [Das römische Herrscherbild II, 3] (Berlin 1956). See also the review by J. M. C. Toynbee in Gnomon 30 (1958)13741. For
addenda, see M. Wegner, “Verzeichnis der Bildnisse von Hadrian und Sabina”, Boreas 7 (1984) 105—56.

3 Museo Civico Inv. 70: FZ I, pl. 37a-d. For a related but more idealized version, see A. Stavridis, “Römische Porträts im Archäologischen Museum von Chania”, Boreas 8 (1985) 105, pl. 15 (Chania Museum Inv. 82). See also Cyrene Museum Inv. C 17017: E. Rosenbaum, Cyrenaican Portrait Sculpture (London 1960) no. 35, pl. 28.

4 Suetonius mentions this custom in his biographies of Caesar (67), Augustus (23) and Caligula (6). For a Hadrian portrait believed to be in mourning for the death of Antinous, see J. Bracker, Römer
am Rhein
(Cologne 1967) 140, no. A15, pl. 24.

© 1997. Photo, text: http://www.vroma.org/~riley/
© 1997. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, The Tom and Nan Riley Collection.
© 1988. Photo: C. Randall Tosh / The University of Iowa Museum of Art.
© 1988. Description: Richard Daniel De Puma. Roman Portraits. Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa, 1988.
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