Roman portraiture is characterized by its alternating cycles of ‘veristic’ and ‘classicizing’ styles, which sought to emphasize realism or idealism respectively. Each imperial dynasty, and at times, even each emperor, exploited the power of the imperial portrait, projecting different political agendas and desires through rejection or imitation of the preferred style of their predecessors. The portraits of Trajan (r. 98–117 A.D.) hark back to the idealising, classicizing portraits of Augustus, with whom Trajan identified his greatness and with whose political, social and military successes he sought to align himself. His portraiture signals a marked contrast from his predecessors, the emperors of the Flavian Dynasty, whose rule was characterized by political turbulence and a return to the veristic portrait style of the Republican period.
This impressive portrait bust depicts Trajan in a military cuirass, joined with two broad shoulder straps, its breast-plate decorated with a gorgoneion (Medusa head) in detailed relief. This emblem traditionally had an apotropaic function, designed to ward off the enemy and bestow divine protection on the wearer. It is most associated with the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, whose aegis was also emblazoned with this image. The emperor exhibits a stern countenance, as expressed in his pursed lips and purposeful stare, befitting a ruler who prided himself on leading his soldiers in combat. The face and head are well modelled with strong cheekbones, the ears expertly cut with gently rounded lobes. Stylistically, the coiffure is typical of the period, with long meandering locks combed downwards, an overt nod to the hairstyle favoured by the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Whilst we can discern a certain naturalism in this portrait, in his more aged appearance (Trajan was forty-fives years old when he became emperor) and expressive features, this bust still maintains something of the classicizing serenity characterized by the ‘ageless’ portraiture of Augustus, reflecting Trajan’s appropriation of Augustan ideals and his successful introduction of an era of stability and prosperity to the empire.
Portraits of Trajan are generally split into four types. The present bust may conform to Trajan’s so-called Decennial type, initiated in 108 AD to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his rule and comparable to contemporary coin portraits. The extension of the bust to the breastbone is also characteristic of Trajanic sculpture. An interesting parallel of the late first/early second century AD is displayed in the Capitoline Museums (MC0276) and a full length statue of the emperor wearing a similar military cuirass is in Ostia Antica Museum (E49899).
Trajan is especially noted for his military prowess, conquering Arabia (modern Jordan), Dacia (Romania), and large areas of the Parthian Persian empire. Under his rule the Roman empire reached its greatest territorial extent. Despite his focus on such serious affairs of the state, Trajan did not neglect his people, at Rome or in the provinces. He was the second of the so-called Five Good Emperors, respected for his social reforms and impressive building programme. He introduced successful welfare measures, including the alimenta, a programme that provided funds, food and subsidised education to poor children; he provided the people with lavish entertainments, including a three-month gladiatorial festival; and he erected various monuments across the provinces. At Rome, he reshaped the city, leaving numerous enduring landmarks, including Trajan’s market, Trajan’s Forum and Trajan’s column, one of the largest and most elaborate commemorative monuments of the time, erected to celebrate the victory over the Dacians. It is perhaps for these reasons that, in AD 113, Trajan was declared optimus princeps (‘the best emperor’) and, by the fourth century, the Senate is said to have announced at the inauguration of new emperors ‘sis felicior Augusto, melior Traiano’ - ‘may you be more fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan’.
Formerly the property of a Foundation.
Private Collection, London and Paris, 1970.