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The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 B.C.–A.D. 300

The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 B.C.–A.D. 300

By Christopher H. Hallett. Pp. xxi + 391, figs. 12, pls. 160. Oxford University Press, New York 2005. $150. ISBN 0-19-924049-3 (cloth).

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Hallett’s study provides a rich cultural framework for the interpretation and reception of heroic portraits. Hallett not only explores how ancient Romans approached and manipulated nude and seminude likenesses but also probes modern responses to these images, which often dismiss them as aesthetically jarring or even as kitsch. Like Stewart’s Statues in Roman Society (Oxford 2004), Hallett’s study eschews more traditional typological approaches in favor of a broadly synthetic investigation that underscores the powerful artistic and social impact of these images.

Hallett mainly focuses on nude or partially nude male portraits, and he locates the origins of the practice within Greek art of the Classical and Hellenistic periods in his first two chapters (“The Greek Background” and “The Nude Portrait in Greek Art”). Following Larissa Bonfante, Hallett characterizes nudity as a costume. Nudity, “one of the most important markers of Hellenic culture,” (8) has heroic, ideal, and agonal aspects, and, in the visual arts, can confer a kind of epic status after 460 B.C.E. Hallett parses the various kinds of nude portrait costumes that appear in funerary reliefs, statues, and other honorific monuments to include the “nude athletic costume” and “nude with weapons,” which he subdivides into hunters and warriors. Nude representations can include a chlamys bunched over the left shoulder and wrapped around the left arm, in standard compositional types, like the Richelieu Hermes or the Farnese Hermes. Subsequently, nude costumes are adapted for representations of Hellenistic rulers through the addition of attributes, including the purple chlamys introduced by the Macedonians, and also through adjustments to pose, as in the Naples Horned Ruler (likely Demetrios Poliorcetes). Other compositions can be entirely nude, such as the Terme ruler, although scholarly consensus is rightly coalescing that this bronze is a Roman portrait. Ultimately, the Greek “portraits” remain highly idealized and thus fully consonant with their nude bodies, which sharply distinguishes them from their Roman counterparts.

In chapter 3 (“Attitudes Towards Nudity at Rome”), Hallett documents evolving reactions to physical nudity in wide-ranging literary sources, from Ennius, Cato, and Cicero to Martial and Tacitus. Initially uncomfortable with most forms of public nudity, by the Neronian period, Romans viewed the phenomenon as unremarkable, at least at the baths. Attitudes toward nudity in art, however, clearly did not coincide with Latin authors’ consistent condemnation of public physical nudity. By the Late Republican period, nudity was fairly ubiquitous in sculpture, painting, and gems. Octavian was honored with nude images in a wide array of media, including a gilded bronze portrait in the Forum celebrating his victory over Sextus Pompey at Naulochus, yet he forbade women’s attendance at victory games in honor of Actium, likely as a result of the athletes’ nudity.

Hallett maintains that the earliest nude portraits of Romans, beginning in the second century B.C.E., essentially adopted established Greek forms and practices (ch. 4, “The Roman Adoption of the Nude Portrait”). Surviving sculpted representations, however, suggest that the Romans adapted and reformulated Greek models to create a dramatically new and semantically charged mode of self-representation. Although discussions about fully nude portraits and those with mantle draped around the hips have traditionally been divorced, Hallett perceptively presents them as closely interrelated and sees the hip-mantle portrait as an “adjustment” of the fully nude portrait. By the Late Republican period, however, the hip-mantle costume is not as generically heroic as Hallett makes out, since it was employed in a well-known standing Jupiter composition (as seen in a second-century C.E. version in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. no. 80641). It is precisely this compositional type to which the Tivoli general refers, and visually literate viewers would have recognized the carefully calibrated equation of the victorious general with Jupiter—precisely the equation that was made manifest during triumphal processions. The Tivoli statue does not simply adopt Greek heroic portrait conventions but conjoins its ideal Jupiter body with a realistically rendered head whose emphatic signs of aging convey abstract concepts such as gravitas, auctoritas, severitas, and dignitas. The resulting agglomerative image speaks in a nuanced Roman idiom quite distinct from its Greek predecessors.

Chapter 5 (“The Nude Portrait Under the Empire”) attempts to answer the question, Why were a large number of Romans, including the emperor, depicted nude rather than in contemporary clothing? In Roman portrait statues and busts, individual identity lies exclusively in the head. The bodies themselves are never intended as likenesses reflecting the somatic or sartorial realities of the sitter, but, as Hallett acknowledges, they are highly artificial “costumes” (or props) intended to enrich the image with additional iconographical information.

At the beginning of his principate, Augustus renounced fully nude representations in favor of togate, cuirassed, and equestrian portraits. Images of later emperors continued to employ the hip mantle, often in standing or enthroned Jupiter compositions reflecting the cult image of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus. Indeed, Hallett underscores that the enthroned portrait of the ruler is a Roman innovation and has no specific connections to consecratio, as three enthroned portraits of Tiberius are extant. Most surviving statues that use the standing Jupiter composition depict Augustus or Claudius, although it is used at least once by Domitian in a statue subsequently refashioned as Nerva (Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, inv. no. 1454) and later in the third century for pendant statues of Balbinus and Pupienus from Piraeus. Although the Jupiter compositions were exclusive to emperors, nude representations in statues, busts, reliefs, and sarcophagi were produced for elite and nonelite patrons. Nude bust forms were used extensively for men but only rarely for women (i.e., Antistia Plutia in a relief in the British Museum, or Oppia Myrsine in a relief in the Palazzo Altemps). Nude statues of women, mostly in the guise of Venus, were produced in vastly fewer numbers (16 vs. 320, by Hallett’s count). The nude female portrait was largely limited to Italy and thus another Roman innovation without Greek precedent.

Chapter 6 (“Nudity and Divine Symbols”) makes important contributions to the ongoing debates surrounding theomorphic images and the emperor cult. Hallett persuasively argues that depictions of emperors with divine attributes are visually distinct from representations of divi. Coins almost always represent divi as togate and veiled, which Hallett has cleverly described as the “divus costume.” Portraits of Divus Augustus can also add a radiate crown, as in the Grand Camée de France or a head in Venice (Museo Archeologico, inv. no. 200). Theomorphic images of emperors, empresses, and other members of the imperial family are fluid and not intended to literally incarnate divinity but rather to function as “panegyrical comparisons” that deliberately blur the boundaries between human and divine. The frequency of theomorphic images begins to increase under Caligula, as there are several of his marble portraits using the standing and seated Jupiter habitus that have been recut into likenesses of Augustus or Claudius. The colossal seated statue of Constantine from the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine constitutes the last surviving imperial image to employ a divine habitus at Rome. This portrait, however, has a long history, as it initially depicted Hadrian and was then reconfigured as Maxentius before its final reworking into Constantine. Its incorrectly restored right index finger should be curved like the others to hold the scepter of the enthroned Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus composition. The semiotic flexibility of theomorphic images ensured their adoption by a wide swath of Roman society, and in funerary art it blurred the distinctions between mortal and immortal, “providing a form of eulogy for the dead” rather than private apotheosis as Henning Wrede and others have proposed.

Hallett’s final chapter (“Understanding the Roman Nude”) returns to fundamental questions posed at the outset concerning Romans’ own conceptions of likeness and modern readings of nude portraits as disconcerting and incongruous. While current Romanist scholarship (firmly rooted in contextualization) is unlikely to yield disparaging comments on theomorphic images of Commodus as Hercules or Claudius as Jupiter, like those of Sir Mortimer Wheeler (or more recently Neils Hannestad and the Ramages), Hallett probes the modern sensibilities engendering such responses. Clearly the negative receptions of images of “bad” emperors like Commodus are informed by hostile readings of ancient authors. According to Hallett, 20th- and 21st-century attitudes toward totalitarianism and propagandistic art fuel the feelings of unease that modern viewers can evince for the stark hybridity of Roman nude images. In addition, class prejudice may also influence the dismissal of many nude statues of freedman as the questionable artistic choices of the newly rich. Roman audiences, however, were clearly able to accept these images without difficulty. Ultimately, Roman nude portraits exploited their own hybrid aesthetic to its fullest communicative potential.

Hallet concludes with 13 appendices that range from brief discussions of the paludamentum, the toga picta, and scale armor to specific portraits and previous scholarship on the Roman nude. Appendix B is essentially a list of the 342 nude or seminude portraits known to Hallett, subdivided both chronologically and typologically. While the appendices provide a wealth of learned information and interpretation, more could have been directly incorporated into his notes, and Appendix B would have been more helpful as a proper catalogue. These are minor criticisms, however, and Hallett’s book is an extremely useful volume of fundamental importance to Roman studies broadly, both for the careful scrutiny of its subject matter and for the larger issues of Roman portraiture that it deftly engages.

Eric R. Varner
Departments of Art History and Classics
Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia 30322

Book Review of The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 B.C.–A.D. 300, by Christopher H. Hallett

Reviewed by Eric R. Varner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 1 (January 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1131.Varner

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