Portrait head of a young woman

2nd century CE
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General Description

Portraiture played a key role in the Roman aristocracy's desires to reinforce its ties to the Imperial household, and it was the primary means to communicate class-consciousness. Depictions of Roman aristocratic women closely relate to those of women in the Imperial House, as portraits of empresses appeared in every city of the Empire through both coins and sculpture. The distinctive coiffure seen here resembles the portraits of female members of the Imperial household in the Late Trajan to Hadrianic period, with a particular resemblance to Matidia the Elder (Hadrian's wife's half-sister) and Sabina, Hadrian's wife.

Portraits of both royal and upper-class women existed largely to complement or promote the interests of their male relatives, usually a husband or son. Because non-royal women of ancient Rome had limited public roles and rights, honorific statues were reserved for either priestesses or wealthy individuals whose donations bought popularity with the people. On the occasion that a royal woman was represented in state relief sculpture, it was to take advantage of "women's" themes such as continuity of dynasty, fertility, reproduction, and the health of the empire. Other advantageous approaches to female portraiture communicated values such as modesty, virtue, or domesticity as it related to the goals of a male family member. These themes are most famously expressed on the south frieze relief of the Ara Pacis (9 BCE) in Rome, where as the supreme example of a Roman woman, Livia (wife of Augustus) and her sons follow in procession a few steps behind the emperor. Depicted wrapped in a garment of domesticity and modesty similar to the Dallas Museum of Art's full-size Roman figure of a woman [1973.11], Livia was revered for the remainder of the Roman Empire, and her example influenced Roman portraits of women for hundreds of years.

While Roman women were forbidden from wearing jewelry in public, their hairstyles were not subject to the same restrictions, as evidenced by portraits that reflect a abundance of varied and extravagant coiffures. In this portrait, four braids beginning at the back of the head are wound around the domed crown forming a turban-like wreath. Soft waves of hair frame the face, and the central part approximates the hairstyle worn by Greek goddesses and also favorable empresses like Livia. The creation of such hairstyles was difficult and tedious; ancient sources recount the numerous hairdressers involved, and of hairpieces with permanent curls that could be removed and reattached. This young woman's short neck broadens at the base, and the underside is sculpted to allow insertion into a statue, a common practice at the time.

In the case of the Dallas Museum of Art's Roman portrait head of a young woman, the father, or perhaps the proud husband of this young lady may have commissioned a likeness for presentation purposes, underscoring his desire to communicate continuity of dynasty and the virtues of family life. Despite the variety of elaborate hairstyles and physiognomic likenesses, the underlying purpose of Roman portraits of women was essentially the same: to align with the favorable imperial families, and reinforce the various social and political aims of male family members.

Heather Bowling, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2018.

Drawn from

  • Diana E.E. Kleiner, "Now You See The, Now You Don't: The Presence and Absence of Women in Roman Art" in From Caligula to Constantine: Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture, Eric R. Varner, ed., Exhibition catalogue. Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2000.

  • Diana E.E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1994.

  • Paul Zanker, Roman Portraits: Sculptures in Stone and Bronze, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 2016.

Web Resources

  • Kahn Academy
    Read more about familial scenes on the Ara Pacis.

  • Musei Capitolini
    Compare this portrait to Emperor Hadrian's mother-in-law, Matidia the Elder.

  • Musei Capitolini
    Compare this portrait to the relief sculpture of the Apotheosis of the Empress Sabina, Hadrian's wife, on the Arco di Portogallo.