Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A comparison of the “Bust of Commodus as Hercules” and the “Portrait Head of Caracalla

The two portraitures, done during the ancient Roman times, promote two types of propagandistic statements and show the values and characteristics that each Emperor wanted to be associated during their separate rules.  One uses youth and an association with the divine as his right to rule, and the other uses the artistic medium to create a face that creates a powerful stare that conveys strength and seriousness.

The stylization of the facial features, the regalia associated with an iconic hero, and the style of the hair and beard, show two very different statements that the busts are trying to make. Commodus was an Emperor of Rome who ruled in 180-192 CE, and liked to represent himself as Hercules.  According to historians, he claimed that he was a reincarnation of Hercules, a legendary hero from Greek mythology, and an incarnation of the Roman god Jupiter.  By creating this association with Hercules through this bust, he wants people to associate him with godliness and strength.  The association with the gods also infers a divine right to rule as well. 

His idealized likeness is represented in the face, which portrays a young man in his prime, wearing and holding the imagery associated with Hercules, the lion head, the club, and the golden apple of Hesperides.  The idealization can be seen in the face and the upper part of the body that can be seen.  The face is without wrinkles or lines of age, and his beard and hair are represented in very detailed tight curls that were drilled.  The shoulders and arms convey a strong muscular body, every muscle is very well defined and show no scars or flaws.  The arms are balance, one bent back holding a club, which draws the eye back to the face, and the other arm is open and reaching away from the body holding an apple.  The perfect body and the balanced arms is a reflection back to the ancient Greek style of idealism.  So, he is also forming an association with the Greek art, which was much revered by the ancient Romans.

The “Portrait head of Caracalla”, makes a very different statement and promotes a view of very different characteristics from the Hercules bust.  The marble head shows a very stern and serious face, which was considered a Roman virtue for males during the time of the Republic rule, and conveyed a strength of character.  There are also lines that can be seen between the brows, the forehead, and around the mouth.  The lines help to show a man who is no longer in his youth, and according to some of the ancient Romans, gave an appearance of a man who has lived life well and “confers a sense of wisdom and purpose”.  The lines on the face and the very forward penetrating stare from the eyes, show a sternness and rigidity and a strong sense of will, a “no-nonsense ruler of iron-fisted determination” (Stokstad 2011).  The deep penetrating eyes also command the viewer’s attention and demand respect while giving the feeling of leadership.  The penetrating stare is emphasized by the artist’s use of deep shadowing under the eyebrows that contrasts with the whiteness of the forehead.  Unlike Commodus who, through his vanity, tries to get respect as a leader by associating himself with the gods and the son of a god and his association with Greek stylization, Caracalla instead demands leadership simply through the power of his stare. 

Another large differences between the two works of art is the hair.  While Commodus’s hair might represent the fashion of the times, Caracalla’s short hair and short, almost shaved, beard show his strong military association and the growing importance of the military with Roman rule.

The differences between the “Bust of Commodus as Hercules” and the “Portrait Head of Caracalla” show different ways that the rulers wanted to represent themselves to the public and their audience.  Commodus wanted to associate himself with gods and Greek heroes, and show his divine right to rule.  He also wanted to convey strength and youthfulness.  Caracalla, instead uses deep penetrating stare and the lines on the face to convey a strength of will and character, a courageous and no-nonsense ruler through the power of his gaze.  His bust also conveys a man who has aged and thus gained wisdom and knowledge.  Both works of art show idealized representation of those characteristics.  One is the idealized perfect body and the sign of youth, and the other is the idealization of a strict and powerful ruler.  


  1. Nice thoughts. I like that you picked up on the balanced composition of Commodus' portrait. That counter-balance definitely ties into idealism and harmony.

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. Very good comparison of the two portraits! I liked how you talked about how Commodus liked to represent himself as Hercules and that’s why you see the Greek-like classical features of the body. Also how the “power of Caracalla’s stare” demands respect, I hadn’t thought to mention that in my blog post, but thought it very supportive in your description of propaganda. Thanks!

  3. The idea of Commodus almost persuading the audience of his leadership or strength by associating himself with the gods and Greek heroes versus Caracalla simply demanding leadership and respect by his intense gaze are two very interesting ways to view these sculptures! It certainly fits into the portrayal seen in the sculptures. Thinking of Commodus adorning himself with decoration while Caracalla just has himself and expression; almost like a boy and a man, kind of gives that sense of leadership expression. Since Commodus' sculpture looks like Classic Greek and heroic body/youth appearance reminiscent of a boy and Caracalla has that aged/matured and flawed appearance reminiscent of a man.

  4. I love your wordage. You did a great job of giving precise details of the busts and the meanings behind the things in the sculptures.