Ancient marble portraits usually appear white, but there is more diversity here than meets the eye. One portrait in the Altes Museum can help us talk about diversity in both antiquity and today, writes archaeologist and museums.love founder Stephanie Pearson.
Text: Stephanie Pearson
At first glance, ancient Roman portraits can appear fairly colorless. White marble was the medium of choice for many sculptures, especially those that are still preserved today (bronze statues survive much less often). An array of white marble heads can give the impression that the portrait subjects themselves were uniformly deathly pale. But looking closer reveals that the portraits were originally painted – and that their original colors would have brought a diversity into the portrait gallery that now seems to be missing. Indeed, diversity characterized ancient Rome to a much greater extent than is usually discussed. In the twenty-first century, research and education actively addressing diversity is beginning to correct this picture – but there is much yet to be done.
Museums can help by highlighting diversity in their collections. One portrait in the Altes Museum offers a starting point. This powerful likeness, slightly over life size, is carved in the usual white marble. While the marble is discolored to a light brown in some places, traces of paint are not visible to the naked eye (although scientific investigation might reveal more). The find spot of the portrait in Loukou, Greece, has prompted some scholars to propose that the portrait came from the villa of Herodes Atticus, an influential Roman man, and thus that the portrait depicts one of Herodes’ adopted sons. Herodes’ son Memnon is called an “Ethiopian” in the ancient texts, which scholars in the early twentieth century connected with this portrait based on the facial features.
But in actuality the depicted man’s identity, and his connection to Africa, is unknown. Rather, this identification is typical of scholarship at the time, in which facial typologies were being developed and organized into categories called “races.” The fallacies and catastrophic consequences of these methods were the subject of an exhibition in Dresden’s Hygiene-Museum in 2018. The desire to link the discovered portrait to a named historical person is as understandable as it is common, but to do so based only on perceived facial features actually shows, more than anything else, that the number of Roman portraits thought to depict an African person is as small as the number of ancient textual references to African people identified by name. Both are extremely rare.
Yet these small numbers reflect the shortcomings of our own modern categories, more than they reflect the reality of ancient Roman people. For parts of the African continent belonged to the Roman Empire, so African Romans actually numbered in the millions. The emperor Septimius Severus came from the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, from the area now called Libya. The portrait of this emperor in the Altes Museum, painted in tempera on wood, gives some idea of the colors that may have been used on the now-colorless marble portraits.
At the end of the day, the stunning marble portrait traditionally called “Memnon” raises more questions than we can answer right now. That is the best motivation to increase our research and education in this direction, not only to expose our own methods and prejudices, but to learn more about how diversity has played a part in different societies across time. Our own society can only benefit from addressing these topics in an active and concerted way, and museums are an excellent place to do so.
As the founder of museums.love, Stephanie Pearson is currently producing a series of videos about diversity in ancient art and modern museums. You can watch the first one here: