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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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