Emperor Domitian Research Paper

Pages: 5 (1561 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Drama - World

Emperor Domitian Bust

The Portrait of Emperor Domitian

In the East Wing of the Toledo Museum of Art is Gallery 2, also known as Classic Court. This section of the museum houses its art and artifacts from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. It is in Classic Court that one finds a striking Roman bust, damaged but still powerful in its clean lines and strong gaze: the portrait of the Emperor Domitian (acquisition number 1990.30). Produced by an unknown artist circa 90 AD (TMA Greatest Hits 2), the bust appears to epitomize calmness and distinction; only after coming to know the character of its subject does one begin to see in the lines of the stone face the egotism and depravity of the infamous emperor.

Portraiture was an important genre in Roman art, especially during the imperial period. It had its roots in the tradition of creating wax death masks to be kept by family members as mementos of their ancestors. This practice was constrained by law to patrician families, who would keep the wax portraits in a place of prominence in the atria of their villas. These ancestral portraits would be carried by the head of the family during funerary processions to remind the public of the family's deeply rooted prestige. (Honour and Fleming 200)

During the height of the Republic and the beginning of the imperial period in Rome, the patrician tradition of family bust combined with the Hellenistic influence of formal sculpture to create the Roman genre of the political portrait. These portraits, though sometimes full-length, were more often busts, portraying the subject from the mid-torso or shoulders up. Unlike their wax predecessors, these portraits were almost invariably sculpted from marble, ensuring their longevity. Portraits from the Republic were strikingly true to life, carrying forward the tradition from funerary masks of incorporating even the smallest wrinkles and blemishes to preserve the true likeness of the subject. However, as the egalitarian principles of the Republic slipped away and the dictatorial characteristics of the imperial age emerged, it became less important to capture the true likeness of political leaders and more important to convey certain meanings and implications through the likenesses. The realism of political portraits was replaced by images of emperors as god-like and eternally youthful (Kleiner 181).

The crafting of this image was crucial as the borders of the empire expanded. Imperial portraits were sent to every major outpost in the Roman Empire to remind the newly colonized inhabitants of the power and presence of the emperor. To achieve the impact needed in these statues, master sculptors manipulated their materials and incorporated broader elements into the likenesses. For instance, the scope of the bust was often lengthened to allow garments and part of the torso to be visible. This gave the sculptor the ability to convey presence and attitude through the dynamic sweep of clothing, the set of the shoulders, or the turn of the head (Honour and Fleming 201). The artist would also occasionally incorporate imperial symbols, such as the laurel wreath present on many of the busts and statues of Caesar Augustus.

By the time that Domitian took the Roman imperial throne in 81 AD, the Roman Empire was expanding into new territories rapidly, and the governance of the empire was often subject to scandal, violence, and intrigue. Domitian himself is said to have come to power by having his brother Titus murdered (Chilver 1). He had been denied access to military glory in his youth because he was the second and less favored son; therefore he seized upon his new authority as emperor to carry out a broad-scale conquest of northern Europe (Jones 16). Every victory expanded his power, and created a need to impose his imperial persona onto the vanquished territory by installing arches, sculptures, and imperial portraits in public areas.

While Domitian was a highly effective ruler, strengthening the military, organizing the empire's financial structure, and insisting on consistent enforcement of the law, he also had a reputation for arrogance, coldness, and cruelty. After a childhood of suffering as a second son while his older brother Titus received their father's undivided attention, Domitian developed an enormous ego when he finally became emperor. He insisted that he be called "dominus et deus," or "lord and God" (Chilver 1). He was intensely paranoid, and is reputed to have assassinated dozens of his perceived enemies (Jones 23). To punish a Vestal Virgin who had committed immoral acts, he walled her up into a cell alive. He was universally feared by the public and despised by the Senate, whom he had openly ignored and disrespected since the beginning of his reign. Only his army remained loyal, mostly because Domitian had wisely increased their salaries by a third (Chilver 1). Such was the hatred he inspired in others that when he was assassinated September 1, 96, the murderers had the full support of his inner circle -- even his wife (Jones 193).

The enmity that Domitian harbored towards the Senate did not serve him well in death, and is the reason why so few images of Domitian remain today. The Senate had the power to call for a damnatio memoriae, or "eradication of memory," for a dead emperor. This involved striking his name from all documents and monuments and destroying all likenesses of the offending emperor, effectively eradicating any remaining vestiges of his rule. They had done so with Nero, and they did so now with Domitian (Varner 111). This meant that all imperial busts that were found were either destroyed completely or retooled as busts of the new emperor Nerva.

The practice of recycling an old emperor's busts to resemble a new emperor, or even a member of the general public, was not new, even in the absence of damnatio memoriae (Honour and Fleming 201). The relative scarcity of marble in some parts of the empire meant that it was much easier to take an existing portrait and modify it in key ways to resemble the new figure than to locate a piece of virgin marble and create a likeness from scratch. The issuance of a damnatio memoriae simply made this practice easier and more acceptable, not necessarily more common.

It is unlikely that many of Domitian's busts survived long enough to be recycled in this way. He was so universally reviled that destroying his likenesses became a public celebration. Pliny the Younger witnessed some of this destruction, and wrote that "it was a delight to smash those arrogant faces to pieces in the dust" (qtd. In Varner 112). Because of the widespread participation in Domitian's damnation memoriae, only one of his busts remains complete today -- the portrait of Emperor Domitian in the Classic Court at the Toledo Museum of Art.

Knowing that the piece is so rare certainly adds to its impact, but even without such knowledge the piece is still striking, especially when considering the character it portrays. it, like many of the imperial portraits, is made of Parian marble and stands about 60 cm tall. The emperor gazes across his left shoulder with a very slight smile. His face is mature but not aged. His toga drapes passively across his chest, suggesting stability. His hair is combed forward in lush ringlets around his smooth forehead.

We know a bit about Domitian's appearance from his early biographer Seutonius -- enough to know that this bust does not follow the realism of the Republic but rather the propagandizing tendencies of Imperial Rome. Seutonius described Domitian in his later years as balding, with protruding eyes, skinny legs, and a bloated stomach (Varner 112). The hair in the bust is of special interest to scholars, since a full head of hair was a sign of inner virtue in Roman physiological theory. Domitian himself reportedly wrote a treatise… [END OF PREVIEW]

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