Head from a marble statue of Vespasian

Roman, AD 70-80
From Carthage, northern Africa (modern Tunisia)

Portrait of the emperor: a soldier and a wit

This naturalistic portrait of the emperor Vespasian (reigned AD 69-79) clearly shows the lined complexion of this battle-hardened emperor, and also the curious 'strained expression' which the Roman writer Suetonius said he had at all times. The loss of the nose is characteristic of the damage often suffered by ancient statues, either through deliberate mutilation or through falling or being toppled from their base.

Vespasian was born in the Roman town of Reate (Rieti), about forty miles (sixty-five kilometres) north-west of Rome in the Sabine Hills. Vespasian distinguished himself in military campaigns in Britain and later became a trusted aide of the emperor Nero. Together with one of his sons, Titus, Vespasian conquered Judaea in AD 75 and celebrated with a magnificent triumphal procession through Rome. Part of the event, in particular the displaying of the seven-branched candlestick or 'Menorah' from the Temple at Jerusalem, is shown on the Arch of Titus, in Rome. The proceeds from the conquest of Judaea provided funds for the building of the Colosseum and other famous buildings in Rome.

Vespasian was known for his wit as well as his military skills. When, during one of his attempts to boost the treasury, Vespasian raised a tax on public urinals. Titus complained that this was below imperial dignity. Vespasian is said to have held out a handful of coins from the new tax and said 'Now, do these smell any different?'. Even on his death bed Vespasian's wit did not desert him. He was perhaps parodying the idea of the deification of emperors, when he said 'Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god'.

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Head from a marble statue of Vespasian

Marble head of Vespasian, from North Africa, AD 70-80

  • The Colosseum, Rome

    The Colosseum, Rome

  • The Colosseum on a Roman coin issued by Titus in AD80

    The Colosseum on a Roman coin issued by Titus in AD80

 

More information

Bibliography

S. Walker, Greek and Roman portraits (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

S. Walker, Roman art (London, 1991)

B. Levick, Vespasian (Routledge, 1999)

Dimensions

Height: 45.500 cm

Museum number

GR 1850.3-4.35 (Sculpture 1890)

GAA1802

Excavated by Sir Thomas Reade

Location

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