- Museum number
Pentelic marble head from a statue of the Emperor Nero. Authenticity uncertain: may be modern or heavily reworked.
- Production date
- 1700 - 1800 (after a Roman original)
Height: 43.18 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Adapted from an original of about AD60-65.
Portrait head of 'Nero'
This head, worked to fit into a statue, was purchased by Charles Townley in London in 1778 from another English collector, Lyde Browne, who had acquired it in 1775 at the sale of the collection of Dr Anthony Askew. Askew is said to have brought the head to London from Greece in 1740.
Within the British Museum the head has had a chequered existence. Condemned as a forgery, it was passed from Greek and Roman to British and Medieval Antiquities. In 1967 it was returned, its reputation heightened by association with the other antiquities brought from Greece by Askew, which are of undoubted authenticity. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine a workshop of forgers active in Athens before 1740.
However, the head is clearly not a contemporary portrait of Nero (AD 54-68). The crude cutting of the eyes and fringe are untypical of Roman work in first-century Greece. The features bear little relation to the two surviving representations in stone of the coin portrait of AD 64, on which the head is based.
If it is not entirely an eighteenth-century creation, the head may have been substantially recut to attract collectors. A possible motive may have been collectors' enthusiasm for Nero, one of the subjects of Suetonius' biographies 'The Twelve Caesars', and the lack of surviving ancient portraits of him. Hadrian was excluded from the biographies, and the head of Nero may have been recut from one of this emperor, of which many examples have survived in Greece. The original must have been wreathed, to judge by the exaggerated height of Nero's fringe and the depth of hair at the nape of his neck. Though wreaths were not generally a feature of his coiffure, a head of Hadrian from an over-life-sized cuirassed statue with oak wreath, now in Chania Museum (Crete), gives some notion of the possible original form of this portrait.
Literature: M. Wegner, Hadrian, Berlin 1956, p. 95 and pl. 24 (portrait in Chania); M. Bergmann-Zankers, '"Damnatio Memoriae"; umgearbeitete Nero- und Domitiansporträt', Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 96 (1981), pp. 317-412, esp. figs 9-10, pp. 328-9 (surviving stone portraits of Nero); B. F. Cook, The Townley Marbles, London 1985, p. 27.
Cook 2011, nr. 162:
‘A head of Nero, larger than life, found at Athens, from whence it was brought to England by the late Doctor Askew’ (TY 12/3, staircase 2).
Bought from Lyde Browne, probably in July 1775, for £40 (TY 10/5-7; TY 12/1; TY 10/3, fo. 13).
made ca. AD 60-65 (museum label).
* Townley drawings 2010,5006.212 and 213.
- Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum (1808), VI.56;
- Ancient Marbles of the British Museum, X, pl. 6; A Guide to the Graeco-Roman Sculptures in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2 vols. (London, 1874  and 1876), I, no. 11;
- A. H. Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum, Vol. III (London 1904), 154, no. 1887;
- K. Fittschen et al., Verzeichnis der Gipsabgüsse des Archäologischen Instituts der Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Göttingen, 1990), 145, A 667.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2009-2010, 16 Jul-16 Jan, Italy, Museo Civico Archeologico di Anzio, Anzio e Nerone
- Acquisition date
- Greek and Roman
- Registration number