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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
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Reaching the Four Corners: Facets of Art in the Roman Empire

Starting from about the third century BC, the territory of the Romans expanded rapidly, and not long thereafter they took control of the entire realm of the Mediterranean Sea. Many of their surviving artworks and objects, such as portraiture, sculpture, engraving and coins, provide clear evidence of what life was like in the Roman Empire, with many of the works designed to enhance the empire's prestige and publicize imperial glory.

The Romans were also influenced by many aspects of Greek culture, so Roman art also incorporates features from that of Ancient Greece. Mythological stories, jewelery, objects and utensils of daily life, the emotive qualities of sculptures, and decorative mosaic tableaux all show the influence of not only the Greeks, but of the various peoples--Egyptians, Gauls, Britons, and others--who were conquered by Rome. With expansion of the Roman Empire, the art and culture of the Romans reached the four corners of the known world, including areas of the Near East, Egypt, Spain, and even Britain. In all of these places, artworks and objects associated with the Romans have been found. In the fourth century AD, after the imperial government adopted Christianity, Christian images began to appear with greater frequency on the medallions and dishes produced by inhabitants of the Roman Empire, showing the increasing importance of Christianity in Roman culture at this time.

Bust of the Emperor Hadrian

Italy, Roman, 2nd century AD
Rome, formerly in the Villa Montalto
Greek Marble
H60 cm (total), H27cm (chin to crown)
Townley Collection
GR 1805.7-3.94 (BM Cat Sculpture 1897)
Enlargement
Bust of the Emperor Hadrian

Hadrian's reign (AD 117-138) was characterised by a peaceful consolidation of the Roman Empire after the aggressive expansion under his predecessor Trajan. In Britain, he was responsible for the creation of Hadrian's Wall, a magnificent border fortification against the barbarians in the north, both of military value and potent symbolic significance. Hadrian travelled widely and was known as a great lover of Greek culture. He was also the first Roman Emperor to sport a beard, a fact often explained by reference to his philosophical outlook and love of Greek role models. This fashion was eagerly adopted by his subjects throughout the Empire.

This bust found in Rome but made of Greek marble, shows the Emperor in heroic nudity with his head emphatically turned to the left. His elegant coiffure and beard are rendered mostly with the chisel. The eyes show incised irises and drilled pupils, a fashion first adopted on portrait sculpture in these years.

A H Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum (London 1904), no. 1897

M Wegner, Hadrian [Das Römische Herrscherbild II.3] (Berlin 1956), 101.
Bust of Antinous

Italy, Roman, 2nd century AD
Rome, Janiculan Hill
Parian Marble
H60 cm (total), H34 cm (chin to crown)
Townley Collection
GR 1805.7-3.97 (BM Cat Sculpture 1899)
Enlargement
Bust of Antinous

This fine marble bust depicts Antinous (c. AD 110-130), companion of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. A youth from Bithynia, an area in the northwest of modern Turkey, he had first come to the attention of the Emperor during Hadrian's travels in the East. His grace and beauty soon made him the Emperor's favourite. While accompanying him on a journey up the Nile, Antinous was tragically drowned. A romantic legend soon sprang up, suggesting he had given his life for Hadrian. The Emperor, devastated by this loss, in turn declared Antinous a god and his cult spread, particularly through the eastern empire.

Court-artists created an official image of Antinous, based mostly on Classical Greek statues of gods combined with individual, though highly idealised portrait features. This bust shows his head slightly inclined and turned to the left, his smooth face sensuous and with full lips. His coiffure is made up of a lively mass of long locks of hair, around which he wears a wreath of ivy, an attribute of the god Dionysos. The head in fact once belonged to a statue showing Antinous in the guise of this deity, and was only set into a bust in the eighteenth century.

A H Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum (London 1904), no. 1899;

H Meyer, Antinous (Munich 1991), 52-53 no. I 31 pl. 33.
Portrait-head of Euripides

Italy, Roman, 1st century AD
Marble
H35 cm (total), H31 cm (head)
Castellani Collection
GR 1879.7-12.1 (BM Cat Sculpture 1833)
Enlargement
Portrait-head of Euripides

Euripides (c. 485/480- 407/406 BC) was one of the three leading playwrights of Classical Athens. His tragic plays often reflected current events, filtered through the medium of classical myths, as well as key aspects of the human condition. Euripides wrote 92 plays, of which 18 survive entire and others in fragments. During his lifetime, plays were performed only once as part of a competition during religious festivals in honour of the god Dionysos.

Under the Athenian statesman Lykourgos, in about 330 BC, bronze statues of the three tragedians were set up in the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens to celebrate the great achievements of the city's golden age. It is possible that this portrait is copied after the statue of Euripides in the theatre, although some feel that it might be after a later version. Euripides is depicted as a respected older citizen, with a full beard and thinning hair. In accordance with conventions of the time, no reference is made to his profession.

The head is remarkably well preserved. It was made for insertion into a statue, probably in the first century AD. The provenance of the sculpture is unknown, but it may well have graced the villa of a Roman noble, where portraits of poets and philosophers were displayed to demonstrate the refined intellectual tastes of the wealthy owner.

A H Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum (London, 1904), no. 1833.

G M A Richter, The Portraits of the Greeks, abridged and revised by R R R Smith (Oxford, 1984), 121-124.
Silver Tyche (Personification) of Antioch

Rome, second half of the 4th century AD
Silver and gilt
Found at the foot of the Esquiline Hill, in Rome, Italy.
H14cm
Acquired as part of the Blacas Collection in 1866.
PE 1866.2-29.22
Enlargement
Silver Tyche (Personification) of Antioch
Two silver dishes with monograms

Probably Rome, second half of the 4th century
Found at the foot of the Esquiline Hill, in Rome, Italy.
Silver and gilt
Diam. 16 cm; H14.5, W20 cm
Acquired as part of the Blacas Collection in 1866.
PE 1866.12-29.14 and 16
Enlargement 1
Enlargement 2
Silver dish with monograms

Silver dish with monograms
Two silver horse-trappings

Probably Rome, second half of the 4th century
Found at the foot of the Esquiline Hill, in Rome, Italy.
Silver and gilt
L63.5 cm (both)
Acquired as part of the Blacas Collection in 1866.
PE 1866.12-9.26 and 28
Enlargement
Two silver horse-trappings

The Esquiline Treasure

These objects are all from the "Esquiline treasure" found by workmen in 1793 whilst digging at the foot of the Esquiline Hill in Rome. The treasure comprises silver caskets, vessels, plate and ornaments and is one of the largest and most important silver hoards to have survived from Late Antiquity. The treasure was originally owned by an eminent Roman family. A gilded monogram on several dishes identifies this family as that of the Turcii. The owners would appear to have been Turcius Secundus and Projecta Turcii, who were married from 379 to 383. Projecta's name appears on one of the silver caskets and is famous for its Christian inscription: 'Secundus and Projecta, live in Christ'.

Shelton, K.J., The Esquiline Treasure (London, 1981).
Statue of Dionysos

Lybia, Roman, 2nd century AD
Cyrene, Temple of Dionysos
Large-grained, white marble
H171 cm
GR 1861.7-25.2 (BM Cat Sculpture 1476)
Enlargement
Statue of Dionysos

This beautiful statue was discovered in Cyrene, a Greek colony on the Mediterranean shore of modern Libya that continued to thrive under the Roman Empire. It depicts Dionysos, the god of wine, who can be recognised by his characteristic attributes, an ivy wreath and a bunch of grapes.

His head is turned to the right and long strands of hair fall over his shoulders. The god wears sandals and a long himation (mantle) that is draped over his left shoulder and back and then forward and over his raised left arm, but leaves his soft yet muscular torso and genitals exposed. The deep folds of the himation are carved in fine detail. The back of the statue, though worked, appears flat, indicating that it was meant to stand in a niche or against a wall. It must have been made by skilled sculptors of the second century AD after an earlier Greek work of the third century BC.

Like almost all ancient sculpture, the statue was originally at least partly painted; traces of red colour are preserved in the eyes and the wreath. In antiquity the body itself would have been left untouched except for small details like the nipples, so that the soft, skin-coloured surface of the marble would have contrasted beautifully with the painted drapery.

With the statue were found a statue of a panther with a collar of vine leaves, which usually accompanies the god, and a pedestal, on which the statue is thought to have stood. The building in which it was discovered has been identified as the Temple of Dionysos.

A H Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum Vol. II (London, 1900), no. 1476.

J Huskinson, Roman Sculpture from Cyrenaica in the British Museum (London, 1975), 17-18 no. 32 pl. 13.