British Collection Highlights:

Bronze Head of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Found near Brackley, Northamptonshire, the half-life-sized portrait (16.2cm high) was hollow-cast in heavily leaded bronze, using iron spacers, traces of which may still be seen on the top of the head, inside and out.

The bearded subject closely resembles some of the portraits of the emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius (ruled AD 161-180). Specialists in Roman imperial portraiture compare this head with the “third type” of Marcus’s portraits. The classification of an emperor’s portraits into types is based upon the close examination of named portraits on contemporary coins issued by the imperial authorities and the systematic comparison of these with similar portraits, usually of much larger scale and cast in metal or carved in stone.

Despite the confident association of this portrait with images of the emperor made in or clearly influenced by Rome, this head has features which strongly suggest that it was made in Britain or northern Gaul.

Most strikingly, the emperor has been given bright blue eyes, the bronze inlaid with glass coloured with cobalt. Equally unexpected are the cone-shaped coils of beard projecting at a sharp angle from the head, and disconnected, upturned moustaches. Little effort has been made to distinguish the ears and nose, and there are no eyebrows. In contrast, the almond-shaped, inlaid eyes are heavily outlined. The mouth is a single, down-turned line. These un-naturalistic features may be compared with some twenty heads of gods and mortals, cast in bronze or carved in stone at similar scale, which have been found in south-east England and northern France.

Click to enlarge

Head of Marcus Aurelius (Click to enlarge)

Bronze head of Marcus Aurelius, AD 161-180 (AN2011.46)

The blue enamel eyes and the simple, downturned mouth are particularly close to another Roman bronze of the same date in the Ashmolean’s collections: a small head 6.4cm high, possibly representing the shepherd Atys, from Kenny Hill, Mildenhall, Suffolk.

The head of Atys was part of a bust or statue, broken at the base of the neck. In contrast, though the edge of the neck has been filed down, it appears that the image of Marcus Aurelius ended here, and was neither finished as a bust nor broken from a torso. It could have sat on a shelf or low mount or base, or have been carried on a mace or pole.

The archaeological context of the head of Marcus Aurelius has not yet been explored. It was ploughed up in the 1970s in a field on the south-western slope of a well-watered valley running south-east from Banbury to Brackley. The valley was the location of several Roman villas of consequence. It is possible that the head belonged to a villa-owner who not only felt obliged to commission an imperial portrait for his residence as an act of loyalty to Rome, but admired Marcus Aurelius for his philosophical writings and personal practice of stoicism. Alternatively, the head could have been venerated in a temple, but no temple site is visible in aerial photographs of the area.

Through the agency of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the head was acquired in 2011 by the Ashmolean from the owners, who had carefully kept it since its discovery after reporting the find to the landowner. The purchase was made with the help of the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of the Ashmolean and several local donors.

The head is on display in the 'Rome' gallery on the ground floor.

Sideview of Marcus Aurelius' head

Side view of the bronze head of Marcus Aurelius. The projecting beard is clearly visible (AN2011.46)

Small Bronze Head

A small head 6.4cm high, possibly representing the shepherd Atys, from Kenny Hill, Mildenhall, Suffolk (AN1927.564)

Further Information

Worrell, S., “Roman Britain in 2009”, Britannia, 41 (2010), 421-4.

Toynbee, J.M.C., Art in Britain under the Romans (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1964).

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Susan Walker
January 2012