Emperor Marcus Aurelius
(A.D. 121-180)

(click image to view enlargement)
Probably ca. A.D. 160-170


Marcus, the son of Annius Verus and Domitia Lucilla, was born in Rome in April of 121. His father, brother-in-law of Antoninus Pius, died when Marcus was only ten months old. As a child Marcus was highly favored by Hadrian who, in attempting to create a kind of dynasty, insisted that Antoninus Pius adopt him (see cat. 24). His name was changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar, reflecting various familial and political ties. He was also betrothed to the daughter of Aelius Caesar (see Hadrianic Noble, Riley Collection) but, once Antoninus Pius became emperor, this arrangement was dissolved. Marcus was engaged to the new emperor's daughter, Anna Galeria Faustina Minor (see Antonine Woman as Venus, Riley Collection).

Antoninus Pius reigned for almost twenty-four years but on 7 March 161 Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, as he was now called, became emperor at age forty. In an act of magnanimity that was to characterize his reign, he insisted that the intentions of Antoninus Pius be honored by accepting the co-regency of Lucius Verus, son of Aelius Caesar. Unfortunately, the degenerate Verus was not a worthy partner. His early death in 169 must have been a relief to Marcus Aurelius and the Roman nobility. Aurelius continued to rule until his death on 17 March 180, just ten days short of the nineteenth anniversary of his ascendancy.

Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome's finest emperors and comes close to the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king. Although his autobiography is lost, we know much of his personality, emotions and intimate thoughts because he kept a kind of journal, the Meditations, which has survived. Because he was heir-apparent from age seventeen, we also have a long series of coin portraits reflecting the changes that occurred in his appearance until his death. There are also approximately twenty-five portraits of him on the sculpted Column of Marcus Aurelius, erected by his son Commodus in 193. From this evidence (and the more than 110 extant sculpted portraits) diligent scholars have developed a system of four basic portrait types.1

The Riley head belongs to a group of portraits associated with the early years of the emperor's reign. There are close parallels with examples in Rome,2 Dresden3 and Paris.4 The fact that the hair on the back and sides of the head is treated in a perfunctory manner without elaborate drill work suggests that the portrait was placed in a niche. The head's attenuation implies that it was designed to be seen from below. This is consistent with the over-life-size proportions and treatment of the base, both of which suggest that this head was originally inserted into a separately sculpted body.

Publications: Sotheby (London) Auction Catalogue (12-13 Dec. 1983) no. 341 (illustrated before restoration of nose); J. Eisenberg, Art of the Ancient World IV (New York 1985) no. 260.


1. On the portraits in general, see M. Wegner, Die Herrscherbildnisse in antoninischer Zeit (Berlin 1939); idem, "Verzeichnis der Kaiserbildnisse von Antoninus Pius bis Commodus I," Boreas 2 (1979) 139-81.

2. Terme Museum Inv. 726: Wegner, pl. 20; Capitoline Museum Inv. 650 and 695: FZ I, nos. 65-66, pl. 75.

3. Dresden, Albertinum Inv. 386: Wegner, pl. 3.

4. Louvre Inv. 1161: Wegner, pl. 30. Compare an example in the Corcyra Museum (Wegner, pl. 31) for the unfinished appearance of the back of the head.


Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, The Tom and Nan Riley Collection, formerly in an English private collection. Copyright © 1997 Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

Photos by C. Randall Tosh, copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

Text from Richard Daniel De Puma. Roman Portraits. Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa, 1988. Copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.


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