Priest of Bacchus
Late first century A.D., probably Flavian

(click image to view enlargement)
Ca. A.D. 117-120


This head represents a mature male wearing an elaborately sculpted and drilled garland of ivy leaves and berries (corymbs). Such garlands are associated with the god of wine, Bacchus (also called Liber Pater). This deity was inherited from the Greek world where he was called Dionysos. (He was known to the Etruscans by the name Fufluns.) His presence in Rome was not always welcome and there are records from the early second century B.C. that demonstrate a concerted effort on the part of the Roman Senate to ban the worship of Bacchus. But, repeating the pattern often related in Bacchic mythology, his worship eventually took root and flourished throughout the Empire.

Several statues of Bacchus himself, of his followers the mythic satyrs and maenads, or of human devotees show this type of garland. The distinctive criss crossing of tendrils above the forehead and behind each ear is paralleled by a bust in Florence.1 The Riley head surely does not represent Bacchus himself because it is too naturalistic; images of the god are invariably idealized. It may represent a priest but could also be a devotee of the deity who wished to be portrayed with this cult attribute.

An especially interesting feature is the rectangular cutting (ca. 15 cm. long, 7cm. wide and a maximum of 2 cm. deep) at the top of the head. Obviously, some attachment was meant to fit into this cutting. What was it? One suggestion is that the statue originally had its left arm raised with the forearm and hand resting on the head. This position is well-known in antiquity as that of the statue of the Apollo Lykeios. This popular fourth-century B.C. Greek original, perhaps by Praxiteles, was often copied by the Romans. Bacchus also appears in this pose.2 The small fragment of left shoulder still intact on the Riley portrait indicates that indeed the left arm was raised. In the Lykeios statues it is always the right arm which is raised. But, in any case, the cutting is too large and not at the proper angle to accept either forearm.

A more plausible suggestion is that this man used his left hand to steady an object on his head. There is an appropriate Bacchic object which suits perfectly this requirement: a liknon, the mystical Bacchic basket. Several statues can be cited to support this interpretation.3 This also helps to explain the perfunctory rendering of the hair, which, because it would be obscured by the basket, did not receive much attention. Further, the cutting indicates that the present mounting of the head is inaccurate. It should be tilted forward so that the cutting is level; the original statue would have looked down at the viewer.

Roman emperors often had themselves depicted as their favorite deity. For example, there are well-known statues of Claudius as Jupiter, Hadrian as Mars and Commodus as Hercules. What is less known is that ordinary Romans, even children, were frequently depicted as deities. The Riley head may once have be longed to such a theomorphic statue. But, if it once carried a liknon, it is more likely to represent a priest or follower of Bacchus rather than a man as Bacchus simply because the god is not normally shown carrying this object.


Publication: Sotheby (New York) Catalogue 5398 (21-22 November 1985) no. 105.

1. Uffizi Inv. 1914,260: H. Wrede, Conservatio in Formam Deorum: Vergöttlichte Privatpersonen in der römischen Kaiserzeit (Mainz 1981) no. 172, pl. 23.

2. On the Apollo Lykeios, see W. Lambrinudakis, s.v. "Apollon," LIMC II, 193-94, no. 39, pls. 184-85. For the type used in portrayals of Bacchus, see C. Gaspari, s.v. "Dionysos," LIMC Ill, 436, 444-45 nos. 125, 200, pls. 308, 320.

3. See M. Bossert, Die Rundskulpturen von Aventicum [Acta Bernensia 9 ] (Bern 1983) no. 7, pl. 8; C. Vermeule et al., Sculpture in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston 1977) 17, no. 21. For discussion of the liknon, see M. Nilsson, Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age (Lund 1957).


Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, The Tom and Nan Riley 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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