Young Girl
Ca. A.D. 50-100, but perhaps later

(click image to view enlargement)
Ca. A.D. 50-100, but perhaps later


In both ancient Greece and Italy the accurate depiction of children is not common until the fourth century B.C. Most earlier examples are simply small-scale adults showing none of the characteristic proportions of real children. During the Hellenistic period, naturalistic children appear with some degree of frequency on Greek tombstone reliefs and Etruscan terracotta votives.

In Roman art the portrayal of specific children, especially in sculpture in the round, becomes common only during the age of Augustus and his successors, the Julio Claudian emperors. A likely explanation for this phenomenon is the emphasis Augustus himself placed on the family as the cornerstone of Roman society. Suetonius informs us that when Augustus "discovered that bachelors were getting betrothed to little girls, which meant postponing the responsibilities of fatherhood, and that married men were frequently changing their wives, he dealt with these evasions of the law by shortening the permissible period between betrothal and marriage, and by limiting the number of lawful divorces" (Augustus 34). He also initiated incentives for members of the lower classes to produce legitimate offspring; in Rome the birth of such a child brought a reward of ten gold pieces (Augustus 46). The importance of legitimate heirs to the upper classes was already appreciated but, during this period, we begin to see them represented accurately even on major state monument like the Ara Pacis Augustae reliefs of 9 B.C.

The Riley head of a young girl, probably four to six years of age, is an intriguing example of Roman child portraiture. Her youth is indicated by the rotund face, pudgy cheeks and dimples. The hair is very flat with little attempt to produce realistic masses of locks. The wavy incisions become more cursory as we move to the back of the head; the overall effect is almost wig-like. At the top of the head, running from front to back, is a raised braid-like area parted down the middle. From other evidence, we know that Roman women sometimes added a separate braid (a "fall") to enhance their elaborate coiffures, but on this head the braid flows into the surrounding hair. Although unusual, there are very similar treatments on Roman heads in Amsterdam1 and Boston.2 See also cat. 15.

The most enigmatic features of the Riley head are the series of drill holes on the lower tresses of the left side of the head. Four small holes, set horizontally, follow an irregular zigzag pattern; a fifth vertical hole is located beside the girl's left cheek beneath the mass of hair. If there were a similar arrangement of holes on the opposite side of the head we might postulate some sort of jewelry attachment, but such is not the case. On the girl's right side there is only one shallow hole on the isolated strand of hair above her cheek. The precise function of these holes remains a mystery.

Given the relatively inept modelling of the hair, it is likely that this head was sculpted by a provincial artist. The idiosyncratic treatment of the hair and the eyes reminds one of Egyptian sculpture. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to assign this head to a Roman-Egyptian workshop of the early Julio-Claudian period. Such a suggestion is supported by the provenance of the closest parallel, the Amsterdam head mentioned above, which came from the Nile Delta.



1. Allard Pierson Museum Inv. 7870, from Athribis: G. Snijder, "Ein römischer Mädchenkopf aus Ägypten" in Antike Plastik. Walther Amelung zum sechzigsten Geburtstag (Berlin 1928) 239-44; C. S. Ponger, Katalog der griechischen und römischen Skulptur, der steineren Gegenstände und der Stuckplastik im Allard Pierson Museum (Amsterdam 1942) no. 109, pl. XXVI. The treatment of the eyes on this figure is also especially close to the Riley head.

2. Museum of Fine Arts Inv. 96.697, from Prima Porta: M. Comstock and C. Vermeule, Sculpture in Stone (Boston 1976) 212, no. 336. For a similar hairdo on the portrait of an adult, see R. Calza, et al., Antichità di Villa Doria Pamphili(Rome 1977), no. 337, pl. 182; G. M. A. Richter, Roman Portraits (New York 1948) no. 34 (Metropolitan Museum of Art Inv. 145.16).


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.

Back to the top