Hadrianic Noble
A.D. 136-138

(click image to view enlargement)
ca. A.D. 136-138


Although damaged, this is an impressive portrait which still retains a commanding presence. It represents a vigorous young man with luxurious curly hair and full beard. Each lock of hair on the front half of the head is drilled to create an even richer effect. The face and especially the neck and shoulders are carefully polished to provide a sensuous contrast with the hair.

Various details such as the treatment of the hair, eyes and skin, plus the fact that the man wears a full beard, suggest a date in the Hadrianic period for this portrait. Can we identify this man? There are no clues other than his appearance and, as noted above, that is damaged by time and altered by restoration. It is, of course, perfectly possible that the portrait represents an ordinary Roman who will always remain anonymous. But if we assume that such a fine portrait must belong to a more distinguished figure of the Hadrianic period, is there any known individual it resembles?

In A.D. 136 Hadrian, who had no children and for some time had been concerned about providing a successor, adopted as his son and heir Lucius Ceionius Commodus.1 This man then took the name Lucius Aelius Caesar in recognition of Hadrian's family name (Aelius) and his status as heir-apparent (Caesar, used from this time forward to indicate the designated successor of an emperor). Aelius attempted to prove his worth by accepting various offices, including governorship of Pannonia (Austria, Hungary). Aelius was more sybarite than statesman and, unfortunately, did not have the good health required by either role. His premature death, probably from tuberculosis, occurred on 1 January 138, only six months before that of Hadrian. Although Aelius never became emperor, his son, Lucius Aurelius Verus, was adopted by Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius and later ruled jointly with Marcus Aurelius from A.D. 161 to 169. Lucius Verus shared his father's good looks, questionable ability, love of pleasure, and early death.

From Spartianus we also learn that after Aelius' death Hadrian commissioned numerous statues of him, had them set up throughout the empire and even had temples dedicated to him.2 It is possible that the Riley head represents Aelius Caesar. We know his appearance from portraits on coins minted after his adoption and from less useful literary descriptions which praise his "regal beauty." The coins, which date from A.D. 137, show the same tight snail-shell curls and beard but are characterized by a distinctive aquiline nose. The absence of this critical feature on the Riley head makes a definitive identification impossible.3



1. A brief biography is given by Aelius Spartianus in SHA, written in the early fourth century A.D.

2. Aelius 7.1.

3. The best examination of the subject is N. Hannestad, "The Portraits of Aelius Caesar," Analecta Romana Instituti Danici 7 (1974) 67-100.


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.

Back to the top