Syrian Woman
Early third century A.D. (?)

(click image to view enlargement)
Early third century A.D. (?)


This portrait is unlike any other Roman example in the collection for two reasons. First, the limestone from which it is carved is of poor quality and does not lend itself to the execution of fine details. Second, the style is less refined, less realistic than any of the other Roman portraits and may be termed provincial. This portrait almost certainly functioned as a funerary relief of the type represented by the Riley Collection's Roman Matron. This is suggested by the manner in which the back surface has been broken away, no doubt the result of modern chiseling to free the head from its original background.

The type belongs to a large group of late provincial funerary reliefs associated with tombs in Syria. Best known are the series from ancient Palmyra.1 The woman in the Riley Collection wears a diadem and veil similar to those on Palmyrene reliefs. An unusual feature is the way in which her straight hair, carved with a claw chisel, emanates from the band of her headdress rather than from under it. Many Palmyrene women hold the right sides of their veils, but this one holds her right hand to her cheek.2 An excellent parallel for the general appearance and style of this piece is the portrait of a man, said to come from northern Syria, now in the Getty Museum.3

The difficulty with this head is that there is no external evidence (like related coin portraits, inscriptions, depictions of jewelry) to help establish a date, let alone an identity. The situation is compounded by the lack of dated parallels from provincial sites outside Palmyra. Our unfamiliarity with the many regional stylistic variations in the eastern Roman provinces may help to explain why this head seems so unusual. It is also possible that the head is not ancient,4 but this is unlikely given the close affinities it shares with examples recently published by Parlasca (see n. 2 below).



1. See H. Ingholt, Studien over Palrnyrensk Skulptur (Copenhagen 1928); M. Colledge, The Art of Palmyra (Boulder 1976); H. Klengel, The Art of Ancient Syria (London 1972).

2. See K. Parlasca, Syrische Grabreliefs hellenistischer und römischer Zeit (Mainz 1982) 10-11, pl. 10, two excellent parallels from northern Syria dated to the second century. There are a few parallels for this unusual gesture in Palmyrene sculpture. Cf. funerary portrait of Aha, daughter of Halafta, ca. A.D. 161, American University in Beirut: A. Champdor, Les ruines de Palmyre (Paris 1953) 57.

3. lnv. 71.AA.272: J. Frel, Roman Portraits in the Getty Museum (Malibu 1981) no. 67; K. Parlasca, "Zur syrischen Plastik der römischen Kaiserzeit," J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 8 (1980) 141-43, figs. 3-4. The eyes and lines to either side of the mouth are especially close. For additional fragmentary parallels, see H. Jucker and D. Willers, Gesichter: Griechische und römische Bildnisse aus Schweizer Besitz (Bern 1982) nos. 110-12.

4. Gunhild Ploug, who is preparing a definitive catalogue of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek's excellent Palmyrene collection, kindly studied a series of photographs of the Riley head and offered her opinions concerning its authenticity. Three major concerns are the relationship of hair to diadem, the rendering of the hair and the shape of the jaws. These are all non-Palmyrene features, but that may only mean that the head is from a less sophisticated Syrian site.


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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