Antonine Woman as Venus
Ca. A.D. 150-160

(click image to view enlargement)
Ca. A.D. 150-160


It is well known that Roman emperors often had themselves portrayed as their favorite deity. But, in addition to the emperor, members of the imperial family and even ordinary Romans commissioned portraits of themselves as divinities (cf. cat. 20).1 This unusual bust is an idealized portrait of a woman portrayed as the goddess Venus. The sculptor has employed the distinctive diadem and coiffure of a particular type of Venus, the so-called Venus Marina.2 This manifestation of the goddess was especially popular at the port towns of Ostia and Pompeii where several copies of Venus Marina statues have been found.

In fact, Roman women chose to have themselves depicted in the guise of Venus more frequently than any other goddess.3 No doubt this popularity was due to the divinity's association with love. Venus also had strong connections with the imperial family. Julius Caesar, Augustus and the Julio-Claudian emperors traced their descent from Aeneas, the heroic son of Venus and Anchises, a mortal man. This version of the goddess, Venus Genetrix, was frequently depicted with features resembling those of the reigning empress. Such may be the case with the Riley bust.

It is instructive to compare this piece with three carved gemstone portraits in Istanbul and Paris.4 All three show the same type of figure and have the same hairstyle and diadem; one wears a similar garment with an exposed breast. It is quite likely that at least some, if not all, of these are portraits from the Antonine period. The Riley bust, so closely related to these, may also represent one of the Antonine empresses. The most likely candidate is Faustina Minor, the daughter of Antoninus Pius and wife of Marcus Aurelius.5

This sculpture and the three portrait gemstones are in the form of so-called medallion or imago clipeata busts.6 In this type of design the bust is enclosed by a circular frame. Numerous examples have been excavated at Aphrodisias in Turkey;7 a close parallel, in subject, style and type, comes from Paneas in Syria.8 These last examples suggest a likely provenance in the eastern Roman provinces for the Riley bust.



1. See H. Wrede, Consecratio in Formam Deorum: Vergöttlichte Privatpersonen in der römischen Kaiserzeit (Mainz 1981).

2. M. Bieber, Ancient Copies (New York 1977) figs. 177-85. For the exposed breast, see figs. 192, 196-7, 547. The diadem and hairstyle are also related to Juno depictions: A. Giuliano, ed., Museo Nazionale Romano. Le sculture I, 5, nos. 41 and 58.

3. Wrede, pp. 306-323.

4. W.-R. Megow, Kameen von Augustus bis Alexander Severus [Antike
Münzen und geschnittene Steine
II] (Berlin 1987) nos. B 40, 44-45 pls. 45-46.

5. For more on this possibility, see K. Fittschen, Die Bildnistypen der Faustina minor und die Fecunditas Augustae (Göttingen 1982), especially 44-46, pl. 12, 1-2; FZ I, no.64, pl. 74; III, no. 25, pl. 34; E. Rosenbaum, Cyrenaican Portrait Sculpture (London 1960) no. 52, pl. 36.

6. For bibliography on this type of bust, see G. Becatti, s.v. "Clipeate, Immagini," EAA 2 (Rome 19S9) 718-21; F. Matz, "Die Clipieussarkophage," Archäologischer Anzeiger (1971) 103-108.

7. K. Erim, Aphrodisias, City of Venus Aphrodite (New York 1986) 148-49. See also, J. Frel, Roman Portraits (Malibu 1981) no. 78.

8. H. Klengel, The Art of Ancient Syria (London 1972) 94.


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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