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Propaganda in Roman Art

November 9, 2011

The sculpture of Commodus as Hercules and the sculpture portrait of Caracalla are both good examples of hyperbolic representations of the subject for the use of propaganda. Commodus carries himself in a very aristocratic, sophisticated manner. His eyes gaze into the distance, deep in thought, and he seems relaxed, yet grounded and stable. In contrast to Caracalla’s short-cropped, neat hair, Commodus’ hairstyle is much like the typical Greek philosopher with curly, bouncy beard and hair, perhaps in an attempt to draw comparisons between the intellectual nature of the philosopher and this ruler. This sculpture is highly ornate, with the headdress, club, fruit, and highly decorative base. The inclusion of so many objects/motifs suggests to me extravagance, and along with the implied sophistication of Commodus himself, a wealthy/high-class extravagance.

Caracalla on the other hand (as I suggested with the hair reference), presents himself with a very angry/aggressive (yet lively) glare. His broad, sharp chin and defined facial lines off the nose and brow and sunken eyes portray a deathly seriousness. Though surely a product of erosion rather than artistic statement, the chip on his nose gives him a sort of scrappy persona. These two different sculptures make me think these particularly men had starkly different personalities! As opposed to Commodus aloof gaze into the distance, Caracalla has a cold, intense stare (perhaps in the midst of a staring contest with the Minotaur). It seems apparent to me that the artists who created these sculptures had rigid instructions on how they were to portray the different rulers.

It seems obvious to me that these pieces of art were used as tools of propaganda. Both pieces achieve the portrayal of character/personality without prior knowledge of the subjects or context. With Commodus, there is symbolism used that is scrambled in meaning without an understanding of the culture/legends, but still these symbols (a club and headdress of a lion/tiger?) do evoke some meaning without that knowledge (strength/courage/power?). Though the implied personalities of these two rulers vary greatly, to me, it is clear these sculptures were intended to influence public opinions.


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  1. rori permalink

    I love your description of the bouncy hair and beard the ringlets really do look as if they could bounce. I also think the bust of Commudus was a much more relaxed and secure pose compared to the sense you get from the portrait of Caracalla. I also felt like the portrait of Caracalla was downright scowling and angry, and it’s as if they wanted to be certain no one would question his authority.

  2. It interesting how the reception to a work of art can vary, based on how the work of art has changed over time. Like you said, the chip on Caracalla’s nose was not intentional, but it does contribute to the overall “feel” for the piece.

    The expressions and gazes for both of these portraits is really compelling to me. Commodus has a vapid, blank expression on his face – which actually seems rather fitting, since he wasn’t a very intelligent person. I think Caracalla’s direct gaze seems much more intimidating, as you suggested.

    -Prof. Bowen

  3. The two sculpture portraits of Commodus as Hercules and Caracalla are very different in appearance. I like your comparisons. Commodus does appear more aristocratic and frivolous. He would have others taking care of his affairs for him. Caracalla looks very serious. His portrait is about individual character. He means business. He gets things done for his people.

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