Roman Marble Portrait of a Greek Poet; Hesiod
Culture: Roman, Ro-Imperial
Period: ca. 1st century B.C.
Dimensions: H: 33 cm
Private Collection, Oslo; acquired in Rome between 1954 and 1958, thence by descent.
Missing the tip of the nose with the right nostril; chips from face, hair, and rims of ears. Greek portraiture, which began to development in the 5th century B.C., initially included generic representations of men long deceased by the time their portrait was created. Therefore portraits were modifications of pre-existing sculptural types and likely had little resemblance to the individual’s actual appearance.
As such this masterwork of sculpture, a realistic and emotionally charged marble portrait, depicts the features of a man of sixty or seventy years of age in great detail. His general appearance is one of a rustic elderly person, now bowed down by age and suff ering, but still in command of a vigorous personality. His head turns upward and to the right, and his face has a long moustache and a short straggly beard covering his cheeks and chin, with short tufts of hair below the lower lip. The unkempt hair on his head is arranged in long irregular strands that hang down over the forehead and at the back of the neck to the shoulders. His aquiline nose arcs outward from the bridge of the nose, all of which is accentuated by a marked indentation between the bridge and forehead.
The mouth is slightly parted, as if he is about to speak; the lower lip is full and is made to appear heavier and more prominent than it is by the tufts of hair below it. His eyes are small and deep set with sagging fl esh beneath that testifi es to his old age. Above the eyes, the forehead is creased with lines of aging, and the area beneath the prominent cheek bones is sunken with two deep furrows extending from the nostrils obliquely downward. The neck is wrinkled and haggardly looking, and terminates neatly at the shoulders with a circular edge and rounded base to accommodate insertion into the body of the sculpture. Judging from the position of the head that looks upward, the original composition must have presented the fi gure as seated. The modeling and conception of the portrait which are done in an ultra-realistic style ultimately point to the baroque phase of Hellenistic portraiture dating to the 2nd century B.C., the time during which the original Greek portrait must have been created, and of which this Roman marble portrait is an accurate and precise version. Significantly, the closest parallel for this marble portrait head is the bronze head found in 1754 in the peristyle of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Now in the Museo Nazionale in Naples (inv. 5616), the head is of the so-called Pseudo-Seneca type, for it was long thought to represent Seneca until an inscribed portrait of this philosopher was discovered in 1813 and the theory of its identification as Seneca had to be revised. The close parallel between this marble portrait and the Naples example is particularly important because, being a bronze copy, the head in Naples is likely very close to the original since ancient bronze copies were usually made from molds taken from the original work of art. Very few of the surviving marble heads of this type approach this marble portrait head with regard to quality, sculptural detail, and its striking resemblance to the masterful bronze head in Naples. That the Naples head represents a famous personality popular in the Roman period is indicated by the exceptionally large number (at least forty examples) of extant Roman marble portraits of this type. None of the portraits bear an inscribed name, but scholars agree on the identification of the person depicted by the type as that of the poet Hesiod. The creation of a portrait of Hesiod in the Hellenistic period and its continued popularity in Roman times is understandable, and to depict him looking like a rustic, lowly, and old, yet inspired man would be expected.
Paul Zanker’s description of the bronze portrait in Naples also captures the spirit of this marble example: This old man is in no way characterized as sick or dispirited. Instead, he is fi lled with passionate energy. The tension in the forehead and eyebrows suggests extreme concentration, as he searches for just the right word. There is something compelling in his expression, as if he just has to express himself, as if something is driving him that is stronger than he is… This portrait seems to aim at capturing a specific set of biographical data, at rendering in its particular pathos a specific and unmistakable spiritual physiognomy comprising these elements: manual labor, poverty, a disregard for personal appearance, and a breathless, almost fanatical manner of speech. All this seems to point to the peasant-poet Hesiod, who was called to poetry by the Muses while he was tending goats on Mt. Helikon and who lived and, in his verses, described a life of inexorable toil, worry and disappointment.
As one of the oldest known Greek poets, Hesiod is contrasted with Homer as the other creator of early epic. Most scholars agree that Hesiod lived in the period just before or after 700 B.C., and his work lies between that of post-Homeric and pre-academic epic poetry. It is well-known that Homer and Hesiod were closely associated in the minds of the Greeks throughout antiquity and their portraits were exhibited together. Hesiod also enjoyed great popularity in Roman times. Cultured Romans quoted freely from his works and his poems were imitated by Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, and Catullus. In his poetry, it is Hesiod himself who tells us his father had given up a life of unprofi table sea-trading and moved from Cyme on the sea-coast of Asia Minor to agriculturally rich Boeotia in central Greece. In his Theogony (Theog., 22-35), Hesiod relates that he heard the Muses calling upon him to sing of the gods as he tended sheep on Mt. Helicon. The Theogony tells us of the genealogies and origins of the gods, and it contains the oldest extant Greek account of the creation of the universe. Works and Days, Hesiod’s other famous poem, is a unique source for our knowledge of daily life in Archaic Greece, and one which provides moral advice and practical instruction on agriculture, sea-faring, and social and religious conduct. It concerns itself with farm work, with the labor of shepherds and peasants, with the animals they cared for, and with the change of seasons. In these two epic poems, which have been attributed to him since antiquity, Hesiod appears as a straightforward thinker, who in beautiful but simple language sang of the lives of gods and men. While Works and Days has always been viewed as the most notable of the Hesiodic poems, both poems confi rm the identity of an author with a distinct personality – a surly and conservative man of the countryside, given to refl ection, and one who felt the presence of the gods heavy about him. In similar ways, this masterful marble image of a poet embodies the character of this man, Hesiod, and it remains among the most significant and important ancient portraits known to us.
For the comparable bronze, the so-called Pseudo-Seneca portrait in Naples, and the identifi cation of the type as Hesiod: BIEBER M., The Sculpture of the Hellenistic
Age, New York, 1961, p. 143.
CROME J., Das Bildnis Vergils, Mantua, 1935, p. 63, where the identifi cation of the Pseudo-Seneca as Hesiod was fi rst proposed.
RICHTER G.M.A. (abridged and revised by R.R.R. Smith), The Portraits of the Greeks, New York, 1984, pp. 191-192, fi g. 151.
SANDE S., Greek and Roman Portraits in Norwegian Collections, Rome, 1991, pp. 16-17, No. 8, pl. 8.
ZANKER P., The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 150-159, fi g. 80 a-c.
On the image of intellectuals in ancient times: Musa pensosa: L’immagine dell’intellettuale nell’Antichità, Milano 2006, pp. 74 ff.
STEWARD A. F., Faces of Power: Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics, Berkeley, 1993.
ZANKER P., The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity, Berkeley, 1995.
ZANKER P., The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Ann Arbor, 1988.