Marble portrait of the emperor Caracalla

Period: Severan

Date: A.D. 212–217

Culture: Roman

Medium: Marble

Dimensions: H. 14 1/4 in. ( 36.2 cm)

Classification: Stone Sculpture

Credit Line: Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1940

Accession Number: 40.11.1a


Although his name claimed his descent from early emperors, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (r. A.D. 211–17), nicknamed Caracalla, soon abandoned the iconographic traditions of the Antonine dynasty that had been employed in his early portraits in favor of a military style characterized by closely cropped curls and a stubble beard. In this portrait head, once part of a statue of which other fragments survive, the shortness of Caracalla's hair and beard were created by stippling a chisel across the surface of the stone, a technique called "negative carving." This technique not only marks a drastic shift away from the long, deeply drilled locks typical of Antonine (1998.209) and early Severan portraits, but, together with an intense rendering of facial expression, produces an immediate and powerful presence–the emperor's scowl is threatening and entirely realistic.
This sense of presence and connection with the outside world also contrasts with the dreamy-eyed otherworldliness typical of representations of Antonine philosopher-emperors like Antoninus Pius (33.11.3) and Marcus Aurelius. The forcefulness and apparent severity of his expression were meant to emphasize Caracalla's brute strength and capability as a military leader, underscoring his need to maintain the support of the Roman armies. This close association with the army was an important feature of Caracalla's tenure as emperor, since it was the army, more than any aspect of dynastic succession, that was instrumental in choosing and sustaining the governing authority during this period. His reputation as a ruthless emperor was also fostered by his orchestration of his brother Geta's murder in A.D. 212. However, despite this and his aggressive campaigns to ensure his popularity with the army, Caracalla possessed keen administrative skills. One of his chief claims to fame was his edict of A.D. 212 granting Roman citizenship to all communities inside the empire, thereby obliterating any distinction between Italians and provincials.
Caracalla's adult portrait type served as a basis upon which emperors of the third century A.D. modeled their official portraits. His closely cropped and stippled beard and hair became hallmark traits of no-nonsense soldier emperors like Trebonianus Gallus, whose power depended upon the favor of the army.