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Lesson Plan: The Power in Portraits

A white stone portrait bust of a very serious-looking man, with furrowed brow and intense gaze

Portrait of the Emperor Caracalla
About a.d. 217–30; Late Severan
Marble; H. 14 1/4 in. (36.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1940 (40.11.1a)

Collection Area: Greek and Roman Art
Subject Areas: English Language Arts, Visual Arts, World History
Grades: Middle School, High School
Topics/Themes: Identity, Power and Leadership


Students will be able to:
  • identify ways Roman artists conveyed the power of leaders through portraiture; and
  • communicate their values as a ruler through creative art making.

National Learning Standards

English Language Arts
NL-ENG.K-12.4 Communication Skills
NL-ENG.K-12.9 Multicultural Understanding
NL-ENG.K-12.12 Applying Language Skills

Visual Arts
NA-VA.K-12.3 Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas
NA-VA.K-12.4 Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures
NA-VA.K-12.6 Making Connections between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines

World History
NSS-WH.5-12.3 Era 3: Classical Traditions, Major Religions, and Giant Empires, 1000 b.c.e.–300 c.e.

Common Core State Standards

English Language Arts
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.*
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

*Art as text

Questions for Viewing

  • Look closely at the figure's facial features. What do you notice?
  • What emotion do you think he is feeling?
  • How would you describe his gaze? Where does he appear to be looking?
  • How would you feel if you ran into him on the street?
  • What role do you think this person played in his community?
  • Where might this object have been displayed before it came to the Museum? Why do you think it would have been displayed there?
  • This bust features the Roman Emperor Caracalla. Why do you think he wanted to be portrayed in this way? What might this portrait tell us about him as a ruler?
  • How is this portrait similar to or different from representations of leaders today?


Activity Setting: Classroom or Museum
Materials: Pencils and drawing paper
Subject Areas: English Language Arts, Visual Arts, World History
Duration: 90 minutes

Look closely at the Portrait head of Emperor Constantine I and note the similarities and differences between the two sculptures. If you were having your portrait made, which style would you prefer? Why? With this in mind, draw yourself as a Roman emperor or empress. Consider the leadership qualities about which you feel most strongly and how they could be most clearly expressed through the style of the artwork, the accessories you are holding or wearing, and the place the artwork would be on view. Exchange your finished portrait with a neighbor. Have him or her write a poem extolling the virtues of the ruler shown in your portrait.


Beyer, Andreas. Portraits: A History. New York: Abrams, 2003.

Pre-Visit Guide for Teachers: The Art of Ancient Greece and Rome (PDF)

"Portrait head of the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (called Caracalla) [Roman] (40.11.1a)." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

Thompson, Nancy L. Roman Art: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. Download the resource.

Trentinella, Rosemarie. "Roman Portrait Sculpture: Republican through Constantinian." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

Objects in the Museum's Collection Related to this Lesson

Fragmentary portrait of the emperor Caracalla
About a.d. 212–17; Mid-Imperial, Severan
Bronze; H. 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989 (1989.281.80)

Portrait head of Emperor Constantine I
About 325–70 a.d.; Constantinian; Late Antique period
Marble; H. 37 1/2 in. (95.25 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Mary Clark Thompson, 1923 (26.229)

Relief of King Ashurnasirpal II
Neo-Assyrian period, reign of Ashurnasirpal II, 883–859 b.c.
Mesopotamia, excavated at Kalhu (modern Nimrud)
Gypsum alabaster; H. 92 1/4 in. (234.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932 (32.143.4)

Author: Adapted from a lesson by Felicia Blum, Michael Norris, and Edith Watts in Roman Art: A Resource for Educators
Affiliation: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Date: 2007

Detail of a stone face

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