Portrait head of Emperor Claudius

Domus Romana Group
About This Artefact

I.D. no:28973

Dimensions: Max. H. 33 cm; Max. W. 26 cm.

Material: Fine grain white marble with a warm honey-coloured patina and the odd grey vein (most obvious on fault lines). One fault line affects the right side of face, from the hair line above the right eye, down the right temple and cheek to below the jaw-bone. The second fault line starts from the hair line above the left eye and comes down obliquely to the inner left eyebrow. “Luna marble” according to Ashby.[1] Some crystals are rather large, suggesting Parian marble.[2]

Provenance: The 1881 excavations of the Roman Domus in Rabat, Malta.

Current location: Domvs Romana Museum in Rabat, Malta.


Condition: The head, larger than life-size, was worked separately, but an irregular break has deprived the neck of its lower end, from c. 1 cm below the double-chin downwards. The head itself is relatively well preserved, with broken nose and some minor chips on the edges of both ears, eyebrows, lower lip and hair.

Description: The head conforms to the relatively triangular shape typical of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The wavy hair is on the short side with layers of somewhat short and curved locks which frame the forehead with a degree of regularity, without verging on the monotonous, but become thicker and more irregular at the back, above the nape of the neck.

The surface of the forehead is rather animated and marked by a horizontal wrinkle. The eyebrows are sharply prominent over deep-set eyes, the left eye being slightly flatter than the right one. The cheeks are slightly hollow beneath rather pronounced cheekbones. Two furrows depart from the lower nose edges to frame a small mouth with closed lips flanked by deepened edges.

The face is marked by animated surfaces all round, emanating a chiaroscuro effect and providing it with a warm and, at the same time, resolute and forceful expression, typical of a man in a position of power. The epidermis is shorn of superfluous fat and highlights the vigorous bone structure underneath it.

Calculations of the measurements of this head statue and the larger-than-life-size found in the grounds of the same Roman town house in 1922 (this catalogue, I.D. no: 28973), confirm beyond reasonable doubt that the two pieces belonged together.[3]


Discussion: There is no doubt that this is one of the warmest and most lively portraits of the emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) whose image and personality have been in the process of continuous rehabilitation over the last half a century. Its first correct and definitive identification with Claudius is owed to Albert Mayr.[4] After L.M. Ugolini’s erroneous attribution of this portrait head to the Emperor Tiberius,[5] Ludwig Curtius reaffirmed its correct identity,[6] followed immediately by P.C. Sestieri.[7] The latter identification is confirmed by Claudius’ portraiture on coins,[8] and by its stringent likeness with his most reliably attributed sculptured portraits.[9]

Iconographically, the Maltese head is classifiable under the main type of Claudius’ portrait types for which no less than twenty three specimens have been listed.[10] The most characteristic feature in this head is the peculiar pattern of the hair on the forehead. It comes down forward in short curly locks which point in different directions in order to form two ‘forceps’ arrangements, one above each eye, separated by a central group of six locks, two pointing to the left temple and four to the right one. Almost the same arrangement is displayed on the head in Erbach,[11] in which, however, the almost imperceptible lock timidly projecting in the centre of the right ‘forceps’ in the Maltese head is given the consistency of a full-bodied seventh lock. The head of the colossal seated statue of Claudius in the Lateran Museum[12] has exactly the same hair arrangement on the forehead as that of the Rabat head but the separation between the two locks pointing left and the four locks pointing right is placed prominently and clearly right in the centre of the face. For this reason Fittschen grouped it together with four other portraits under a separate replica.[13]

To my mind, this distinction into replicas according to slight variations in the hairstyle is not as significant as that based on the realistic, as opposed to idealistic, content and on the stylistic treatment of the different portraits. The latter is the distinction favoured by West and Felletti Maj,[14]  as well as Bonacasa.[15] Felletti Maj accepts the division of Claudius’ portraiture in two phases, the first one characterized by a tendency towards linearity and the second one by a soft and pictorial plasticity, both of which could even be contemporary developments.[16] The Rabat head certainly belongs to the second current, the most representative examples of which are the one in the Lateran Museum, already mentioned,[17] the one in the National Museum of Naples no 6060,[18] and another one from Leptis Magna, now in Tripoli,[19] all of which are marked by a realism which has been reported to be a reaction to Augustan and Tiberian academism. But the portraits which are closest to ours, both typologically and in the warm and pictorial modelling, are the head in Brunswick,[20] and another in Copenhagen (No 1948).[21] In contrast, the hair is treated somewhat summarily.

During my last inspection in August 2015, I noticed that the hair is not sculpted at the back, especially on the left side, where the surface is only covered with stippling produced by the claw chisel.[22] The reason for this oddity is not clear. One cannot help recalling that, as it is reported, many of Claudius’s heads are reworked portraits of Caligula who was subjected to a damnatio memoriae, including the one from the Collegium of the Augustales in Rusellae and that from the Julio-Claudian Basilica in Veleia.[23]


Bibliography: (previous publications of item):

Caruana 1881: 7, pl. without number at end of booklet. Caruana 1882: 114: “probably one of the Emperors”. Mayr 1909: 146: “ein Kopf des Kaisers Claudius”. Ashby 1915: 40: “A male portrait-head in Luna marble, 1’ high, of a member of the Julian (?) house (no. 28): the work and preservation are both good, but the nose is broken. The hair is worked in layers, in separate strands. (Judging from a photograph in Caruana, Report, a characteristic portrait of the emperor Claudius may be the companion-portrait of Agrippina. – G.McN. Rushforth)” [no photo]. Zammit 1930: 21, pl. facing p. 17: repeats Ashby and adds: “an imposing face, very probably a portrait of the emperor Claudius (41-54 AD)”. Ugolini 1931: “Tiberius”. Curtius 1935: 309, n. 7. Sestieri 1936: 70, n. 8. Pietrangeli 1938: 58, 107. Poulsen 1939: 23. Poulsen 1946: 26, n. 107. Felletti Maj 1959: 706. Jucker 1959/60: 278, pl. 6, 3. Poulsen 1962: 93. Balty 1963: 104: n. 5. Bonanno 1971: 122-127. Fittschen 1977: 56. Massner 1982: 128. Bonanno 1992: 22-23, pl. 26. Bonanno 1997. Bonanno 2005: 221-22.

[1] Ashby1915: 40.

[2] Susan Walker (personal communication 14/10/ 1989).

[3] Bonanno 1992: 22. Bonanno 1997; 2005: 221. The head of Claudius has, since then, been mounted on this statue in the current display of the Domvs Romana Museum.

[4] Mayr 1909: 146.

[5] Ugolini 1931.

[6] Curtius 1935. A tentative identification with Claudius, on the basis of that of the female bust with Agrippina Minor, had been made by G.McN. Rushforth (in Ashby 1915: 40), followed by Zammit 1930: 21.

[7] Sestieri 1936: 70, n. 8.

[8] For the coins of Claudius see Mattingly 1923: 164-98, pls 31-37; Robertson 1962, pls 15-19. See also Salzmann 1976.

[9] The portraiture of Claudius was the object of a monographic study by M. Stuart (1938) in which she produced a thorough examination of the sources and a comprehensive list of the then extant portraits of this emperor. Under a separate heading she listed the possible portraits and others that were by then considered forgeries or incorrectly identified. Amongst the genuine portraits she failed to include the Maltese head which had also escaped the notice of J.J. Bernoulli (1882-1894). The latest and most complete list of Claudius’ sculptured portraits, grouped under four types according to some differences in the pattern of the hair on the forehead is in Fittschen 1977: 55-58. See also Massner 1982: 126-38, 159-60.

[10] Fittschen 1977: 55-56.

[11] Fittschen 1977: 55-58, no 17, pl. 19.

[12] Giuliano 1957: 33-34, no 36, pls 21-22.

[13] Fittschen 1977: 57, no 4 (a-e).

[14] West 1933: 205-14, pls 56-57. Felletti Maj 1959: 705.

[15] Bonacasa 1960: 126-139.

[16] The numismatic portraits are not very helpful on this matter since the chronology of the coins which show close resemblance both to the Maltese and the Erbach heads (namely, Mattingly 1923: pl. 36, 1-3; Robertson 1962: pl. 16, 44-45) is uncertain.

[17] See note 9.

[18] West 1933: 210, fig. 245, pl. 57.

[19] Aurigemma 1940–41: 83–84, fig. 60.

[20] Herzog-Anton-Ulrich- Museum Inv. No. AS 7.  See bibliography in Massner 1982: 128, n. 706.

[21] Poulsen 1962: 93, no 59, pls 98-99. Bibliography in Massner 1982: 128, n. 706.

[22] The same treatment appears on the portrait of Claudius from Carinola, now housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples (no. 150215). See Massner 1986: 66, pl. 11, 1&3.

[23] Varner 2004: 225-236.