Comparison Of Egyptian And Roman Portraiture Essay Samples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Bust, Egypt, Rome, Statue, Art, Women, Family, Wife

Pages: 2

Words: 550

Published: 2020/12/10

The civilizations of Ancient Egypt and Rome are among the most celebrated of antiquity, having produced numerous works of art that still survive today. Portraiture was developed in both civilizations and in this short essay, a comparison between one Egyptian and one Roman portrait will attempt to show the similarities and differences between them. The two works are: the Statue of Menkaure and his wife, which dates from ca 2490-2472 B.C.E and the Bust of Emperor Septimius Severus, which was created in around 201-210 C.E. These are both portraits of rulers, as Menkaure was one of the pharaohs of the 4th dynasty and Septimius Severus a Roman Emperor. It is to be expected therefore, that they represent the best craftsmanship of the two respective civilizations and are thus ideal for comparison. Although the first is actually a double portrait and the second a single portrait, both works represent images of kingship.
The two works are made from different materials. While the Egyptian statue is made from greywacke, a kind of stone with a deep dark color, the Roman one uses marble as its material. Both works however, were painted in antiquity. Traces of color, and especially red and black paint, have been found on the Statue of Menkaure and his Wife (Stokstad and Cothren, 2011, p. 59). Although no such traces survive on the Bust of Septimius Severus, it is believed that the work followed the tradition and was vividly painted initially (Bust of Septimius Severus, 2005). The Egyptian work is significantly bigger, as it is a full scale statue, being almost life size at 54 ½ inches (Stokstad and Cothren, 2011, p. 59). The Roman work is smaller as it is a bust, and stands at 25 inches high, although it too would look life size in the eyes of the viewer (Bust of Septimius Severus, 2005).
The Egyptian statue is still attached to the block of stone from which it was created. In fact the pharaoh and his wife seem to emerge from it (Kleiner, 2009, p. 63). The Roman work is wholly carved and no part of the initial stone has been left to support the sculpture in any way. In terms of composition, the Egyptian pharaoh is presented in a totally frontal and rigid stance. His hands are attached to his body and only one of his feet is placed one step forward as if ready to take a step (Kleiner, 2009, p.63). His wife stands next to him in a similarly frontal position, placing her arm around her husband’s waist. Both of them however, show no sign of emotion (Kleiner, 2009). Their cloths and even parts of their bodies have geometric shapes that on a closer look do not look realistic. Septimius Severus position is definitely more relaxed. His head is presented turning to the right and bending slightly forward. Great attention has been paid to the details of his clothing as well as the curls of his hair and beard that give the viewer a sense of realism. Emotion is not totally absent, as the Emperor’s gaze gives a sense of determination.
It is interesting that both works convey a sense of strength, although the artists managed to show it by using different devices. Menkaure appears youthful and athletic, his torso is naked and only wears a kilt and a headcloth (Stokstad and Cothren, 2011, p. 59). This is the image of a young and strong man, a picture that was certainly idealized and quite far from how the king actually looked like. On the other hand, the image of Septemius Severus depicts a slightly older man and it seems to be closer to what the emperor would look like in real life. Still, this too is a highly idealized image that tries to show strength. The position of the head, the emperor’s gaze and the lines of his face, portray a strong and just ruler (Bust of Septimius Severus, 2005).
Both images represent the periods in which they were created. In fact, they are representations of ideal kingship. Youth and an athletic body that remained unchanged through time were important for the ancient Egyptians, who mainly used their works of art for funerary purposes. A more mature representation of the ruler was more important for the Romans who considered aging as a sign of virtue and wisdom (Stokstad and Cothren, 2011, p. 173). Unlike the Egyptian statue that was placed inside the funerary temple of the pharaoh, the Roman bust would probably be placed in a more public place. It seems however, that the Romans followed a long tradition of portraiture that was certainly influenced from Ancient Egypt, a country that after all belonged to their vast empire. Although the two works differ significantly in many ways, they have at least one thing in common: the idea of strong kingship that survived through the centuries.


Bust of Septemius Severus. (2005). In Indiana University Art Museum. Retrieved from
Kleiner, Fred. (2009). Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, vol. II. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Stokstad, M. and Cothren, M.W. (2011). Art History, Vol. I, 4th Edition. Boston: Prentice Hall.

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