This question links to a blog article of dubious quality about the life of Nero. One sentence however got me thinking (emphasis mine):

Though many historical accounts of Nero describe him as weak and frail, one may know merely by looking at a bust that he had a noble face from which blue eyes burned fiercely.

My first reaction was to reject the argument outright, but it made me think about the accuracy of the busts carved during ancient history, such at these: Julius Caesar, Nero, Plato, Shapur II.

I found a forum post asking the same question. One of the answer refers to verism, which is an artistic movement advocating realism, hence producing accurate representation of historical figures. However, it is a movement that was happening only in the Roman Empire, and not consistently during its reign.

How can historian assess the accuracy of busts and statues of ancient history? Has there been research about this?

  • I'd imagine that, given the cost, that the busts were intended to flatter the figure they were based on. So like any good portrait artist, the sculptors would accentuate the good points and play down the flaws. – Steve Bird Jul 6 '16 at 16:22
  • Are you asking mostly about busts that were carved contemporaneously? Because busts carved after the death of the individual would naturally have substantially less accuracy, except where based on accurate portrayals. – called2voyage Jul 6 '16 at 16:32
  • You can compare the busts with each other, and with corresponding textual records. In some cases (Richard III), you can compare them with skeletal remains. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 6 '16 at 17:19
  • 3
    Some Roman busts are believed to be based on death masks, so they'd be accurate. But it's going to depend on the situation. – Gort the Robot Jul 6 '16 at 17:49
  • I have often wondered about the premature balding aspect of many of the famed figures of Rome actually. – Doctor Zhivago Jul 7 '16 at 2:04

Some busts and statues were made when the person was alive, others were copied from these. So in some cases one can be reasonably certain that there is a close similarity with the original. I suppose this applies to all Roman emperors, for example. Probably to the busts of some famous Greeks, like Pericles, or Greek/Macedonian rulers of Egypt and other Hellenistic states. As a check we have coins with the portraits of many of those personages. Certain faces of antiquity are easily recognizable because of the multitude of depictions of the same person which have a lot of similarity.

  • What if all the depictions exaggerated the subject in the same way? How can you be certain that it is accurate? For example, pseudo-athlete style exaggerates the physique, and verism exaggerates signs of age. – congusbongus Jul 8 '16 at 0:31
  • For Nero, in particular, look at the English Wikipedia page. There are very many portraits, including even a caricature. Together they give a very good impression of how he looked. At various stages of his life. – Alex Jul 9 '16 at 7:37

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