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?

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    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, 2016 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. Jul 6, 2016 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.
    – MCW
    Jul 6, 2016 at 17:19
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    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.
    – user15620
    Jul 6, 2016 at 17:49
  • I have often wondered about the premature balding aspect of many of the famed figures of Rome actually. Jul 7, 2016 at 2:04

2 Answers 2


Ancient Egypt

I asked myself this question just the other day and done a little online searching.

According to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, sculptures displaying true likeness were a rarety in Ancient Egypt.

Wikipedia, description

Sculptures portraying true likenesses of people (rather than highly stylized portrayals) are rare in Ancient Egyptian art, both before and after the creation of Ankhhaf's bust.2

Ancient Egyptian bust, by Lthomas2 Prince Ankhhaf bust at Museum Fine Arts, Boston

Greek and Roman

Overall, Roman portrait sculptures are claimed to be more reliable than their Greek or Egyptian counterparts, though admittedly, there is no source for this claim outside of Wikipedia.

Social and psychological aspect, wikipedia

Unlike the ancient Greek portraits that strived for idealization (the Greeks believed that a good man must be beautiful), Roman portrait sculpture was far more natural and is still considered one of the most realistic samples of the genre in the history of art.

real life warty Roman portraiture, by Daderot Roman portraiture is characterized by its "warts and all" realism; bust of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, a cast from the original in bronze, found in Pompeii, now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum


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.

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    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. Jul 8, 2016 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, 2016 at 7:37

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