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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Posthumous portrait head of the Emperor Claudius

Photo: Paul Macapia

Posthumous portrait head of the Emperor Claudius

54 - 68 A.D.

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54. This portrait was probably part of a cult statue of the newly deceased, then deified, Claudius. With hundreds of only slightly varying portraits spread across the empire, Roman subjects could easily identify their former Emperor. This finely detailed head made of Greek marble was probably inserted onto an over-life-size, draped statue that wore the characteristic Roman toga. The full statue might have been one of a series of Roman emperors specially commissioned for a public building or to be placed alongside statues of other members of the imperial family in a religious dedication. It could also have been produced for a more private setting. Although minor damage has occurred to the back of the head and to the side of the face and nose, the work is in good condition, without later repair and not over cleaned or recarved.

A scholar and an author, Claudius was an unlikely successor to his infamous nephew Caligula. Claudius was notably responsible for expanding and diversifying the Roman Empire, annexing Thrace, Judea and Mauretania, and conquering Britannia. He granted citizenship to retiring soldiers, no matter their country or station of birth, and upheld the rights of cultural minorities such as the Jews within the Empire.
17 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. (44.5 x 26.7 x 29.2 cm)
Norman and Amelia Davis Purchase Fund
Provenance: [Robin Symes Ltd, until 1993]; purchased by Seattle Art Museum (with funds from Norman and Amelia Davis Purchase Fund)
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

He possessed majesty and dignity of appearance . . . for he was tall but not slender, with an attractive face, becoming white hair, and a full neck.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1914

Portraits of Claudius and Rome

The story of Roman portraiture, and this portrait of Claudius specifically, spans thousands of years, from its inception as an art form to our experience of these works in museums today. Explore Roman portraiture, the story of the emperor Claudius, the original meaning and intent of this portrait, and the evolution of its meaning over time.
Posthumous portrait head of the Emperor Claudius, ca. 54-68, Roman, 93.6
Photo: Paul Macapia

The Power of Portraiture

Funerary Portrait, 1st-2nd century, Egyptian, 50.62
While based in part on more idealized Greek precedents, the "warts and all" authenticity of Roman portraits (from the Republican period onward) shows a modern audience the true faces of our Roman forebears.
Head of a Dacian (?), 1st-2nd century, Roman, 56.69
Portraits were produced not only of the imperial family but of other favored leaders, military and civic heroes and even of vanquished foes. The omnipresence of portrait statuary in civic settings would have familiarized the public with the faces and character (based on the body and attributes) of the leading men and women of the time.  Portraits were both propagandistic tools and ways to ensure enduring recollection.
Funerary head, 3rd-1st century B.C., Qatabanian (modern Yemen), 57.82
Portraits from the southern Arabian region of Qataban are distinctly flattened, with large eye cavities for typical Near Eastern inlays of gems and precious stones.
Photo: Paul Macapia
Head of a youth, 4th-5th century, Roman, Gaul (modern Switzerland, France or Italy), 48.27
Gallo-Roman heads, from one of the most "Romanized" regions outside Italy, reflected Hellenistic ideals.
Head of a Caucasian, 2nd-early 3rd century, Kushan (modern northern India or Pakistan), 41.22
The portraits produced in Kushan (northern India and Pakistan today) were done in stucco and show men with the large mustaches characteristic of that Eastern kingdom.

Who Was Claudius?

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Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Bust of Claudius as Jupiter, ca. 50, Roman
Head of Claudius from colossal statue in Piraeus Museum, Greece
Photo: Barbara McManus, 2001
Cameo portrait of Claudius wearing a laurel wreath and military garb, ca. 44-49, Roman
Photo: Chris Nyborg
Bronze head of the Emperor Claudius, 1st century, Roman Britain
Photo: Chris Nyborg
Sculpture, ca. 30 B.C.-500 A.D., Roman
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Claudius, discovered in Gabies (Pontano) ca. 1792-95, Roman
Aureus, obverse: Head of Agrippina the Younger, reverse: Head of Claudius, ca. 50-54, Roman


Peg Laird, Roman Art Historian and Archaeologist and Adjunct Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Delaware, discusses Roman portraiture as and in monuments
Peg Laird, Roman Art Historian and Archaeologist and Adjunct Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Delaware, talks about the bust of the emperor Claudius
Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Seattle Art Museum, describes the Renaissance taste for collecting


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Hero/Antihero, Dec. 21, 2002-Aug. 17, 2003

Published ReferencesSeattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures, London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 53

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

Learn more about Equity at SAM