after 169 AD
Height 47 cm
Property of Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.
Even as a small boy, Marcus Aurelius had been noted for his honesty. The Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138, jokingly called his nephew »verissimus«, and laid on his successor, Antoninus Pius (r. 138– 161), the obligation of adopting Marcus.
When Marcus Aurelius took up the reins of government in 161 AD, he had been admirably prepared for it. He had also received a first-class education in philosophy and rhetoric. Despite the fact that his many political responsibilities were accompanied by economic difficulties and a succession of military campaigns, he contrived to write a philosophical treatise in Greek. These Meditations are a work of world literature. Elements that give it a timeless significance are the admonitions to act with justice and selflessness, and above all the principle of the subordination of the individual to the tasks facing the wider community.
This portrait of the ruler-philosopher vividly conveys the emperor’s cast of mind. The broad face, framed by a beard and straggly hair, is reminiscent of the portraits of Greek philosophers of five hundred years earlier. Hadrian, the reviver of Greek culture, had deliberately drawn on elements of those portraits, as had Antoninus Pius. While the eyelids seem to weigh heavily on the large eyes, the eyebrows are raised and the forehead contracted. These aspects of the portrait undoubtedly reflect the emperor’s struggle to take honest stances and establish values. The three small wart-like bumps on the forehead and chin are not part of the physiognomy, but the sculptor’s measuring points. This is where the so-called pointing machine, useful when making a copy of an original, was applied.