Bronze Hercules and the Marble Torso Clad in a Cuirass The Significant Role of Religion and Politics in Art in Ancient Rome
In ancient Rome, as with the majority of ancient cultures, religion and politics played an essential role in the making of art. Although new approaches towards art developed, such as portraiture, art was primarily used as a means of political messages and of religious worship. This is evident in two pieces from the early empire (27 BC- 96CE), the “Bronze Heracles” (30BC-70CE) which was used mainly for religious purposes, and the “Marble Torso Clad in a Cuirass” (90-96CE) which used as a political promotion for Emperor Domitian or one of his generals (MFA).
Heracles the half human and half god, bastard son of Zeus, was the most popular of all the mythological figures in ancient Greece and Rome. His immense popularity can be attributed to the fact that he was half human, not especially bright, and tremendously strong. Many could identify with him, and it was reasonable for people to aspire to be like him. It is evident that Heracles was extremely popular, because of the vast quantity of artworks representing him. Common representations of the hero were medium sized bronze statuary and smaller statuettes. The “Bronze Heracles” located at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. It stands 101 cm tall and dates to 30 B.C.-C.E. 70. The statue was found broken near Norcia in Umbria, Italy (MFA). It has been reconstructed, and some parts in the middle of the back, the upper thigh, and the head and mane of the lion have been restored. Although Heracles is thought to have been holding a club in his left hand, and also have eyes inlaid with other materials such as copper, gold, or ivory, these part have not been restored. Bronze Heracles was made by hollow-casting, or the lost-wax method, developed by the Greeks. It is called the lost-wax method because an initial clay model of the statue is made, that is then coated with a layer of wax, which details such as hair are added to. Next, a thick shell of clay coats the wax, to form a mold of it. The clay on the outside and the inside of the wax are fired, and the wax melts from the heat, through a small hole. Finally the bronze is poured into the mold, and the clay is removed from it in pieces (Kleiner 131). Considering Heracles is hollow, it is no surprised that he was found as fragments.
This particular statue of Heracles is not original in any sense. There are many ways Heracles was depicted in ancient Rome, and some were more common than others. Every Roman citizen knew the story of Heracles and his 12 tasks. The first and most famous task was to kill the Nemean Lion, which he did with an olive tree club. A favorite way of depicting Heracles, so that he was easily identified, was to show him with the skin of the Nemean lion, and the club with which he killed it (Kliener109). Probably many similar statues had been constructed before the “Bronze Heracles”, and a few of them survive today. One very similar statue is “Hercule” located in the Louvre in Paris. This statue, also bronze is a strikingly similar representation of Heracles. It stands at 62 cm and was made around 70-79 CE in Herculaneum, Italy. Both Heracles’ are extremely muscular, stocky, and bearded to signify a mature version of the hero. Also both have bare feet which signify he is a hero or even a god (Ramage 86). These statues most likely belonged to members of the upper class who could afford to buy them and display them in their home as a status symbol and also a tribute to the gods.
The “Marble Torso clad in a Cuirass” was made for a very different purpose. Most likely the larger than life size statue was commissioned by Emperor Domitian as a portrait of himself (MFA). It may also be a portrait of a valued general because the figure is clad in a cuirass — the breast plate of military generals. The torso dates back from 90-96 CE, coinciding with the end of Domitian’s rule (81- 96 CE). The statue was carved from white marble by means of chipping away at it. To get a smooth surface on the marble at the end it was polished with finer textured pumice or emery. Possibly the gaping hole at the neck suggests that the head and body were carved separately and attached with pegs (ThinkQuest). Often statues were made then the portrait head of the emperor or general was attached.
It is clear that the subject of the statue is of the highest class because of the intricate details of the cuirass. It is obviously a fancy and carefully detailed cuirass worn by people of status. The images on the cuirass all have symbolic meaning. At the top is a gorgon presumably there to instill fear in an opponent. There are other grotesque monsters on the bottom scales. In the center of the chest appears to be the goddess Athena, the goddess of war, with her shield. She is flanked by winged women, which are probably personifications of victory called Nike.
Other factors that signify that this is probably Domitian are the stance of the statue and the large scale. Although there are no arms or legs, it is possible to imagine where they would fall. The Contrapposto makes it obvious that the weight would be borne down on the right leg, which advances forward. The right arm is also raised in the air dictating leadership. The pose and large size of the
statue are probably modeled on the “Augustus of Prima Porta”, a Roman marble copy made in the fist century from the original bronze made of the emperor Augustus around 20BC. The raised hand commands, like a ruler, and the larger than life size suggests a superhuman. Romans thought that the emperor was not only the first citizen, but also a god. This also explains the bare feet of Augustus, which the “Torso Clad in a Cuirass” might have also had (Ramage 86).
The Manner in which the “Torso Clad in Cuirass” and “Bronze Heracles” were displayed, are probably different. The marble torso was once a looming statue probably meant for a large public space. Perhaps it stood in the forum, or maybe it was inside the emperor’s palace. Either way, it was created to boost the emperor’s reputation, like propaganda. The small statue of Heracles too, was meant to show the luxury that the person who bought it could afford. However, it was probably not publicly displayed. Instead it might have been kept inside an upper class home. Although it focuses on religion, the statue speaks about class as well. Similarly, the cuirassed torso focuses on politics, while referencing the gods. In ancient Rome religion, and politics were intertwined, and also inseparable form art.
- Bronze Heracles. 30 BC-70 CE. 95.34. Early Imperial Roman Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
- HW: Wilson Web- Main “Cuirassed torso: a statue of Domitian (?)”
- Kleiner, Fred S., and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardener’s Art Trough the Ages. Twelfth Volume1. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.
Ramage, Nancy, and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. New York, Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1991.
MFA- Online Collections Database-Object Full Record. “Bronze Heracles, 30 BC-
70AD, Italy,101 cm.”
- Site Officiel du Musee du Louvre. “Hercule, 70-78 CE, Herculaneum, Bronze, 62cm.”
- Torso Clad in Cuirass. 90-96 CE. Early Imperial Roman99.346. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
February 2, 2023
February 2, 2023