Portrait of a man; perhaps the Emperor Maximianus Herculeus

Late Imperial Period
late 3rd–early 4th century

Catalogue Raisonné

Sculpture in Stone (MFA), no. 378; Sculpture in Stone and Bronze (MFA), p. 116 (additional published references).


Height: 24.7 cm (9 3/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Not On View


The Ancient World



The identification as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus (titled Herculeus after his patron god or hero) is based on coins struck in the mints of Rome and the western empire from about AD 296 to 308. The cubistic, linear style seen on these coins was a short-lived artistic innovation of the Tetrarchy, which passed out of circulation with the Augustan classical revival of Constantine the Great after his victory over Maxentius (son of Maximianus) at the Mulvian Bridge in AD 312. Like all innovative styles, this cubism in coin-portraiture and a few freestanding imperial portraits in porphyry or marble left a permanent mark in the arts, becoming ultimately part of the proto-Byzantine conceptualism of imperial portraiture in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.

This head is of the type which could have surmounted a statue, in cuirass or in civic garb, designed to be set in the niche of a triumphal monument, of the type perhaps of the Arch of Galerius at Salonika. A rectangular hole in the back would have been for fixing the statue into a niche, such as those on the upper part of the Arch of Galerius, intended for statues of the four Tetrarchs or for the two eastern Tetrarchs and their patron divinities. The statue for which this head of Maximianus Herculeus was designed could have been a contemporary creation or it could have been an older statue to which this “cubistic” head and its neck were fitted.

This stubble-bearded head with a demonically intense expression is rendered in a rough and abbreviated technique. Several other heads found in central Italy display a similar approach. The style is apparently derived from that of works carved in Egypt out of purple porphyry stone, which was extremely hard and difficult to work. A few such colorful but abbreviated porphyry sculptures were imported to Rome in the early fourth century AD, where they evidently created a powerful impression.

The head, which is over life-size, does not seem to have individualized physiognomy. It has been re-cut from an earlier portrait. The earlier portrait had fuller hair which has been taken down roughly. A chisel has been used to denote the current hairstyle; it is used more carefully and in smaller strokes around the brow. The ears are disproportionately large, and the upper right ear, which originally had hair touching it, has been rounded out but remains awkwardly thick. The eyebrows and cheeks have been given hair by cutting into the extant surface of the original portrait with a flat chisel. A circular iris has been engraved into the eyeball. A deep furrow has been added across the brow.

The head is preserved in two fragments; (1) the back left portion with the left side of the brow and left ear and (2) the face and back right side of the head. The nose, most of the mouth, the chin, and lower left cheek are missing. The surfaces, albeit battered, have a fine yellow patina.

Scientific Analysis: problematic because of two differing isotopic tests:

Harvard Lab No. HI1527: Isotope ratios - delta13C +3.01 / delta18O -3.47,

Istituto di Struttura della Materia - CNR Lab No. 8 (January 30, 2012): maximum grain size: 0.5mm; electron paramagnetic resonance: intensity 9.0%, line width 49.5%; 242 ppm.

Attribution - Mt. Hymettos, near Athens. Justification - C and O isotopes (based on HI1527), fine grain, low EPR intensity

University of South Florida Lab No. 8443: Isotope ratios - delta13C +5.3 / delta18O -3.0 ,

Attribution - Paros 1 (Marathi: Lyknites). Justification - C and O isotopes (based on USF 8443)


By 1961: with Münzen und Medaillen, A.G., Malzgasse 25, Basel, Switzerland (said to come from the Via Appia, Minturno); November 8, 1961: purchased by MFA from Münzen & Medaillen A.G. for $ 750-.

Credit Line

Samuel Putnam Avery Fund