Bust of Galerius

Egypt, early 4th century

Porphyry, 40 cm

Cairo, Egyptian Museum

The bust has lost foot and base but is otherwise in almost perfect condition. The emperor wears the chlamys fastened at his right shoulder; head turned slightly right, he glares fixedly ahead. Surfaces of hair, mustache, and beard are raised slightly from flesh surfaces and textured with uniform chisel strokes; the face is drawn into a grimace with arched brows, straight nose, and downturned mouth. The forehead is delineated by two horizontal ridges above two vertical ones, leaving four raised "islands" of flesh above the brows. The eyes are strongly geometricized, and sharp creases arc from corners of nose to corners of mouth. The costume is treated in broad, smooth areas contrasted with sections of closely spaced folds across the shoulder and at the fall of the cloak. Various scholars have claimed the bust represents either an Egyptian provincial sculpture, anticipating Coptic art, or the imperial art of the Tetrarchy, or neither imperial nor Egyptian but a style of southwest Asia related to that of Sassanian Persia, or variations of all these. However, porphyry, the hardest stone known to antiquity, was found only in Egypt and was worked only by Egyptian craftsmen.
No doubt the bust is one of a considerable number of porphyry sculptures produced in Egypt for the Tetrarchy. While many of these are larger, none is finer and none is in better state of preservation. The reduced scale seems to focus the dynamics of the figure. While the summary treatment was dictated by the hardness of the stone-which must be worked by abrasion, not cutting-the mode of portrayal is found in other sculpture and on coin portraits of the Tetrarchs minted all over the East. The style-as divorced from the technique-of this bust is no more confined to Egypt than to the Sassanian marches. Identification of the subject has also been disputed. Most scholars had called him Licinius, though others suggested Maximinus Daia, the nephew of Galerius, and Diocletian himself. Discovery in 1957 of a sure image of Galerius in a clipeus on the "Little Arch" at Thessalonike has persuaded most experts that this is the correct identity of the present bust, whose profile also corresponds best with those on Galerius' coins: his short straight nose and scowling brow are unique in the First Tetrarchy. All representations compare closely with Lactantius' description of Galerius as a fierce and terrifying giant of a man. It was found at Athribis (Wannina), Lower Egypt.