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Portrait of an Emperor

Roman, early 4th century
Porphyry, height 16.3 cm

This compact, staring face may have belonged to Maximinus Daia, Roman Emperor from 305 to 313. He was one of the tetrarchs, four contemporary emperors who shared power in a short-lived system set up by Diocletian in 293 in an effort to consolidate imperial control in a sprawling, troubled empire. One of the intriguing quirks of imperial portraits from the late third and early fourth centuries is that they tend to look alike. They all have thick, columnar necks; square faces; simplified, geometric features; and overlarge, staring eyes. This uniformity was more than just a matter of artistic taste. It responded to political doctrine. Wary of the obvious threats of ambition and treachery, the tetrarchs married into each others' families, referred to each other as brothers, and stressed how similar they were to each other. So, even in group portraits, such as the famous porphyry group of the four tetrarchs on the exterior of the Church of San Marco in Venice, they are scarcely differentiated. This is why the identification of the Dumbarton Oaks head cannot, ultimately, be established. 

That we are looking at an emperor, however, is certain on account of the material. The head is carved from porphyry, a stone formed from fragmented volcanic material with a dark red or purple cast. It was quarried in eastern Egypt from Mount Porphyrites, modern-day Gebel Doukhan. Its extreme hardness made it difficult to carve, but it was prized for its color, which came to be associated with imperial dignity. Like cloth that has been dyed purple and documents signed in purple ink, its use was carefully guarded as the exclusive prerogative of the emperor.

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