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Head of Emperor Caligula
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Unknown
Roman, Asia Minor, about A.D. 40
Marble
16 15/16 in.
72.AA.155

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The Roman emperor Gaius, more commonly known by his nickname Caligula, ruled from A.D. 37 to 41 and was extremely unpopular. In fact, after he was murdered, almost all portraits of him were destroyed.

The Romans had a long tradition of portraiture, but portraits of emperors had a specific propaganda function beyond that of ordinary portraits. The actual appearance of the individual was combined with the political message that the portrait was meant to convey. Portraits of Caligula show a young man with a high forehead, small mouth, and thin lips. He is identifiable as an individual, yet his hairstyle copies that of the emperor Augustus, making a deliberate allusion to his dynastic connection and his right to rule.

The depiction of the emperor in these official portraits bears no resemblance to the unpleasant descriptions of Caligula provided by Roman writers such as Suetonius:

Height: tall -- Complexion: pallid -- Body: hairy and badly built -- Neck: thin -- Legs: spindling -- Eyes: sunken -- Temples: hollow -- Forehead: broad and forbidding -- Scalp: almost hairless, especially on top. Because of his baldness and hairiness he announced that it was a capital offense either for anyone to look down on him as he passed or to mention goats in any context.