"Portrait of a Woman" reveals quite a bit about the lives of women in ancient Rome, whose rank in society determined much of their life experience. The subject of this portrait was probably not a member of the aristocratic elite. Although her hairstyle, with the distinctive roll above the forehead made popular by Octavia and Livia, was borrowed from the fashion of the imperial court of 30 B.C., the realistic modeling of her face suggests her status as a private citizen. She has rounded features that show her years and experience and an expression suggesting modesty and devotion to duty.
It is likely that she was not a slave or a freed slave but freeborn of parents who might have come from a Roman province or foreign country. Her family could afford a portrait in the round, probably for group display at the family tomb--another indication of their freeborn status; freed slaves had to settle for relief portraits on their funerary monuments.
The portrait was part of "I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome," a groundbreaking exhibition mounted by the Yale University Art Gallery in 1996 that explored the lives of women in ancient Rome through busts, jewelry, fragments of garments, coins, and tools. The exhibition traveled from the Yale University Art Gallery to the San Antonio Museum of Art and the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Woman in Stone
January 31, 2005