On Body and Soul: Portraits of Roman Women from the Age of Crisis (193-305 CE)


Roman portraiture underwent a profound change under Severan rule. Roman portraits produced between the end of the second and the beginning of the third century C.E. were characterized by a more realistic style, showing signs of aging and harsh expressions, which communicate a sense of anxiety. Art historians have associated the rise of realistic style in portrait sculptures with the contemporary social, political, and military instabilities across the Roman Empire. However, scholarship has traditionally focused on male portraits, especially those of the emperors. Less attention has been given to female portraiture from this period beyond the study of chronological evolution of elements such as hairstyles.

This thesis investigates the historical significance of stylistic changes in female portraiture in the third century C.E., focusing on the sculptures found in major antique collections in Rome. Through quantitative and visual analysis, and intense focus on the historical context, Cecilia explores the possible impacts of socio-political changes, religion, and philosophy on the artistic representation of women. By applying models from gender theory to examine the disappearance of Antonine beauty and the rise of realistic style in female portraits, she offer insight into the conceptualization of female identity and broadens our understanding of the lives of Roman women at this transitional period in the history of the Roman Empire.

Wenxuan (Cecilia) Huang

Cecilia is an international student from China, majoring in Art History and Classics. She has a wide area of research interests, including Imperial Roman sculpture, Early Christian art, Renaissance antiquarianism, and gender and sexuality in Classical art. After graduating from Rutgers, she is going to start her MPhil program in Classics at Cambridge University with a focus on Roman Art and Archaeology. 

16 Replies to “On Body and Soul: Portraits of Roman Women from the Age of Crisis (193-305 CE)”

  1. That was a great presentation, Cecilia! Congratulations. It is so wonderful to see you emerge as the scholar I always knew you were.

    Would you know when a sarcophagus would be commissioned? It would appear that they would take some time to create. Did the elite commission them while they were still alive, thus directing how they would be portrayed? Or were they made in tribute after death?

    I would also like to congratulate you on your acceptance to Cambridge University! Please stay in touch!

    1. Thank you, Geralyn. The commission of sarcophagi is a very interesting topic. Many sarcophagi found in Rome were carved in either Asia Minor or Greece, the major centers of sarcophagi production and Hellenistic cultures, and they were shipped to Rome after completion. Of course, portraits would be carved after they arrived in Rome. There is no obvious sources telling us whether the portraits are made posthumously or from live. I would assume they assume posthumously, yet I don’t know. I would love to dig into this question in the future.

  2. Cecilia, its great to hear your breadth of knowledge surrounding this work/time period. This style and era of art has always been foreign to me, but you did a great job making it accessible and interesting. Good luck with your MPhil at Cambridge — WOW! Wishing you all the best 🙂

  3. Great job, Cecilia. I wondered whether you would eventually build a bridge to the Leonardo portrait that got you going on this project…
    Good luck with everything!

    1. Thank you, Professor Paul. It is great to hear from you. Bridging the late antique portraiture with Leonardo sounds like a fascinating topic. Though it seems somehow very challenging as well. I would love to see if this could be a potential field of future research.

  4. Extremely well done, Cecilia. Your analytic explanation of what you chose to include and why made sense and made the audience appreciate the wide-ranging scope of your thesis. Congratulations!

  5. Excellent work! What an impressive project. Wonderful news about Cambridge! We love to celebrate the successes of our alumni!

  6. Extremely interesting argument. I greatly enjoyed your visual analysis of Faustina and Julia, and your reasoning behind those choices was extremely sound. Stellar job portraying your ideas to the audience! Congrats!

    1. Thanks, Emma. I am glad to hear that you like the analysis of Faustina and Julia. A further comparison of their portrayal in historiography and numismatic evidence is also intriguing, which adds to the discussion about their characters and representation, in relation to imperial ideology of course.

  7. I enjoyed this introduction to female portraits of the Severan dynasty. There was a great variety of examples, and the pieces that you picked emphasized the formal aspects that you were describing quite well. Emphasis on figures who were not royal (though certainly royalty-adjacent and well-to-do) adds to the richness of the discussion. All the best!

  8. I was very interested to see how you built upon and expanded your capstone study of the Metropolitan bust into a more far-reaching exploration of the resurgence of veristic female portraiture in the 3rd century. Your inclusion of portraits on sarcophaghi is a great addition. Beautifully done! Will you continue to develop this material in Cambridge? I hope so and wish you the very best!

    1. Thank you very much, Professor Puglisi. It was a wonderful experience to develop my capstone paper into this thesis. The capstone course also played an important role in my interests in ancient portraiture. I am not sure what would be my specific research topic at Cambridge, but it will be focusing on Roman sculpture from high to late imperial period.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *