Picturing Poets

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Verity Platt

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Fantasy Faces

Like biographies, portraits cluster around many of the most famous poets of antiquity. They are found in multiple periods, contexts and media, from Classical Greek vase-paintings to Imperial Roman garden statuary (Zanker 1995; Schefold and Bayard 1997). Like biographies, portraits also have a complex relationship to the ‘truth’ of the figures they depict. Even the most candid snapshot of an individual is subject to matters of framing, medium and style, which create interpretative distance between the sitter and his or her image.

This is especially the case with ancient portraiture, which combined the rhetoric of visual ‘likeness’ with notions of subjectivity and psychology that are significantly different from our own (Dillon 2006). Add to this the fact that certain features of physical appearance (such as dress, posture, hairstyle and expression) were loaded with specific meanings according to period and context, and it becomes clear that rather than offering truthful representations of the ancient poets, portraits present us with elaborate visual exercises that might tell us far more about the process of cultural reception. This is particularly the case for posthumous portraits (as most of our examples are), often commissioned long after the lifetime of the poet. In the case of a figure like Homer, who has an especially rich portrait tradition (see Homer: A Guide to Sculptural Types), the fictionality of the portrait is so indisputable that it arguably invites its viewers to speculate precisely on the processes of reading and literary interpretation that gave form to his imagined ‘likeness’.

The question we should bring to ancient poet portraits, then, is not ‘Did s/he really look like this?’, but rather ‘Why was it important to ancient patrons, artists and viewers, that s/he looked like this? What does the commission and display of poet portraits tell us about the cultural values invested in specific genres of poetry? And why were these values explored and expressed through the visual representation of the author?’

Making poetry visible

Take, for example, the portrait tradition associated with the tragedian Sophocles, represented by three portrait ‘types’, surviving in multiple copies. The best known of these, a full-length marble statue in the Lateran Museum in Rome Lateran Type Sophocles.jpg, is often identified with a lost bronze original commissioned by the Athenian politician Lycurgus in the 330s BCE, which was displayed in the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens alongside portraits of Aeschylus and Euripides. Designed several decades after Sophocles’ death, the portrait cannot be a precise ‘likeness’; rather, its confident, open stance, carefully coiffed hair and beard, and draped himation (cloak) draws upon the iconography of the Classical Greek good citizen, aligning Sophocles’ contributions to Athenian literary heritage with the civic values of the democratic polis at a time when its political independence was threatened by Macedonia (Zanker 1995). The portrait’s style and appearance, then, are heavily influenced by the conventions of Classical honorific statuary and the public context of the original’s display: rather than giving access to Sophocles ‘himself’, they testify to an early moment in his literary reception, and the cultural value afforded to the genre of Athenian tragedy, in particular (Hanink 2014).

Might the Lateran Sophocles tell us anything more about the life, or the works, of the man, however? The vigorous maturity yet calm repose of his face might certainly suggest the serenity and insight associated with Sophocles in the biographical tradition (on which, see Sophocles: A Guide to Selected Sources), while his balanced features and lushly curling hair and beard might also evoke the beauty attributed to both the tragedian and his verse. At the same time, these details also evoke the iconography of deities such as Zeus and Asclepius: is this ‘divine’ quality an allusion to Sophocles’ celebrated religiosity, and even his epiphanic encounter with Asclepius as ‘Dexion’ (Connolly 1998)? Is it a reflection of the attention to ritual piety found in his tragedies? Or is it simply characteristic of the idealised mature male type found in Athenian honorific and funerary portraiture of the period?

The difficulty of assigning meaning to such iconographic and physiognomic details is characteristic of poet portraits in general, even when they seem more idiosyncratic (and thus ‘realistic’) in style. On the one hand, we should bear in mind the influence of period styles, iconographic conventions and contexts of display. On the other hand, we might also ask how renditions of the body (and especially the face) of the poet can make visible certain ideas about poetic genre, subject-matter and aesthetics. What does it tell us about attitudes to New Comedy, for example, that the comic poet Menander is depicted as urbane, clean-shaven and contemplative, and that he is one of antiquity’s most popular figures, surviving in at least 73 copies (Fittschen 1991; Nervegna 2013; see also Menander: A Guide to Selected Sources)? The methodological challenges that poet portraits present – and the subjectivity of scholarly interpretation – are starkly demonstrated by the fact that until the recent uncovering of an inscription, the Menander type was associated with quite a different kind of author – the Roman poet Virgil!


Whatever the significance of specific visual details, however, it is clear that portraits offered their beholders a form of physical encounter with the poet himself, as made manifest in his or her image. Texts, of course, can only do this in a limited sense, by means of the materiality of the book: they primarily draw us in by generating an imaginative engagement through reading. Portraits remind us that poetry comes from living, thinking, performing bodies, which inhabited the same world as readers and viewers. In the context of the Theatre of Dionysus, the physical presence of Athens’ three great tragedians attested to their dynamic role as playwright-citizens (and the ongoing relevance of their works). Displayed on tombs, in hero shrines and temples, portraits attested to the poet’s ability both to mediate between the realms of the living, the dead and the divine, and to give others access to these realms, whether through his or her verse or the regular performance of funerary or votive rituals (Clay 2004). Encountered in Hellenistic and Roman porticoes, gardens and villa complexes, poet portraits took their place alongside those of other intellectuals and historical figures, prompting all manner of poetic, rhetorical and scholarly performances as part of a dynamic culture of learning (paideia). Significantly, all these forms of interaction require a process of ‘reading’ through the poet’s body, in a manner which is biographical (in that it accesses the poet’s work by means of his once living presence) and spatially and temporally specific, situating the viewer within a precise context of reception and encounter.

Layered Receptions

The Roman context of many such encounters should also alert us to a crucial detail of ancient poet portraits (which also presents us with an enduring methodological stumbling block): for almost all surviving examples, including those of Greek poets, are not original commissions but Roman ‘copies’. The ‘Lateran Sophocles’, for example, is not the bronze statue ordered by Lycurgus in the 330s, but probably dates to the second century CE, and was found near Rome. Unlike the majority of surviving copies, it is a complete figure; most Sophoclean portraits, however, are busts, Type III Sophocles.jpg many of them originally mounted on herms. In analysing such objects, then, we must attend not only to the period styles, conventions and ideologies that shaped the form of their originals, but also to the processes of extraction, translation, emulation and variation that influenced their Roman renditions (Perry 2005; Marvin 2008). What does it mean, for example, to encounter a portrait of Sophocles (based on the Lateran type) in the form of a ‘double herm’, paired with the comic poet Aristophanes (dated c.130 CE)? Not only has the head been detached from its body (with all its associations of masculinity and citizenship) and depicted in a different medium; it has also been detached from its original display context (alongside fellow tragedians in the Athenian theatre), and paired with a figure exemplifying a different theatrical genre. As the supreme representatives of tragedy and old comedy, these portraits took their place within the imperial villa complex of Hadrian at Tivoli, where they were instead encountered as embodiments of Classicism, celebrated as canonical figures according to the philhellenic paideia that characterised the so-called ‘Second Sophistic’ (Macdonald and Pinto 1995; Goldhill 2002; Borg 2004). Although the iconographic details of the face may look back to late Classical posthumous models, then, the medium, form and context of the double herm attests to quite a different moment of cultural reception – and a very different mode of reading.


  • Clay, D. 2004. Archilochos Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis. Cambridge, Mass.
  • Connolly, A. 1998. ‘Was Sophocles Heroised as Dexion?’ JHS 118: 1-21.
  • Dillon, S. 2006. Ancient Greek Portrait Sculpture: Contexts, Subjects, and Styles. Cambridge.
  • Fittschen, K. 1991. ‘Zur Rekonstruktion griechischer Dichterstatuen. 1. Die Statue des Menander.’ AM 106: 243-279.
  • Goldhill, S. (ed.) 2001. Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire. Cambridge.
  • Hanink, J. 2014. Lycurgan Athens and the Making of Classical Tragedy. Cambridge.
  • Macdonald, W. L., and Pinto, J. A. 1995. Hadrian’s Villa and Its Legacy. New Haven and London.
  • Marvin, M. 2008. The Language of the Muses: the Dialogue Between Greek and Roman Sculpture. Los Angeles.
  • Nervegna, S. 2013. Menander in Antiquity: the Contexts of Reception. Cambridge.
  • Perry, E. 2005. The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome. Cambridge.
  • Richter, G. M. A. 1965. Portraits of the Greeks (abridged and revised by R. R. R. Smith, 1984). London.
  • Schefold, K. and Bayard, A.-C. 1997. Die Bildnisse der Antiken Dichter, Redner und Denker. Basel.
  • Zanker, P. 1995. The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity (Shapiro, A., trans.). Berkeley.