Identifying 3D Roman Portraits in the Classroom

Portraits of Roman Emperors and of members of their families were among the most accessible images for all members of Roman society. They were reproduced by the millions on coins and were common as portrait busts and full-length sculptures in urban and private settings. Since the Renaissance, scholars have used the fact that Roman coins name the Emperor under whose authority they were produced as one aide in identifying otherwise unnamed marble and bronze sculptures. Sebastian Heath of NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is enabling his students to follow that same process. The first link below lists coins, but with no information as to which Emperor they depict. In class, Dr. Heath shows his students how to use freely available Internet sites to determine who issued them. They start with reading the Latin legend and confirm their identification by searching in databases. With that information, they can move on to the second link which lists 3D portraits of Emperors or their wives and children. Most of these model were made by Dr. Heath using the software Agisoft Photoscan, though some were contributed by colleagues. The students have to figure out the identifications for themselves. Because the 3d models are interactive they can rotate and zoom as they compare the portraits to the coin images they examined in the first step. While the work they do relies on modern technology, it encourages discussion of the role of portraiture in an ancient society. Perhaps not every Roman coin was closely inspected. But the abundance of coins in the Roman economy, in combination with the public display of the Emperor’s image, can mean that for many Romans, the Emperor, or at least his image, was a near constant presence.

Start with coins:

Then try 3d portraits:

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