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The Meroë Head / The Head of Augustus
Made in Egypt
Excavated/Findspot Meroë, Sudan
Excavated beneath the steps leading into a shrine of Victory
Bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus: the head is broken through the neck but is otherwise in an excellent state of preservation. There are four fragments of plaster from the head. The eyes are inlaid, with glass pupils set in metal rings, the irises of calcite. The eyebrows are plastically rendered. The emperor’s head is turned to his right, with the pronounced twist to the neck typical of Hellenistic work. The hair falls on the brow in the divided and curving cut that marked most of Augustus’s portraits as emperor. The facial planes are broad. The mouth is slightly downturned, a feature of late Hellenistic portraiture. The ears project markedly, the upper lobes bending forwards.
This head once formed part of a statue of the Roman Emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC-AD 14).
In 31 BC Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium and took possession of Egypt, which became a Roman province. The writer Strabo tells us that statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them when they raided Roman forts and settlements in Upper Egypt in 25 BC. Most were later returned as a result of negotiations between the Meroitic Queen Candace and the Roman general Petronius.
However, this head remained buried beneath the steps of a native temple dedicated to Victory at the Kushite capital Meroë. It seems likely that it was torn from a statue and placed there deliberately so as to be permanently below the feet of its Meroitic captors. Remains of frescoes from within the temple, which appear to show Roman prisonors of war before a Meroitic ruler, support this interpretation.
The head of Augustus appears larger than life, with perfect proportions based upon Classical Greek notions of ideal human form. His calm distant gaze, emphasised with inset eyes of glass and stone, give him an air of quiet, assured strength.
Coins and statues were the main media for propagating the image of the Roman emperor. This portrait head, like many others throughout the Empire, was made as a continuous reminder of the all-embracing power of Rome and its emperor. Yet its fate is a graphic illustration of resistance to the imposition of Roman rule in Egypt from strongly independent tribes beyond the southern frontier.
Source: British Museum