This compact, staring face may have belonged to Maximinus Daia, Roman Emperor from 305 to 313. He was one of the tetrarchs, four contemporary emperors who shared power in a short-lived system set up by Diocletian in 293 in an effort to consolidate imperial control in a sprawling, troubled empire. One of the intriguing quirks of imperial portraits from the late third and early fourth centuries is that they tend to look alike. They all have thick, columnar necks; square faces; simplified, geometric features; and overlarge, staring eyes. This uniformity was more than just a matter of artistic taste. It responded to political doctrine. Wary of the obvious threats of ambition and treachery, the tetrarchs married into each others’ families, referred to each other as brothers, and stressed how similar they were to each other. So, even in group portraits, such as the famous porphyry group of the four tetrarchs on the exterior of the Church of San Marco in Venice, they are scarcely differentiated. This is why the identification of the Dumbarton Oaks head cannot, ultimately, be established.
That we are looking at an emperor, however, is certain on account of the material. The head is carved from porphyry, a stone formed from fragmented volcanic material with a dark red or purple cast. It was quarried in eastern Egypt from Mount Porphyrites, modern-day Gebel Doukhan. Its extreme hardness made it difficult to carve, but it was prized for its color, which came to be associated with imperial dignity. Like cloth that has been dyed purple and documents signed in purple ink, its use was carefully guarded as the exclusive prerogative of the emperor.
Ancient Art in American Private Collections, exhibition catalogue, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, December 28, 1954-February 15, 1955 (Cambridge, Mass, 1954), 29, no. 181.
M. L. Lucci, "Il profido nell'antichità," Archeologia Classica 16 (1964): 226-71, esp. 271 note c.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 5, no. 16.
W. v. Sydow, Zur Kunstgeschichte des spätantiken Porträts im 4. Jahrhundert n. Chr, Antiquitas. Reihe 3, Abhandlungen zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte, zur klassischen und provinzial-römischen Archäologie und zur Geschichte des Altertums 8 (Bonn, 1969), 139, 142.
D. M. Brinkerhoff, A Collection of Sculpture in Classical and Early Christian Antioch, Monographs on Archaeology and Fine Arts 22 (New York, 1970), 24.
R. Calza, Iconografia romana imperiale. Da Carausio a Giuliano (287-363 d.C.), Quaderni e guide di archeologia 3 (Roma, 1972), 146, no. 57, pl. 38, fig. 109-110.
V. Poulsen, Les portraits romains, vol. 2 de Vespasien à la basse-antiquité, Publications de la Glyptothèque Ny Carlsberg 8, trans. H. Laurent-Lund (Copenhagen, 1974), 36.
L. Török, "On the Chronology of the Ahnas Scultpure," Acta Archaeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 29 (1977): 125-53, esp. 147.
G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Washington, D.C., 1995), 19-24, no. 11, pl. 11A-D.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 42, pl. p. 43.
Collection of Hayford Peirce
Purchased from Mrs. Hayford Peirce, Los Angeles by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC, March 1963;
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.