Meyers: Ancient Roman Selfies Set in Stone

CATEGORIES: November 2016

by Dr. Rachel Meyers

The ancient Romans were very concerned about self-image, perhaps as much or more than we are today in this country. Clothing, hairstyles, footwear, jewelry, gesture, and posture were all taken into account in both public and private images. For example, freed slaves who were very proud of their new free status represented themselves on their tombs in the traditional garments of male and female citizens, the toga and stola, respectively. They could not wear these garments as slaves; they had to wear simple tunics. Clothing was an immediate signifier of status in the Roman empire. Thus by portraying themselves in citizen attire, these former slaves desired to call attention to the status they had achieved during their lives.

Roman portraits in the Archaeological Museum in Seville, Spain

My current research centers on the concepts of representation and self-presentation in portraiture but also through public architecture and civic monuments. Specifically, I am exploring how the wealthy citizens portrayed themselves in portrait statues and in their public activities (such as sponsoring building projects or financing entertainment) in several cities in Roman Spain. These individuals engaged in an intense rivalry with one another regarding their public image and accomplishments not only to portray their best selves during their lifetimes but also to guarantee the memory of their great deeds would continue into the future.