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Portrait of an Older Woman

The body of this sculpture seems to belong to a younger person than the face suggests.

Realistic details, like the mole to the left of her eye, suggest that this is the face of a real person.


key idea
The sculpture is a portrait of an actual woman.

Who is this woman? Her name will never be known. But the sculpture gives enough information about her looks that we feel we would recognize her in person. A long, straight nose with a slight bump in it, thin lips, a pointy chin--even a mole to the left of her eye. Signs of aging, like slight bags under her eyes and loose muscle tone around her mouth, tell us that she is middle-aged.

Roman portraits are well known for showing people as they really appeared. A face full of wrinkles and scars revealed a life of overcoming difficult experiences. A Roman man earned virtue on the battlefield or in politics. A Roman woman earned virtue by being faithful, pure, and patient through challenge and temptation. An older person has endured more than a younger person, so signs of age are signs of virtue.

Many portraits like this one were made at a person’s death as memorials in family tombs. Because this one is carved on all sides, scholars think it more likely stood in a public area-- possibly in the city of Pompeii where it is thought to have been found.

March 2004