Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs
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Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs
Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs
Missing heel portion kept in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs is a porphyry sculpture group of four Roman emperors dating from around 300 AD. The sculptural group has been fixed to a corner of the façade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice, Italy since the Middle Ages. It probably originally formed part of the decorations of the Philadelphion in Constantinople, and was removed to Venice in 1204 or soon after.

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs depicts the four rulers in charge of the entire Empire, instituted by Emperor Diocletian.[1] The Caesar he chose was Galerius, and they ruled over the Eastern half of the Empire, while the Western half was ruled by Augustus Maximian and Caesar Constantinius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great.[2] There is still discussion and disagreement as to the identity of these statues and their placement, but it is reasonable to assume that the Eastern rulers form a pair and the Western rulers form the other pair.[3]

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs is a representative example of late Imperial portraiture. This period marked a sharp departure from the veristic depictions of Republican Rome, which was reflected visually through stylistic contrasts. Though this shift may at first seem like a regression, it marked the development of a style where symbolism trumped realism and idealism alike.[4]



The statues probably originally decorated the columns of the porch of the Philadelphion, a public square in Constantinople. Their function would have been similar to many other representations of rulers in other cities. Chiefly, this purpose was to reinforce the strength and power the Tetrarchs held over the Empire, power that could reward the faithful and quash the rebellious. This latter theme seems to be reflected by the fact that all four tetrarchs are armed, wearing military garb, an unmistakable representation of collective power.[3] Having such an image in a prominent public place would have caused these themes to be on the minds of the public as they went about their daily business.


The Four Tetrarchs were plundered by the Venetians when the city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought to St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.[5] In the 1960s, the heel part of the missing foot was discovered by archaeologists in Istanbul close to the Bodrum Mosque. This part is in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

A different story is told by The Travels of Marco Polo, the famous Venetian's autobiography put to paper with the help of his co-writer, Rustichello of Pisa, around 1300. This story has to be treated with great caution, the source being far from reliable in modern terms:

A dispute which broke out at Acre in 1255 came to a head in a war which lasted for years, and was felt all over Syria. It began in a quarrel about a very old church called St. Sabba's, which stood on the common boundary of the Venetian and Genoese estates in Acre, and this flame was blown by other unlucky occurrences. Acre suffered grievously. Venice at this time generally kept the upper hand, beating Genoa by land and sea, and driving her from Acre altogether. Four ancient porphyry figures from St. Sabba's were sent in triumph to Venice, and with their strange devices still stand at the exterior corner of St. Mark's, towards the Ducal Palace.[6][7]


Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs (head and torso detail-group of four)

Formal analysis

The figures are stout and blocky, far from the verisimilitude or the idealism of earlier Greco-Roman art. The figures are stiff and rigid, the attire being patterned and stylized, as opposed to the hyper-realistic, dimensional folds of fabric in Classical Greek sculpture. The result is a flatter, more geometric human likeness. Their faces are repetitive and they seem to stare in a kind of trance. Additionally, the fact that all four are cut of the same type of stone implies solidarity and oneness even more. Comparing them to the slightly later reliefs on the Arch of Constantine in Rome, Ernst Kitzinger finds the same "stubby proportions, angular movements, an ordering of parts through symmetry and repetition and a rendering of features and drapery folds through incisions rather than modelling". Noting other examples, he continues "The hallmark of the style wherever it appears consists of an emphatic hardness, heaviness and angularity -- in short, an almost complete rejection of the classical tradition".[8]

Porphyry sarcophagus, Istanbul Archaeological Museum


Choosing porphyry as a material was a bold and specific statement for late Imperial Rome. As if it was not enough that porphyry was explicitly for imperial use and for imperial use alone, the stone's rarity served to set the emperors apart from their subjects as their superiors. The comparative vividness of porphyry to other stones underscored the fact that these figures were not regular citizens; rather, they were many levels above, even reaching to the status of gods, worthy of the respect they expected. The choice of porphyry made the emperors unapproachable in terms of power and nature, belonging to another world, the world of the mighty gods, present for a short time on earth.[9]

Porphyry also stood in for the physical purple robes Roman emperors would wear to show their status because of its purple coloring. Similar to porphyry, purple fabric was extremely difficult to make, as what we now call Tyrian purple required the use of rare snails to make the dye.[10] The color itself would have caused the public to remember how they were to behave in the presence of the real emperors wearing the real fabric, with respect bordering on worship for their self-proclaimed god-kings.[11]

Aesthetic context

The question of how to account for what may seem a decline in both style and execution in Late Antique art has generated a vast amount of discussion. Factors introduced into the discussion include: a breakdown of the transmission in artistic skills due to the political and economic disruption of the Crisis of the Third Century,[12] influence from Eastern and other pre-classical regional styles from around the Empire (a view promoted by Josef Strzygowski (1862-1941), and now mostly discounted),[13] the emergence into high-status public art of a simpler "popular" or "Italic" style that had been used by the less wealthy throughout the reign of Greek models, an active ideological turning against what classical styles had come to represent, and a deliberate preference for seeing the world simply and exploiting the expressive possibilities that a simpler style gave.[14] One factor that cannot be responsible, as the date and origin of the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs show, is the rise of Christianity to official support, as the changes predated that.[15] This shift in artistic style points towards the style of the Middle Ages.[16]

Political context

The Roman Empire was ruled by a tetrarchy consisting of two Augusti (senior emperors) and two Caesars (junior emperors). The empire was divided into western and eastern territories, with one Augustus and Caesar ruling over each.[1][17] After Diocletian and his colleague, Maximian, retired in 305, internal strife erupted among the tetrarchs. The system finally ceased to exist around 313,[1] and though this form of government was short-lived, it served to separate military and civic leadership roles and was one of the first examples of balanced power. The tetrarchy gave way to a united Roman Empire in the time of Constantine, as the emperor took control over the east and west halves in 324.[17]

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs symbolizes the concept of the tetrarchy, rather than providing four personal portraits. Each tetrarch looks the same, without any individualized characteristics, except that two, probably representing the older Augusti, have beards, and two do not who might have symbolized the Caesars. The group is divided into pairs, each embracing, which unites Augusti and Caesars together. The overall effect suggests unity and stability. The very choice of material, the durable porphyry (which came from Egypt), symbolizes a permanence and rigidity reminiscent of Egyptian statuary, implying the expected eternity, or at least steadfastness, of a great kingdom. Porphyry was rare, hard to obtain, and therefore reserved for imperial use.[1][18]

Roman portraiture


Roman leaders favored the sense of civic duty and military ability over beauty in their portraiture. Veristic portraits, including arguably ugly features, was a way of showing confidence and of placing a value on strength and leadership above superficial beauty. This type of portraiture sought to show what mattered to the Romans; powerful character valued above appearances.

Similarly to Greek rulers, Roman leaders borrowed recognizable features from the appearances of their predecessors. For instance, rulers coming after Alexander the Great copied his distinct hairstyle and intense gaze in their own portraits.[19] This was commonly practiced to suggest their likeness to them in character and their legitimacy to rule; in short, these fictitious additions were meant to persuade their subjects that they would be as great and powerful a leader as the previous ruler had been, even if they did not see eye to eye on all issues.[20]

Choosing to proudly display imperfections in portraiture was an early departure from the idealistic tradition handed down from the Greeks. The apparent indifference toward perfection in physical appearance seems to have led to the eventual abandonment of realism altogether, as we see in the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs.

The rulers in each pair lean close to their fellow ruler, and this pose lends yet more meaning to the sculpture as a whole. The bearded figures on the left of each pair appear to be leaning toward their partners on the right. Their beards and arms on the other ruler's shoulders suggest that they are the senior rulers, the Augusti, imparting wisdom to their respective subordinate Caesars. This clear depiction of ruler interaction shows the clear hierarchy even within the class of ruler and displays a clear sense of order.


Mediterranean artistic styles changed with the power shift from Greek and Macedonian leadership to Roman political structure, but some influences and ideals remained, as they were shared by both Greek and Roman culture. A prevalent trend was giving the likenesses of leaders strong appearances in their depictions to hint at the individual's ability to lead his society to greater heights of power and influence.


Khafre Enthroned

Greek leaders had already borrowed heavily from Egyptian pharaohs in materials and their own symbolic representation, and Roman rulers borrowed from them in turn. As previously mentioned, Rome's far-reaching empire granted it astonishing power and influence. In fact, Rome's power enabled the use of materials not found in Rome, as the Empire brought many regions together for trading relationships. This allowed for the first Egyptian influence, the use of deep red porphyry.[21]

A visual Egyptian influence on the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs is the odd, near-impossible pose the Augusti on the left of each pair assume, reminiscent of poses in Egyptian relief sculpture and painting. One recognizable example is the Palette of King Narmer, which set the expectation for future Egyptian artwork as well as artwork in many classifications to come. This item would have been used frequently by Egyptian scribes, and prominently displays a large likeness of Narmer depicted by a composition of views, with the head, legs, and arms in profile view and the eye and torso clearly in frontal view. As it is impossible for a real human being to pose like this, the general consensus is that Egyptians were not aiming for realism, but rather for symbolism in these early two-dimensional portraits of their rulers. Even centuries later, the Romans found a similar mode of depiction useful for depicting their tetrarchy, as their legs face forward, their torsos twist to a near profile, and the heads swivel to a three-quarter view.[22]

Alexander Mosaic

Roman imperial portraits owe much more than material choices to Egyptian works. While choosing unyielding, dense stone to show the likenesses of their powerful leaders was certainly significant, Roman rulers also saw the value in the poses Egyptian rulers used as well. Egyptian Pharaohs were depicted in a regal, unyielding seated pose, as in the depiction of Khafre Enthroned. The reason why the sculpture appears idealized and vague is that Egyptian rulers found it important that sculptors represented the god-like status they claimed. This statue was never meant to be a portrait, but rather a visual reference of the qualities of a successful ruler, which suggested their legitimacy and/or deity, power, and benevolence, in that order. One of the most significant reasons for making Egyptian rulers look like sculptures of gods was to emphasize their separation and power over the Egyptian people, as well as the divinity associated with their kingship.[22]


This Roman contemporary practice borrowed from artistic representations of Greek leaders, most notably the portrayal of Alexander the Great. The Alexander Mosaic in particular displays this subtext-heavy practice in two-dimensional Greek artwork. The Macedonian king was highly admired for his fearless leadership and skill as a battle tactician. Greek artists chose to record this quality in two significant ways; his distinctive hairstyle and penetrating gaze. Alexander's hair, though not immediately attractive, radiates strength in its implication of action. The perpetual windblown quality of Alexander's hair suggests a state of constant motion, making the Greek leader seem determined and unstoppable.[19] Additionally, Alexander's gaze reflects the same sort of determined character. His sharp eyes intimidated the enemy in battle and this same ferocity stirred his subordinates to admire and follow him in his pursuits.[23] Alexander's unique features emphasize his fearlessness and determination in his rule. Though he died young in a military campaign, Alexander the Great continued to be looked up to by countless rulers to come after him.

Republican Rome

Portraiture in Republican Rome was a way of establishing societal legitimacy and achieving status through one's family and background. Exploits wrought by one's ancestors earned them and their families public approbation, and more; a pompous state funeral paid for by the state. Wax masks would be cast from the family member while they were still living, which made for hyper-realistic visual representations of the individual literally lifted from their face. These masks would be kept in the houses of male descendants in memory of the ancestors once they had passed. These masks served as a sort of family track record, and could get the descendants positions and perks,[24] similar to a child of two alumni attending their alma mater.

Republican Rome embraced imperfection in portraiture because, though there were different levels of power each class of society had, everybody had little insecurities, this type of untouched physical representation fostered a sense of community by implying that while there were existing inequalities, that did not change the fact that they were Romans.

Emperor Caracalla

Imperial Rome

This Greek style and leadership expectations carried over into Roman leadership portraiture. One significant example is the Severan Period marble portrait of the emperor Caracalla. Nearly all representations of Caracalla reflect his military prowess through his frighteningly aggressive expression. Caracalla borrowed the precedent Alexander set; the piercing gaze. His arresting confidence exudes from his features to show that he is not a man to be trifled with. The intense sculptural execution of this piece in particular reflects a shift toward more geometric renderings of the human face to better convey messages to the public, often strong implications of power and authority to keep peace in the Roman Empire. Emperors coming after Caracalla saw the respect he commanded of his subordinate governing party as well as the Roman population as a whole. Seeing his success as a ruler, subsequent emperors sought to have portraits similar to Caracalla's to suggest that they were on the same level as him, both in terms of military tenacity and authoritarian control. This facilitated more and more geometric, less idealized figural representations of leaders to constantly emphasize the ruler's strength and image.[20]

This geometric style proved to be useful to the Roman Tetrarchs that divided rule of the empire among themselves after the reign of the emperors. The geometric style is not particularly realistic, but the style applied to all four figures sent a message of steadiness and agreements between the four rules, reassuring Roman citizens while simultaneously sending an unmistakable message of power and authority reminiscent of the previous emperors. Presenting variance in the appearance of the tetrarchs may have contributed to viewers favoring one ruler over the others. Instead, the Tetrarchy chose to show themselves as visually synonymous in this particular piece to show their ontological equality and show the unity and strength of the empire through this representation of all four together.[20] Using near-identical geometric forms to represent their likenesses was the easiest way to show their equality and common will. The abstraction of human form made for a clearer understanding of the expectations Roman Tetrarchs had for their subjects and how Roman citizens expected the Tetrarchs to rule.


  1. ^ a b c d Kitzinger, Ernst, Byzantine art in the making: main lines of stylistic development in Mediterranean art, 3rd-7th century, 1977, Faber & Faber, p. 9. ISBN 0571111548 (US: Cambridge UP, 1977)
  2. ^ Miescher, Rosemarie. "A Late Roman Portrait Head." The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 43, 1953, pp. 101-103. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/297787.Retrieved 30 November 2017.
  3. ^ a b Rees, Roger. "Images and Image: A Re-Examination of Tetrarchic Iconography." Greece & Rome, vol. 40, no. 2, 1993, pp. 183. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/643157. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
  4. ^ Elsner, Jan. "The Changing Nature of Roman Art and the Art Historical Problem of Style". Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph. p. 19.
  5. ^ Honour, H.; Fleming, J. (2009). A World History of Art (7th ed.). London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 309. ISBN 978-1-85669-584-8.
  6. ^ Messenger, Charles, ed. (1929). The Travels of Marco Polo. The complete Yule-Cordier edition. John Murray, London – via Project Gutenberg.
  7. ^ Messenger, Charles, ed. (1929). The Travels of Marco Polo. The complete Yule-Cordier edition. John Murray, London - via Project Gutenberg.
  8. ^ Kitzinger, 9 (both quotes)
  9. ^ Nees, Lawrence (2002). Early Medieval Art-Oxford history of art. Oxford University Press. p. 22. ISBN 9780192842435.
  10. ^ Schultz, Colin. "In Ancient Rome, Purple Dye Was Made from Snails." Smithsonian magazine. Smithsonian Institution, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 November 2017. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/in-ancient-rome-purple-dye-was-made-from-snails-1239931/?no-ist>
  11. ^ Haynes, D. E. L. "A Late Antique Portrait Head in Porphyry." The Burlington Magazine, vol. 118, no. 879, 1976, pp. 357. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/878411. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
  12. ^ Kitzinger, 8-9
  13. ^ Kitzinger, 9-12
  14. ^ Kitzinger, 10-18
  15. ^ Kitzinger, 5-6, 9, 19
  16. ^ Kitzinger, 19
  17. ^ a b Lightfoot, Christopher (October 2000). "The Roman Empire (27 B.C.-393 A.D.)". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2017.
  18. ^ Tetrarchs Archived 2011-05-09 at the Wayback Machine, Il Museo di San Marco, 2013. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  19. ^ a b Stewart, Andrew F. "The Alexander Mosaic: A Reading." Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics, University of California Press, 1993, pp. 140-141.
  20. ^ a b c Trentinella, Rosemarie (October 2003). "Roman Portrait Sculpture: The Stylistic Cycle". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2017.
  21. ^ Sorabella, Jean (May 2010). "Art of the Roman Provinces, 1-500 A.D." Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2017.
  22. ^ a b Kleiner, Fred S. (2009). Gardner's Art Through the Ages. Clark Baxter. p. 42. ISBN 9780495573555.
  23. ^ Stewart, Andrew F. "The Alexander Mosaic: A Reading." Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics, University of California Press, 1993, pp. 141.
  24. ^ Pollini, John. "Ritualizing Death". From Republic to Empire Rhetoric, Religion, and Power in the Visual Culture of Ancient Rome. pp. 13, 19.

External links

Coordinates: 45°26?03?N 12°20?23?E / 45.43417°N 12.33972°E / 45.43417; 12.33972

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