Completed Sculpture 44 Is this a bust of the Emperor Nero?

Topic: Subject or sitter

This emperor is too young to be Galba, but he might be Nero Other busts of Nero for comparison and

Jacinto Regalado, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The sculpture's title has been changed from ‘An Unidentified Emperor (called Galba, Emperor of Rome, 3 BC–AD 69)’ to ‘A Julio-Claudian Roman Emperor (possibly Nero)’.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. To anyone viewing it for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Jacinto Regalado,

Galba succeeded Nero, briefly, but he was over 70 when he became emperor.

Jacinto Regalado,

Oh, this is definitely not Galba, Kieran. That's what led me to look for someone else. Besides, a 17th century decorative bust of a Roman emperor is far more likely to be of a major name like Nero than a minor figure like Galba, whose reign lasted less than a year.

Jacinto Regalado,

Thanks, Marcie. It remains puzzling why this bust was somehow associated with Galba, which is hardly plausible.

Jacinto Regalado,

This is one of five such busts at Wimpole Hall, all clearly part of the same set. Three are identified (Trajan, Caracalla and the young Marcus Aurelius); a fourth might be Diocletian (I think), and "Nero" is the fifth. As I said previously, such busts are bound to be of well known figures.

Having recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Nero – the man behind the myth’ I can add that Nero, on his accession as a 16-year old Emperor, introduced a new youthful image and haircut - with a curling fringe and slightly curling side-burns - which was intended as a throwback to his famous ancestor and founder of the Julio-Claudian family, the Emperor Augustus. One difference between the Augustan image and that of Nero – see attached from the British Museum & Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari respectively– is that the teenage Nero had large or protruding ears. Later in life (Nero died aged 30) his face got pudgier and his sideburns longer and curlier. Though the Wimpole bust could be Nero, without prominent ears it seems more likely to be Augustus. The latter might fit in with the iconography of the other 4 busts at Wimpole assuming that the idea was to balance within each Emperor pair a ‘hero’ and a ‘villain’ - Trajan versus Caracalla, Marcus Aurelius versus Diocletian, with an ‘Augustus’ as the supreme founding Emperor. I’m just floating this as a suggestion. But one thing that can be said firmly is that it is not a portrait of Galba as suggested by the ArtUK website.
Sorry my 2 jpg image files were rejected.

Jacinto Regalado,

A problem here is that these Wimpole busts are not ancient Roman but 17th century, so they are derived from the antique and thus bound to be less accurate in terms of details, potentially including something like the ears. The point may have been to get an overall more or less recognizable look.

In this specific case, the frontal view of the face seems more block-like and less delicate or less refined than the face of Augustus, both in terms of shape and volume and in terms of the expression, which strikes me as duller or coarser, which would tend to favor of Nero. However, the matter is subjective, and I quite agree that Augustus is a reasonable consideration.

Jacinto Regalado,

Here is the Prima Porta Augustus for comparison:

The ears are also more prominent than in our bust, the face is more square, and the chin is stronger.

Howard Jones,

The hair style for the Wimpole Hall statue above is also similar to that for portraits of Caligula but Caligula has more delicate features and a more refined profile.

Overall though this seems to be a better match for Nero. We are told that the other statues had already been given the names of specific Roman Emperors but have these other identifications all been checked?

Louis Musgrove,

If you read the blurb on the Caligula bust-just above- it mentions that there was a sort of formulaic style.
Also I remember Mary Beard mentioning that when a new Emperor "arrived" the municipal statues were often refaced and renamed- to keep up to date- so adding to later confusion.

Jacinto Regalado,

Again, the fact we are dealing with a "watered down" 17th century version complicates the situation. As for the other busts, the supposed (by me) Diocletian is currently listed as an unidentified emperor. It may be opened for public discussion eventually, as a proposal has been submitted for it. The other three appear to be properly identified.

Jacinto Regalado,

Here's a profile view of a Roman bust of the young Nero, for comparison to our bust's profile view:

Note the very similar handling of the hair and the overall likeness to our bust.

Mark Wilson,

One additional complication - are the National Trust even in possession of this bust any more? The link to the collection website above is dead although they work on other Roman Emperor busts in the collection. Wimpole Hall was burgled last November ( and 'busts are reported as being among the items stolen from the Entrance Hall and surroundings.

We know that four of the the busts were on display in the Entrance when they were brought back to the Hall in 2014 after having been sold off in the 20th Century ( Two coming in lieu of tax and the Trajan and 'Galba' with Art Fund support ( So its disappearence from the records might been that the 'Galba' was among the items stolen.

Jacinto Regalado,

We would need input from the collection about that, Mark.

Louis Musgrove,

Looking at Wimpole hall Art Uk bustwise--
Caracalla looks correct.
Unidenified Philosopher loks like an old Marcus Aurelius
Trajan looks correct
Marcus Aurelius as a young amn looks correct.
And then our sitter. Augustus still my besy gues at the moment.

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, all busts of Marcus Aurelius I have seen (including the one of the young MA at Wimpole) show him with very curly hair, which the "Philosopher" does not have, so it does not fit him.

Louis Musgrove,

Jacinto-as to the Philospher at Wimpole- obviously one of the bearded Emperors from Hadrian to Diocletian (as you suggested Diocletian) -they all can look alike- if you don't like old Marcus Aurelius( Annius Verus) how about Didius Julianus?

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, it is quite unlikely that a decorative bust would be made of a very obscure emperor who reigned for less than three months.

Jacinto Regalado,

Our bust is part of a set of emperors. Aristotle does not fit that.

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, Macrinus was another minor emperor and very unlikely to be chosen as the subject of a decorative 17th century bust.

Flora Doble, Operations Officer at Art UK, whose degrees were in Classical Studies and the Reception of the Classical World, has commented, 'Looking through the discussion and based on my own knowledge, I can confirm that it’s definitely not Galba! It looks by far most like Nero, mainly based on the iconic Neronian curl at his ears. The face is also rather round like Nero’s. I don’t believe that it is Augustus – it looks too stern and round-faced to be him.'

I've asked the National Trust to look at why this bust is missing from their collections online.

Jacinto Regalado,

It would be nice to have one of the BM people behind the Nero exhibition there, or possibly Mary Beard, rule on the matter, but Nero seems perfectly plausible and Galba clearly does not.

Louis Musgrove,

Reading around this subject.The four busts were supposed to be collected by Edward Harley 2nd Oxford.-who owned Wimpole.All his stuff was sold in March 1742. A picture of Newton in the NPG -supposedly at Wimpole- in the blurb it says it was Lot 15 ,day 5 -in that sale-refering to the catalogue.So -has anyone access to that catalogue?-it may have details of interest about these busts.
BTW. These sort of bust seem available on the open market.

I hope its Nero, source of one of my favourite quotations: not 'qualis artifex pereo' ('What an artist dies in me' - reputed last words before being murdered) but 'Oh, that the Roman people had one neck, that I might cut it off!'.

My usual applications are usually closer to home in certain situations but I keep forgetting to find the Latin version but perhaps someone has it to hand.....

Louis Musgrove,

Et Tu Pieterus?
There is of course a Nero exhibition at the BM. They've got a contemporary bust on loan from Italy- :-) .Young Nero had a squarer face with a weak jaw and sticky out ears-quite different from our sitter. Mind you that doesn't mean that the 17th century Italian workshop didn't knock our sitter out as Nero. And of course Harley was a soft touch when he was buying.*l498e9*_ga*MjE0MzQ3MjY3MC4xNjI3ODE3OTkx*_ga_08TLB9R8X1*MTYyNzgxNzk5MC4xLjAuMTYyNzgxNzk5MC4w

Mary Beard has commented, as has Xanthe, that it's a fairly generic Julio-Claudian image (as it would have been understood in the 17th century), the problem being that they all (as intended) looked pretty much alike, to suggest inheritance from Augustus.

Jacinto Regalado,

I suppose one could go with "A Julio-Claudian Roman Emperor (possibly Nero)"

This was not one of the busts that were stolen from Wimpole Hall, but theft was attempted, which is why there is now no public record on NT Collections online.

National Trust,

NT has followed Jacinto's recommendation, however the record will remain unpublished. Thank you.

Jacinto Regalado,

I doubt there's any more we can do here, so it seems Xanthe can now wrap things up.

Louis Musgrove,

Mary Beard on R4 this morning-Start the Week-9am- nice seminar on Roman Emperors' public image in Statues Bust Coins and Renaissance paintings. And how hard it is to identify and date them. Must get her new book :-) .

Jacinto Regalado,

The collection has accepted "A Julio-Claudian Roman Emperor (possibly Nero)" as a title for this bust, so the original question has been addressed satisfactorily. Pending the Group Leader's approval, it would seem this discussion is ready for closure.

Katharine Eustace, Sculpture,

This proved a rather desultory and unsatisfying discussion, which despite an amusing game of ping-pong in which a number of unpleasant Roman emperors’ heads were the ball, did not take our understanding much further.

This bust is one of a set of six seventeenth-century Roman emperors’ heads. There has been a suggestion that the group might have been acquired by the great bibliophile and collector, Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (1689-1741), who employed James Gibbs to design the Library and Chapel at Wimpole. Harley died bankrupt, in 1741 when his library was sold. However, the earliest documentation to busts at Wimpole appears to be in the notebook of the librarian, Thomas Kerrich (1748-1828). This refers to ‘4 Antique Busts – one is Caracalla’ in the Gallery. Thereafter an inventory of 1835 lists ‘6 Antique statuary marble Busts the draperies etc. of Variegated Marbles’, in the Hall, where they were photographed in 1908 in situ for ‘Country Life’. They were sold in the 1950s by the then owners, although, when in 1976 Wimpole and its contents were left to the National Trust, a ‘Marcus Aurelius’ was included in the inventory. Of the six, in 2014 the National Trust bought two busts of ‘probably Trajan and Galba’, while two more from the group, a ‘Caracalla’ and a ‘Philosopher’ were the subject of an application for an in-lieu taxation settlement. After the usual, very thorough, procedures, this was successful. The pair was allocated in 2013/14 by H.M. Treasury to Wimpole (See ‘The Cultural Gifts Scheme and Acceptance-in-lieu Report’, 2014). One remains lost.

For me the question posed by Jacinto Regalado at the outset was resolved by the outstanding catalogue by Thorsten Opper to the exhibition ‘Nero, the Man behind the Myth’, at the British Museum last year. While I am not a classicist, I am, as anyone who is interested in the imagery of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment must be, acquainted with the Antique and its influence on Western Art. What I offer now by way of a few remarks is in that context.

In answer to the question: ‘Is this a bust of the Emperor Nero?’ I would support Flora Doble’s suggestion that it is. Given that, as Xanthe Brooke has also suggested, the six busts may have been three pairs of emperors, ‘Good Guys and Bad Guys’, Marcus Aurelius (Emperor 161-180) and Caracalla (Emperor 198-217) are named, and Trajan (Emperor 98-217) and Galba (Galba, Emperor 68 to 69) are proposed. The hairstyle, shortish hair, fringe and side licks or flicks, suggests the bust under discussion represents a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. We could choose from Octavius Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, or Nero, and throw in Germanicus for good measure, although he was never emperor. All of them appear clean shaven with the distinctive hair cut described above. A type of ‘Nero’ with longer hair and an under-the-chin beard, is now known to be a Baroque reconstruction, although a Nero type III, does present him as more hirsute (see Opper, Thorsten, ‘Nero, the Man behind the Myth’ (exhib. cat.), London, British Museum 2021, figs 1 and 131, pp.13-5, 157-9). Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla and Commodus are bearded types.

We are all aware that the imperial rulers of Rome had official, accepted typological portraits, giving a distinct personal identity to them. These were intended as instantly recognisable symbols of authority and propaganda across a very large landmass. One of the finest, if abstracted in another medium, Nero-type head, is a bronze, probably made in northwest Gaul, but found in the River Alde in Suffolk (Opper, 2021, fig.88). Nero (Emperor 54-68) had four accepted types assigned to him (see Opper, 2021). The bust at Wimpole appears to be after the accession-period version or type II, with some fleshing out.

Philosophers were usually identified as bearded types, and hence the appellation ‘philosopher’ for the pop-eyed, otherwise unidentified bust in the group (see ‘Report’, 2014), which just might be Commodus (Emperor, 177–192), the son of Marcus Aurelius (emperor 161-180), was he ‘Good Guy’ or ‘Bad Guy’?