1. Introduction

With the exception of two bronze heads (of Claudius/Nero and Hadrian), currently on display in the British Museum (Toynbee 1964, 46-51), few Roman imperial portraits have been positively identified from Britain (Stewart 2003, 174). Such an absence of material may initially appear surprising, for Britain was, to all intents and purposes, a fully functioning part of the Roman Empire for some four centuries, the apparent paucity of sculptured forms here standing in marked contrast to other western Roman provinces such as Gaul or Spain.

What possible explanation can there be for the perceived lack of emperor portraits in the province of Britannia, and should any significance be attached to such an absence? Perhaps, assuming that Britain's 1st- and 2nd-century population remained largely unaffected by Roman culture (e.g. Russell and Laycock 2010, 43-61), the provincial administration simply lacked the desire or resources to display Romanitas (or 'Roman-ness') in extravagant or public ways. On the other hand, given that the 2nd-century Roman biographer Suetonius noted that 'numerous statues and busts' of Titus, the tenth emperor (AD 79-81), could in his day be seen across Britain (Suetonius Titus 41), it is possible that sculptured forms did in fact originally exist throughout the province but have simply not survived. Statues and portraits in bronze, for example, would have been particularly susceptible to later melting down and recycling while anything of made of marble could have gone straight to the lime kilns once its original importance had faded (Stewart 2003, 175).

There is, however, an alternative proposition: that imperial portraits did originally exist across the province of Britain and have survived, albeit in damaged, mutilated or fragmentary condition. Such pieces, if misidentified, misunderstood or simply buried deep within museum archives, would potentially remain largely unnoticed, effectively making little or no contribution to either the understanding of Roman art or to any debate surrounding the nature and archaeology of Britannia.


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