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Colossal Head of Roman Empress Unearthed August 13, 2008
by Marc Waelkens


Excavators prop up the newly found head of the empress Faustina the Elder (Courtesy Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

Sagalassos, Turkey, August 12—Tuesday morning, archaeologists of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven team (Belgium) directed by Marc Waelkens uncovered the colossal portrait head of the Roman empress Faustina, wife of the emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled from A.D. 138 to 161. According to Waelkens, the excavation team was ecstatic at the discovery.

Professor Waelkens' excavations at Sagalassos, a classical metropolis, have been a regular feature on ARCHAEOLOGY's Interactive Digs, and he sent us this report about the new find direct from the field.—Mark Rose

The Discovery



Excavators last year found fragments of a colossal statute of Hadrian as well as the toes of yet another statute.

See "Major Find at Sagalassos" and "Hadrian at Sagalassos."



Excavating Faustina



Transporting Faustina

(Photos courtesy Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The find was made almost exactly one year after we discovered the remains of a colossal (ca. 5 m; 16 foot) statue of the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) at a spot about 6 m (20 feet) away. The Hadrian statue—represented by a head and the lower part of the right leg and joining foot—is currently on display in the rotunda of the British Museum where it is the centerpiece of the exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.

Both the Hadrian statute and Faustina head come from the largest room of the Roman Baths at Sagalassos, which have under excavation for the past 12 years. This room—cross-shaped, with mosaic floors, and up to 1250 sq. meters—was most likely a cold room or frigidarium. Other colossal statues once occupied this room, as shown by the front part of two female feet of colossal dimensions we discovered last summer standing on the floor and surrounded by mosaics which still follow the contours of the female statue's long dress.

Last year's discoveries suggested more statues of people belonging to the circles around Hadrian, such as his wife Vibia Sabina or his male lover Antinoüs, might be found here. We even initially thought that this year's find was probably Vibia Sabina, who was only 14 years old when she was forced into marriage with Hadrian. But it was clear once the head, which was face down, was turned over, that it represented a woman more mature than as Sabina was usually portrayed.

The head is 0.76 m in height (2.5 feet). It has large, almond-shaped eyes (only the tear ducts are rendered, not the iris or pupils as became usual during the reign of Hadrian) and fleshy thick lips. Its hair is parted in the middle of the front and taken in wavy strains below and around the ears toward the back. The rendering of the hair was done with only sparing sparing use of the drill, a feature characteristic for portraits of empresses in this, the Antonine, dynasty, in sharp contrast with the beards and curly hairs of their husbands. On top of the head is a circlet, a feature typical for most of Sabina's portraits, yet in this case the whole physiognomy of the face clearly indicates it is the empress Faustina the Elder, wife of Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius.

Except for the circlet, the best parallel is a colossal portrait (with the same treatment of the eyes) of Faustina the Elder from Sardis, Turkey, which is now part of The British Museum's permanent collection. Colossal statues were apparently very much in favor at Sagalassos. Besides the 4 m tall hero occupying the Northwest Heroon (hero shrine) and the twice-life size statues of Dionysos from the mid-Antonine nymphaeum (fountain house) on the Upper Agora, there is a 5 m tall Apollo statue from the late Hadrianic nymphaeum above the city's Lower Agora.


Side view of the newly found head of the empress Faustina the Elder showing details of the hairstyle and carving (Courtesy Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project)

The Hadrian and Faustina fragments were discovered in the rubble filling of the Roman Baths. Carbon 14 dating of owl pellets (regurgitated fur and bones of prey) found there suggest a date between A.D. 540 and 620, most likely around 590, for the building's partial collapse during a massive earthquake. The findspot in the southern extremity of the large room, atop a thick mortar layer fallen from the vaulted ceilings, clearly indicates that the fragments had been brought here from another location. Perhaps they were taken from their original location to remove the gilded bronze armor that likely adorned the emperor's statue or even to burn the huge marble pieces to make cement in a nearby lime kiln.

A long inaugural inscription of the huge Roman Baths—discovered elsewhere in the complex years ago—was dedicated ca. A.D. 165 to the co-rulers Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, the successors of Antoninus Pius. It is a strong indication that both colossal statues discovered thus far, representing Hadrian and Faustina the Elder, originally stood there together with other members of the Antonine dynasty.

It is possible that in the future we will discover more imperial colossal heads in the spacious room currently under excavation.

The Dynasty

The Antonine dynasty, which presided over Rome's so-called silver age of the second century A.D., had its roots in the Roman aristocracy of what is now Spain and southern France. When the emperor Nerva died in A.D. 98, he was succeeded by M. Ulpius Traianus, his adoptive son, born in Italica (Seville in Spain) and married to Pompea Plotilla, belonging to a family from Nemausus (Nimes in Provence). The lack of a male heir forced Trajan to adopt a son, and he selected P. Aelius Hadrianus or Hadrian, whose father was also originally from Seville and belonged to the circle of Spanish aristocrats around him. Hadrian's mother, Domitia Paulina, was born at Cadiz.

Despite the fact that he was gay, Hadrian was forced to marry Vibia Sabina, daughter of Salona Matidia, herself the daughter of Trajan's sister Ulpia Marciana. The marriage was possibly never consumated, and Sabina died in 136-137. Whereas his marriage with Sabina was strained, Hadrian got on very well with his mother-in-law, who was even promoted to Augusta (empress). Being childless, Hadrian adopted L. Ceionius Commodus, henceforth known as Aelius Caesar, who, however, died before his adoptive father. He then chose Antoninus Pius, like Trajan's wife Plotilla born at Nimes.

Antoninus Pius married the daughter of a family friend from Ucibe (in Baetica, Spain), Annius Verus, who through her marriage (at the age of ten !) would become the empress Annia Galeria Faustina (the Elder). In contrast with the messy marriage of Hadrian and Sabina, the Elder Faustina and Antoninus Pius had a happy marriage, lasting 31 years until Faustina's death in A.D. 141. While adopting Antoninus Pius as his son and successor, Hadrian tried to assure the dynasty's future by forcing him to adopt two sons. These were Faustina's brother's son M. Annius Verus, who would rule as Marcus Aurelius and marry Faustina's daughter the Younger Faustina, and the son of Aelius Caesar, L. Ceionius Commodus, better known as Lucius Verus, who would marry Marcus Aurelius' daughter Lucilla.

Despite the fact, that the adoptive sons in several cases belonged to the female line of the family, the Antonine empresses and women of this dynasty hardly interfered in politics. This was unlike the earlier Julio-Claudians, whose women belonged to old and powerful Roman families, or later with the empresses of the Severan dynasty most of them mothers of emperors and themselves belonging to a powerful priestly family from Emesa (Homs in Syria). The provincial, Spanish or southern French origin of the Antonine empresses on the one hand, and the fact that in this family of "adopted emperors" none of them would ever be an emperor's mother may explain this more humble position of Faustina and the other empresses of the same dynasty. The lone exception was the Younger Faustina, whose son Commodus' despotic rule led to his assassination and ended the dynasty.

Marc Waelkens is director of the Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project.