Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, Essay Example

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Essay

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs is a Roman sculpture, possessing a deep political significance. The work, commonly dated to the period around 300 A.D., reflects a new form of government that was inaugurated by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Arguably intended to handle the vast expanses of the empire, the tetrarchical form of government “effectively divided authority among four rulers” (Nees, 21), which themselves “were arranged in two pairs” (Nees, 21), corresponding to the Empire’s eastern and western domains. Nees notes that this political structure was uniquely the product of Diocletian, and failed to “really work after his own retirement.” (22) Nevertheless, that works of art were commissioned dedicated to this new form of government during Diocletian’s time suggests that the political arrangement was viewed as a radically new way of political practice, and deserved to be the subject of an equally innovative form of artistic creation.

The work itself can be said to reflect the very newness that the political system of the tetrarchy proposed. The figures of the tetrarchs do not embody any type of classical motifs, which could be considered similar to a certain deification and celebration of the body and strength of the emperor. Rather, the work is somewhat more abstract in its presentation, as the design almost suggests a primitive form of depiction comparable to crude folk art. Manca, Bade and Costello summarize the apparent radical break that The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs signifies as follows: “the classicizing style of depiction has been discarded in favour of the native, plebeian style of art.” (347) This deliberate movement away from Roman sculptural classicism perhaps bears its own primarily political logic: the new form of the tetrarchy, by mimicking a style of art familiar with the common citizenry, would attempt to endear themselves to the populace. By rejecting a purely classical style, the portrait tries to distance itself from mythical and divine associations between the forms of the rulers of the Emperor, associations which inevitably conjure up images of the superiority of the ruler to the ruled. Furthermore, the fact that the political organization of the tetrarchy itself consisted of four rulers re-iterate Diocletian’s belief that rulers were not infallible: they precisely needed cooperation to make their system work. This is furthermore symbolized by how the four rulers are closely placed together in the sculpture, thus demonstrating their unity.

Despite this attempt to use plebeian motifs to eradicate distance between the ruling class and those who were ruled, the materials used in the sculpture suggest the faith Diocletian had in this new political system, intending it to withstand the test of time. The sculpture is made from porphyry, which is a “rare, hard reddish-purple stone reserved by this time exclusively for emperors and their families.” (Talbert, 151) The enduring properties of the porphyry material correspond to the hypothesis that the tetrarchy would continue to last into the future. Furthermore, the royal connotations associated with the porphyry stone underscore that although the new tetrarchy seems to break from imperial motifs and the all-powerful emperor, this system should nevertheless be received on the same authoritative level as these previous leaders.

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs thus provides a compelling example of how politics can be reflected in art. All decisions in regards to the composition of the work seem to have been rigorously contemplated. The break from classicism indicates the newness of this political institution, while the usage of porphyry emphasizes the traditional legitimacy of Roman ruler. The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs is therefore a perfect example of politics meeting and informing art and aesthetic decisions.

Works Cited

Manca, Joseph, Bade, Patrick and Costello, Sarah. 1000 Sculptures of  Genius. New York: Grange, 2007.

Nees, Lawrence. Early Medieval Art. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Talbert, Richard J.A. Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered.

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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