What Did the Roman Emperors Really Look like?

This is how Roman emperors may have looked like. Image: © Daniel Voshart.
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The pandemic inspired many people to fill their time with more or less useful “quarantine projects”: doing handicrafts, learning Chinese, painting the apartment … The Canadian graphic designer Daniel Voshart started in June 2020 to re-create the faces of Roman emperors. And he was blown away by the success of his project.

Virtual Reality and the Reconstruction of Roman Portraiture

Voshart is a VR expert in the film industry. At his computer, he can create persons that don’t exist in the real world. (Cue: deepfakes. A computer-generated President Nixon gives a speech that he never gave in the real world.) He has never been particularly interested in Roman history, as he said himself. However, there is a connection between Roman emperors and computer-generated imagery: Voshart found the idea of colouring statues quite exciting. Even in ancient times, marble statues were usually coloured, however, it’s still a big step from colouring statues to creating realistic portraits. Voshart completed this step thanks to ArtBreeder, a programme that makes use of machine learning. A technology called GAN (generative adversarial network) makes it possible to combine several images that were loaded into the programme before; the result is sort of a “child”, an image that resembles the “parent images” but isn’t a clone. If you repeat this step with more images, the programme will gradually learn to recognise similarities between the images. Voshart did this for each of the first 54 emperors from Augustus to Carinus and Numerianus. He then added the colour of their hair, skin and other details in Photoshop.

Voshart combined the results of his quarantine project in 300 overview posters depicting the portraits of all emperors. He hoped to be able to sell the posters in the next 12 months. They were sold out within three weeks – giving Voshart the financial means to continue his project.

Problems and Challenges

This might sound quite simple in terms of technology, however, it’s much more than a grind. First of all, you need the relevant data: how can we know what colour an emperor’s skin or hair was, and what other features his face had?

On the one hand, Voshart used written sources, but, on the other hand, he also added hypothetical features. Septimius Severus and his sons, for example, came from North Africa. Thus, it’s quite likely that their skin was darker than that of emperors from northern Italy. Coins and sculptured portraits only provided a basic outline of Voshart’s project.

Regarding the case of Emperor Aemilian (reigned in 253), there are barely any historical sources: we only have coins, most literary sources are probably fictitious – nevertheless, Voshart presents a portrait. Is that legitimate? Yes, it is! Voshart’s work relies primarily on coins of this emperor. However, we cannot give a definitive answer to the question of how realistic the depictions of historical persons on ancient coins are. In his blog the graphic designer points out: “My goal was not to romanticize emperors or make them seem heroic. In choosing bust / sculptures, my approach was to favor the bust that was made when the emperor was alive. Otherwise, I favored the bust made with the greatest craftsmanship and where the emperor was stereotypically uglier – my pet theory being that artists were likely trying to flatter their subjects.” And that means: Details that aren’t that pretty weren’t made up by the artist, he simply didn’t remove them.

However, Voshart gave his VR emperors an additional touch of reality by incorporating photos of modern people into the project. Emperor Maximinus Thrax seems to have suffered from a disease that is known as acromegaly today, therefore, he was particularly tall. Voshart found a professional wrestler who was extremely successful in the 1970s and 1980s and who suffered from the same disease: André the Giant. A picture of the 2.13 metre tall giant was combined with ancient sculptures and coin images to create the facial features of the ancient emperor.


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Not Ideal, Not Perfect: a Realistic Portrait

Here, at the latest, one could perfectly ask once more: what does this have to do with the historical figure of Maximinus Thrax? Some images remind us of Gangsta rapper Ice-T and George Clooney. In an interview with The Verge magazine, Voshart explained: “What I’m doing is an artistic interpretation of an artistic interpretation.” Apparently, this kind of indications are needed. Last summer, a user on Twitter asked in all seriousness how Voshart got his hands on the photos of the real emperors. Bewildered, the graphic designer stressed that he didn’t know how these people really looked like: “Every step towards realism is a step away from sound facts.” Therefore, Voshart presents different portraits of some emperors and explains in an exemplary and meticulous manner which data was used for which portrait.

Thus, we should refrain from trying to find out which details on our coins differ from the supposedly genuine portrait. That would be a circular argument as Voshart’s portraits themselves are based on these very coin images.

Voshart’s portraits spark the imagination, they help us detach ourselves from the sterile, white idealisation of all Roman rulers that probably influences the thoughts of all of us: Augustus’ curls, Hadrian’s well-groomed beard. In Voshart’s work, we see some hipster-like men, but above all the colourful world of emperors. It would be wrong to assume that all of them were “Romans”, they came from different parts of the empire. Initially, Voshart had used ancient texts on a website that appears to be influenced by Nazi concepts as it stylised Roman emperors according to the Aryan ideal as white, blond showpieces. When an Italian archaeologist brought this to his attention, Voshart used correct translations and corrected the error in the second edition of his poster.

If you let your gaze wonder over the portraits of Roman emperors, you will see your coins in a different light, too. For this is how the emperors might have looked like. There are always good reasons to re-create historical figures in any way, the best one is: it is an invitation to discuss, which some historians and archaeologists have already accepted. Voshart’s project takes the white demigods down from their pedestals. That’s a gain for classical studies.


Here you can access Daniel Voshart’s Roman Emperor Project. You will find detailed information on the portrait of every single emperor on various subpages.

Voshart keeps adding new comments on the project on his Twitter profile.

If you’re interested in the technical background, you should read this article by Popular Mechanics.

And if you would like to buy a poster of the portraits, have a look at the Etsy shop of the graphic designer.

In 1987, the wrestler André the Giant impersonated the good-natured but strong giant Fezzik in the fantasy film The Princess Bride. In this one-on-one fight scene you can see the giant in action.