Portrait Head of Nerva

UnknownA.D. 96–98

The J. Paul Getty Museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum
Los Angeles, United States

When the hated Roman Emperor Domitian was assassinated in A.D. 96, Marcus Cocceius Nerva, who may have been part of the plot, was chosen by the Roman Senate to succeed him. The ailing 66-year old Nerva would rule for only 16 months before dying himself of natural causes. Due to his short reign, only slightly more than a dozen portraits of Nerva survive. And almost all of these, including the J. Paul Getty Museum's portrait, were re-carved portraits of Domitian.

This marble head, made to be inserted into a separately carved body, shows the typical features of Nerva's portraits: a squarish face, prominent cheekbones, a high, furrowed forehead, closely set eyes, strong folds around the nose and lips, and a prominent Adam's apple. Given his unconventional ascension to the throne, Nerva chose to keep the overall style of his portraits close to those of the preceding Flavian dynasty. The visual continuity served as propaganda emphasizing his right to rule.

The top and back of the portrait's head were cut from separate blocks of stone and attached to the main part of the head. This practice was not unusual for ancient sculpture. The marks on the face are left by roots, indicating that the head was buried underground for centuries.


  • Title: Portrait Head of Nerva
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: A.D. 96–98
  • Location Created: Italy
  • Physical Dimensions: 33 × 27 × 26 cm (13 × 10 5/8 × 10 1/4 in.)
  • Type: Male portrait
  • External Link: Find out more about this object on the Museum website.
  • Medium: Marble
  • Terms of Use: Open Content
  • Number: 83.AA.43
  • Culture: Roman
  • Credit Line: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California
  • Creator Display Name: Unknown
  • Classification: Sculpture (Visual Works)

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