Faces of Roman Egypt

A group of remarkably lifelike mummy portraits from the first through third centuries AD bring us face to face with the people who lived in Egypt under the Roman Empire.

Map: Egypt and the Classical worldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Greco-Roman Egypt

Since at least the third millennium BC, Egypt had enjoyed close connections with its Mediterranean neighbors. Before becoming part of the Roman Empire in 30 BC, the country was ruled by a Greek dynasty (the Ptolemaic Dynasty) for nearly 300 years. 

The longstanding Greek presence in Egypt meant that many communities at this time displayed a blend of Egyptian and Greek cultures, with people speaking both languages and belonging to mixed Greco-Egyptian families. Such communities were most concentrated in the Nile Delta region and in the Fayyum Oasis, where the majority of mummy portrait panels originated.

Mummy of Herakleides (A.D. 120-140) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Mummy of Herakleides

In Egypt, it was customary to mummify the deceased and create a likeness of them, often in the form of a mummy mask or an anthropoid (human-form) coffin. 

Some of the men and women who lived in Roman Egypt chose instead to have themselves represented in portraits painted on thin wooden panels or linen shrouds that were affixed to the mummy wrappings. 

Though Greco-Roman in style, these mummy portraits belong to traditional Egyptian funerary practices and beliefs about the afterlife. Herakleides, whose mummy is shown here, lived in Egypt around AD 120-140.

Herakleides belongs to a unique group of seven portrait mummies who are wrapped in linen shrouds that are painted with the same red-lead pigment from present-day Spain. His shroud bears painted and gilded images of Egyptian deities, including Osiris, the god of the dead.

A painted portrait panel is placed over Herakleides’ face, showing a young man with a dark complexion and moustache. He wears a gilded laurel wreath in his hair. The portrait’s background is also gilded.

On the mummy’s footcase, his name is written in Greek letters. The name is especially visible when photographed in infrared light.

Mummy of Herakleides (footcase), Unknown, 0120/0140, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Mummy of Herakleides (Infrared image of inscription on feet), 2017, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Each of the portraits in this exhibit was used in a mummification burial in a similar manner, but many portraits were removed from their mummies when they were originally discovered. There are only about 100 intact portrait mummies in the world, but about 1,000 portrait panels.

Mummy Portrait of a Woman (0100) by Isidora MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Painting Techniques

Thanks to the painted name above her right shoulder, we know that this striking woman was called Isidora. Like Herakleides, she was buried in a shroud that was painted red, part of which is still intact around her portrait.   

Her elegant clothing and jewels, and the gilded adornments on her hair, clothing, and jewelry suggest that she was a woman of high rank who lived around AD 100.     

Isidora’s portrait was painted using heated wax as a pigment binder, a technique known as encaustic. Encaustic painting created a highly textured surface and allowed the artist to achieve a detailed sense of light and shadow.

Mummy Portrait of a Woman (neck) (0100) by Isidora MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The layers of paint create a three-dimensionality that is pronounced on her gold and emerald necklaces.    

Mummy Portrait of a Woman (A.D. 175–200) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Another painting technique used to produce mummy portraits was tempera, in which the raw pigment was mixed with animal glue as a binder. 

In contrast to encaustic, the tempera technique required the artist to work faster because of animal glue’s quick drying time. The thin binder also resulted in a more linear style and flatter surface.  

Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man (about A.D. 150–170) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Clothing, Hairstyle, and Jewelry

Most male subjects wear a white funerary tunic with dark clavi (woven stripes) on either side and a cloak draped over the shoulder. 

In Rome, clavi distinguished social status; their significance in Roman Egypt is uncertain and their presence on the portraits may be aspirational . . . 

Here, the artist used the encaustic technique for a detailed rendering of the texture of the man’s garments . . .

. . . as well as his curly hair and beard.

Mummy Portrait of a Young Woman (about A.D. 170–200) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Women are generally shown wearing a pink or purple funerary tunic with clavi. The delicate features of this woman’s face—created through the artist’s excellent technical mastery of tempera painting—are contrasted with the bold strokes that render the folds of her tunic. 

Her pearl earrings would have been imported, perhaps from the Persian Gulf, and signal that she was a wealthy, cosmopolitan woman.

Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man (A.D. 140–160) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In a small number of portraits, men appear to be bare-chested, which is true for Herakleides (shown earlier) and for this man.  

Hairstyles in mummy portraiture can often help approximate when the subject lived.  This man’s full beard and hair are contemporary with the Antonine period, around AD 140–160.  

Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man (A.D. 220–235) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Over the first to third centuries AD, popular hairstyles for men ranged from full and voluminous to close shaven (as for this man, who probably lived around AD 220–235). 

Most men are shown with facial hair, but trends in beard length also changed over time.   

Mummy Portrait (black background) (0075/0100) by Malibu PainterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Women’s hairstyles and jewelry also kept pace with what their contemporaries were wearing in the empire’s capital. 

This woman’s curly hair is bound in a bun on top of her head, framed by multiple rows of curls above her forehead—a favored hairstyle for women in the Flavian period, around AD 75–100. 

Her emerald and pearl jewelry was also fashionable in Flavian Rome.

Panel with Painted Image of Isis (Main View, front, left panel)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Cult of Isis

In Roman Egypt, images of deities were painted on wooden panels similar to those used for mummy portraits. The panels would have been displayed in the home or in shrines and used in personal religious devotion to call upon protective gods and goddesses. 

Two painted panels at the Getty likely formed the doors to a small shrine. The first of these panels depicts the goddess Isis. Isis, who in Egyptian mythology revived her murdered husband Osiris and conceived a child with him, evoked fertility and rebirth. 

Her cult was especially popular in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, both in Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean.  

Many mummy portraits contain iconography related to Isis worship, including the folded wreath of pink flowers she holds at her left.  

The second panel shows the god Serapis, a new consort who was created for Isis in the Ptolemaic period.

Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (100) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Like Isis, he was a fertility deity, as demonstrated by the grain measure he wears on his head.   

Portrait of a Bearded Man from a Shrine (100) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Some portraits might have been made during a person’s lifetime and displayed in the home prior to being used in their burial. The purpose of this panel portrait is ambiguous. 

The edges of the wood are beveled and unpainted, suggesting that it was once framed. 

The man pictured holds a folded wreath of flowers and a green sprig, images of growth and renewal that indicate he is a follower of the goddess Isis. 

Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man (A.D. 220–250) by Brooklyn PainterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Other individuals also hold implements in their hands that may signal their religious beliefs, particularly life beyond death, as the cult of Isis promised. 

The small cup in this man’s right hand contains wine. In his left hand he holds a folded floral wreath.

Mummy Portrait of a Youth (A.D. 150–200) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The subjects of mummy portraits range from young children to the elderly. Portraits of children were sometimes hastily completed (perhaps indicating an unexpected death), but this one is of high quality. 

Egyptian children traditionally had their heads shaved except for a single, braided side lock above the right ear. 

In the pharaonic period, the same coiffure was worn by the youthful Horus, son of Isis and Osiris. In the Greco-Roman period Horus became known as Harpokrates (“Horus the child”) and was regarded as the offspring of Isis and Serapis. 

The small container the boy wears around his neck may have been used to hold a protective amulet written on papyrus. 

Mummy Portrait of a Man by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits provide a unique window into the identities of a particular class of individuals—mostly elite and of mixed Greco-Egyptian descent—who lived in Roman Egypt. 

Though their links to Roman imperial networks are portrayed through clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry, they chose to be buried in the Egyptian manner and believed in the Egyptian guarantee of an existence in the next world.  

Credits: Story

© 2021 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles.

For more on Mummy Portraits, see the following resources:

Podcast: Marie Svoboda on Egyptian Mummy Portraits
Investigating Herakleides: A Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt on Google Arts & Culture
More on the APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research) Project

To cite these texts, please use: “Faces of Roman Egypt” published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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