The Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius: A Hero over the Regal Complacency – Freya Zhang

Freya Zhang is a young critic from Shanghai. She is currently based in London, pursuing an MA in Comparative Literature in King’s College London. After being awarded a scholarship under the State Scholarship Fund organized by China Scholarship Council in 2017, she pursued her further study in University College Cork for a semester, where she developed a passionate interest in art criticism, mainly focused on ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in literary criticism, mainly focused on European and Japanese literature since the 18th century.

When staring at the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius for the first time, attentive viewers may find themselves easily nailed into a condensed horizon where the inscrutable poignancy of the statue directly strikes their souls, even though the manifestation is meant to gravitate towards the glorified sovereignty of this Roman emperor. Though this statue’s seemingly inscrutable poignancy  occupies only a tiny proportion of the whole emblem of the imperial power, somehow it still succeeds in disturbing the whole harmonious atmosphere of imperialism that this equestrian statue exudes. Thus, we have to ask: what are the elements hidden behind the statue that compose such tiny yet striking disequilibrium? And what kind of extra horizon, besides all the apparent political purpose the statue aimed to serve, does it reveal and therefore give the modern viewers such a piercing insight which most sculptures of emperors fail to convey?

These questions provide the initial impetus for me to write this essay. In writing it, I aim to excavate the conflict imbued deeply within the statue, thereby trying to alleviate the personal poignancy the subject of the statue, Marcus Aurelius, harboured subtly yet heavily within his heart.

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius: a Combination of Republic Verism and Imperial Idealism

  If we regard this conflict-inlaid statue as a troop combined with the verism (a style in late first-century BCE Roman Republic portraiture characterized by realism and truthfulness) of republic Rome and the idealism of imperial Rome, then there is no doubt that the imperial idealism is in the vanguard of this virtual war. This overwhelming superiority had been formed in the Augustus Age where the art was mainly served as a political tool for Roman emperors to propagate their unrivaled supremacy and inimitable autocracy, just as Malcolm A. R. Colledge pointed out in his Review: Art and Propaganda:

  ‘‘The Augustan Principate’ was a key era, with the bringing of peace, founding of a new nation state, and creation of the emperor cult and a new state art more widely comprehensible than the Republican embodying state values, new concepts and an emperor’s image more political than realistic.”[1] This statue of Marcus Aurelius can be regarded as an actual presentation of this verbal statement and we can gain a thorough grasp of this artistic personification of political power.

The location of the statue shall be considered firstly. As we can see in Figure 1, though the original location of the statue remains uncertain, the replica of the statue still indicates the imperial status the original statue once embodied. It is located in the centre of Piazza del Compidoglio, a square which serves as the political centre of Rome. Thus, the political accordance of the two is seamlessly created.

Figure 1: Equestrian Campidoglio statue of Marcus Aurelius,
161-180, Three-quarter view, Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome

Analyzing the statue with greater attention, we can discern that the material of the artwork is bronze, which was a valuable material in a short supply at that time and therefore it was expensive. Through this use of expensive material, the superior status of the empire is distinguished. Besides the material the artist used, the rider’s saddle blanket is clearly distinct due to its multiple layers of felt which have unique zigzag borders (Figure 2). According to Helmut Nickel’s research, the ornament of the saddle blanket is of Persian[2] design, which as Helmut pointed out was used by nomadic Sarmatians, an Iranian people from classical antiquity.[3] Therefore, it can be concluded that such exotic trappings, as the loot of a successful warfare, visually and indirectly contributed to the imperial regalia of Marcus Aurelius as a victorious commander.

Figure 2: Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius(detail of the saddle blanket), 161-180, 424cm,
Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome

Furthermore, there is also a postulated, unseen crouching Sarmatian under the horse’s raised right foreleg. Cassius Dio pointed out that the emperor wished to annihilate a Sarmatian tribe, the Iazyges, which inhabited the territory of modern Hungary because he regarded them as treacherous. The emperor also harboured strong animosity towards Ariogaesus, king of the Quadi, and so he offered a high reward for capturing the king alive.[4] Through this conjecture based on these facts, the statue once again appears as a portrait of a martial hero whose power is highly unrivaled. Additionally, what the emperor wears further enhances his nobility. The fine, meticulously knotted boots Marcus wears (Figure 3) indicate that their owner is from the Roman upper class. At the same time, the paludament – a cloak worn over one shoulder by military commanders – with graceful drapes explicitly shows the victory of the commander. Hence, all the details overlap and reinforce the same motif of the statue in their own dissimilar functions; a political paragon with warfare accolades thus emerges in its imperial-idealistic the fullest.

Figure 3: Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius(detail of the legs), 161-180, 424cm,
Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. (photo : William L. MacDonald Collection, Princeton University)

There is one more detail that is still within the realm of imperial-idealistic propaganda: the gesture of Marcus. This gesture is one more element that is used to polish the supremacy in a more spontaneously physical way. However, it should be emphasized that this gesture cannot be put among the details mentioned above. It is separated from them because it not only highlights the Romanesque imperial idealism, but also serves as a bridge between the emperor and his warhorse in psychological and physical ways. That is to say, this gesture may be seen as a symbol of liminality. The emperor’s omnipotent imperial-idealistic style of portraiture is amplified by the harmonious concurrence of his right-hand’s gesture with his warhorse’s raised right foreleg. While the dominant power of Marcus remains invincible in his body language, this power is also transited to his warhorse through this hand-shape threshold. This is so effective that the warhorse seems to have transcended its lord’s matchless position and thereafter gloriously re-symbolizes its lord’s almighty political power in an even more glaring way. As Figure 4 shows, the horse shows its warlike vigorousness through its extendedly flared nostrils, its wide-open eyes and its heavily-breathing mouth. At the same time, its one ear is pricked in an astute way and its whole smooth body sheds such a limelight of its natural beauty that the regal nobleness simply overflows through it. Such primal nobleness is depicted perfectly well in a poem the Roman poet Statius dedicated to the Equus Domitiani in the Roman Forum:

‘But the steed, counterfeiting the proud mien and spirit

of his rider, tosses his head in greater spirit and makes
as though to move; the mane stands stiff upon his neck,
his shoulders thrill with life, and his flanks spread wide
enough for those mighty spurs;’(II 46-50)[5]

Figure 4: Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius(details of horse’s head), 161-180, 424cm,
Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. (image from William L. MacDonald Collection, Princeton University, Department of Art and Archaeology)

Thus, resembling the poem, Marcus’s warhorse also slightly and in a friendly way supersedes its lord and therefore harbours more weight of the politically pedagogical purpose the statue was meant to build. It is through this subtle change of attention that a small degree of Roman Republic verism portraiture, which follows the vanguard of Roman imperial idealism, can appear through the facial expression of the emperor. Furthermore, his body language is limited, since his body is less animated than the warhorse he controls. In other words, the horse serves to signify the emperor’s militant power. It transcends the individual figure to the imperial paradigm, even fusing a more ebullient fulfillment of military glory in its concurrence with the grand imperator. The personality of Marcus Aurelius then can be smoothly driven out of the flash light and thus have a space to breathe its very personal breath. But how exactly does Marcus Aurelius breathe this breath?

First and foremost, this personality – which is straight out of the propagandastic canon – can be seen through the denotative meaning of Marcus’s body language. Marcus’s personal leniency, expressed through the statue’s very contours, are distinct when juxtaposed against Falconet’s equestrian statue of ‘Peter the Great’. A vital difference between the two statues, which reveals the characteristics of the two leaders, is the accessories each emperor carries. It’s obvious that Marcus wears no swords or armour at all, whereas Peter the Great was illustrated as a victorious leader who wears a fine robe and carries a royally ornamented sword and thus basked in the golden light of grand military power. In such an observation, one question must be raised: without any weapons that would seem essential for a highly-praised war leader, how can Marcus’s power be expressed? Where exactly, if not from divine sword or armour, does his power come from? This kind of wondering directly triggers the idiosyncrasy of Marcus Aurelius, who showed his nobleness through his political aptitude and remarkable magnanimity when ruling the whole country, as well as his seething lifelong passion for philosophy. Such biographical overtones can be seen in his extending right arm and his graceful display of an open hand, which match seamlessly with his mental tendency towards morality, peace and humanity. This, argues the statue, is where his true power and his true nobleness lie, even though he was actually war-weary due to his overly-heavy duty caused by desperate crisis such as constant warfare and natural disasters. Therefore, from this perspective, the republic style of verism – concerned with the very human struggles and concerns of the emperor – is elucidated, since an acute authenticity within this ideal iconography still reveals itself well. Furthermore, such verism can also be discerned magnificently in comparison with the whole ebulliently-warlike atmosphere the equestrian statue of Peter the Great creates: quite the opposite of Peter the Great’s bellicosity, the statue of Marcus Aurelius exudes an atmosphere which is more related to political stability, since there is less turbulence in the movement of Marcus’s warhorse, which conveys the congenial temperament of its lord.

Lacking such regal complacency which plays a quite important role in most commemorative statues teeming with subjugating power such as the equestrian statue of Peter the Great and the statue of the emperor Augustus from Prima Porta, the overflowing pride of an emperor is replaced by the mental frustration hidden in depth behind Marcus’s facial expression: instead of being an unfledged, clean-shaven young heir of his imperial family, the facial portraiture of Marcus here is a mature ruler with heavy beard who was in his forties. What should be noticed here is Marcus’s mouth, which sinks towards chin, and at the meantime, there seems a slight frown on Marcus’s haggard face. Thus, all the details succeed in composing a piercing pensiveness that cannot be easily captured from other imperial rulers. Therefore, the fleeting personality of this grand imperator eventually speaks. The longer the audience stares at such regal somberness, the louder it vibrates, just as the poet Ardath F. Mayhar illustrates in his poem Head of Marcus Aurelius:

‘Yours is a cynical face, my friend,

Heavy lidded, with inward-seeing eyes;

you seem raddled and rent

By labors and frustrations.

You wrestled with an empire,

with barbarians, with your soul:

The empire stood, awhile;

The barbarians calmed, in time;

But your spirit, friend Marcus,

Still struggles behind your beleaguered eyes.’[6]

The biography of Marcus Aurelius and the physiognomy the sculptor engraved with meticulous care then naturally and spontaneously link with each other. And browsing Anthony Birley’s Marcus Aurelius, a Biography, such pensiveness which the statue ignites is very likely caused by the ruler’s fervid and genuine passion for philosophy instead of imperial dominance. As is said in Anthony’s biography, Marcus ‘had begun his reign by ‘giving himself wholly to philosophy,’[7] and was described to have been treating philosophy as his mother and palace, which embodies royalty, as his stepmother.[8] What is more, Marcus even refused to be made emperor unless equal powers were conferred simultaneously on his brother Lucius Commodus ,[9] thus his heavy burden of ruling the whole country could be lightened with the help of another imperial partner. Such glimpses of Marcus’s political life certainly demonstrate him as an ostensibly unwilling ruler, but it does not mean Marcus lacked any political aptitude to rule his country well. Quite the contrary: it was Marcus’s zeal for philosophy that stressed him while dealing with his tasks, just as Anthony points out, His inclination to philosophy ensured that he would display an almost excessive sense duty.[10]So, instead of being called a tyrannical imperator, and besides this gloomy reluctance to reign in such an imperial way, Marcus was highly praised as a wise and responsible political commander since he made the senate the judge in many judicial enquiries, even in those which belonged to his own jurisdiction. None of the emperors showed such respect to the senate as he did. (……) Besides this, when elections were being held he often stayed in the Senate House until night, and never left the building until the consul had said: ‘we detain you no further, Conscript Fathers’.’[11] However, Marcus must have been haggard since he was extremely beset by crisis on and off during his ruling period. At the same time, he suffered from not being able to luxuriate in what truly enticed his spirit. Without such ontological nurturing, he must had been living on the edge of mental explosion. Thus, such inevitably forms an extra space where viewers will taste the poignancy that a prestigious king carried regardless of how omnipotent he had been.  It is exactly this king’s very personal liminality between his duty that cannot be discharged and his flaming enthusiasm for philosophy that he cannot fully immerse himself in that makes such a tiny yet striking disequilibrium. Thus the statue breathes, eventually.


In a nutshell, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius separates itself from most purely imperial idealism and therefore enters a liminality where the very authenticity of a person’s character and the cultural context are not excluded from each other. Thus, Marcus’s personality can be gleaned even under the suppression of the traditional imperial way of propaganda. And most importantly, through engraving such unmasked personality into the statue, the statue is rendered into a language that is alive and hence cannot be spoken by those artificial emperors that have been categorized in a paradigm of political context. Therefore it speaks solemnly; therefore we listen quietly.


[1] M. A. R. Colledge, ‘Art and Propaganda’, The Classical Review, vol. 39, 2, 1989, 344–346.

[2] H. Nickel, ‘The Emperor’s New Saddle Cloth: The Ephippium of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius’, Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 24, 1989, 21.

[3] Nickel, ‘The Emperor’s New Saddle Cloth: The Ephippium of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius’, 22.

[4] C. Dio, Roman History, LXXII(epitome of Xiphilinos), trans. Cary, IX, 24-7.

[5] Silvae (tran), I. i by J.H. Mozley, Statius (Loeb Classical Library), reprinted Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982, 7-15.

[6] A. Mayhar, ‘Head of Marcus Aurelius’, Mark Twain Journal, vol. 15, 3, 1970, 5.

[7] B. Anthony, Marcus Aurelius, a biography, London, 1966, 120.

[8] Anthony, Marcus Aurelius, a biography, 120.

[9] Anthony, Marcus Aurelius, a biography, 116.

[10] Anthony, Marcus Aurelius, a biography, 116.

[11] Anthony, Marcus Aurelius, a biography, 134-35


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