Work of Art: Emperor Caracalla in the Guise of Helios
Ancient Roman
Emperor Caracalla in the Guise of Helios
early 3rd Century
80 x 37 x 22 in. (203.2 x 94 x 55.9 cm)
Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)

In Greek mythology, the god Helios was responsible for drawing the sun daily across the heavens in his horse-drawn chariot. In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, adopted the god as his personal favorite, no doubt because Alexander had conquered the “lands of the rising sun”—Mesopotamia, Parthia, Bactria, and northwest India. During the later second century A.D., Roman emperors of the Severan dynasty, to which Caracalla belonged, were involved in military campaigns in lands once occupied by Alexander and sought to emulate his glory and conquests.

In this statue, Helios is given the face of a youthful Caracalla, which may portray the emperor prior to his reign of 211–217. There is also a deliberate attempt to associate Caracalla with Alexander. He is portrayed with Alexander’s distinctive hairstyle and also with the attributes of Helios: the crown that originally had twelve bronze rays framing his face, the torch he carried in his left hand (traces of the flame are visible on the upper left arm), and the horse’s head that indicates his chariot. His right arm would have pointed to the route across the sky. As in the Torso of an Emperor in the Guise of Jupiter (also in the Museum's collection), religious symbols are here artfully employed for the purposes of political propaganda.

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