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Ancient Roman Busts

The eight prints of eleven personages in this section were all engraved in London between 1807 and 1819 for the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Painters in which the Greek busts catalogued in chapter 1 also appeared (see headnote to CAT 6-14). The first print here shows the connection between the two groups of busts because it juxtaposes two Greek heads against two Roman ones in the spirit of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The Roman busts that Melville collected, like the Greek ones, include those of literary personages as well as political leaders. Virgil was a literary touchstone throughout Melville’s career. The political dynasty embodied here by Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius created the “Age of the Antonines” that for Melville represented the “Solstice of Man” (NN PP 286). Hortensius, Faustina, Julian, and St. Leo illustrate the diversity of the early Roman period beyond the range of those writers and emperors for whom it remains in our day, as well as Melville’s, best known. As with the Greek busts in chapter 1, I quote selectively from the letterpress commentary that accompanied Melville’s engravings when originally published in the Historic Gallery. The commentary for these Roman subjects benefited from the publication of volume 1 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776.   

Melville expressed his own appreciation of Ancient Roman busts on the American lyceum circuit soon after returning from the his Mediterranean tour in 1857. From November 1857 to February 1858 he lectured on “Statues in Rome” in sixteen cites beginning in Massachusetts and ranging as far west as Tennessee. He could speak intimately about ancient Roman busts because he had made two separate visits to the Capitoline Museum, and the eighty-three ancient busts in its Hall of the Emperors, during his month in Rome earlier in the year (NN J 106, 109). These ancient busts “seem familiar and natural to us,” he told his American audiences, “because the aspect of the human countenance is the same in all ages. If five thousand ancient Romans were mingled with a crowd of moderns in the Corso it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other unless it were by a difference in dress. The same features—the same aspects—belong to us as belonged to them; the component parts of human character are the same now as then” (NN PTO 401-02). Melville could compare the busts in the Capitoline museum with the crowds in the Corso because he instinctively compared what he saw in the galleries with what he saw in the streets throughout his stay in Rome.

  • Sources cited in this section
  • Coffler, Gail. “Classical Iconography in the Aesthetics of Billy Budd, Sailor.” In Sten, Savage Eye, 257-76.
  • Cohen, Hennig. Selected Poems of Herman Melville. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991.
  • Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 3 vol. New York: Modern Library, 1970 (Sealts posits an unidentified edition published before 1877 as no. 223b).
  • The Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, 7 vol. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807-19. Abbreviated hereafter as HG.
  • Jordan, David P. Gibbon and his Roman Empire. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
  • Lambert, Royston. Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. New York: Viking, 1984.
  • Plutarch. The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. The Dryden translation, ed. and rev. by Arthur Hugh Clough. 2 vol.  New York: Modern Library, 1992.