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of Dionysian demigods and that of its the real-life owners, the entry to the House of the Figured Capitals sent mixed messages in a way that betrayed the owners’ tentative em- brace of Hellenistic culture. They were not Romans, nor were they Hellenistic Greeks. Their self-representation to passersby expresses this cultural diªerence, and veers widely from the use of portrait images in elite Roman practice.


For elite Romans, display of portraits of ancestors was not just a choice but a right and a duty: the ius imaginum, literally the “right of images.” 13 The historian Polybius, a Greek who lived with the family of Scipio Aemilianus between 166 and 149 b.c., wrote with fas- cination about the customs of elite Romans. In particular, his description of funeral rites demonstrated the importance of images—wax masks of illustrious family members—in the cultural formation of young men:

After the burial and all the usual ceremonies have been performed, they place the likeness of the deceased in the most conspicuous spot in his house, surmounted by a wooden canopy or shrine. This likeness consists of a mask made to represent the deceased with extraordi- nary fidelity both in shape and color. These likenesses they display at public sacrifices adorned with much care. And when any illustrious member of the family dies, they carry these masks to the funeral, putting them on men whom they thought as like the originals as possible in height and other personal peculiarities. And these substitutes assume clothes according to the rank of the person represented: if he was a consul or praetor, a toga with purple stripes; if a censor, whole purple; if he had also celebrated a triumph or performed any exploit of that kind, a toga embroidered with gold. These representatives also ride them- selves in chariots, while the fasces and axes, and all the other customary insignia of the particular o‹ces, lead the way, according to the dignity of the rank in the state enjoyed by the deceased in his lifetime; and on arriving at the Rostra they all take their seats on ivory chairs in their order. There could not easily be a more inspiring spectacle than this for a young man of noble ambitions and virtuous aspirations. For can we conceive any one to be unmoved at the sight of all the likenesses collected together of the men who have earned glory, all as it were living and breathing? Or what could be a more glorious spectacle? 14

If Polybius’ description of how Romans used the masks seems strange to us, it is be- cause most of us do not share their belief in the power of the portrait e‹gy to evoke the spirits of the dead and—more important—to get them to help the living. The wax death- masks, displayed in the atrium, constituted both a proclamation of the longevity of the gens or clan and a projection of its continuity. 15 For elite Romans, portraiture in marble and bronze were substituted for the original death-masks as a gens expanded; scholars repeatedly cite the so-called Barberini Togatus, a statue of a man in a toga holding the portrait busts of his father and grandfather, to drive home this point. 16 The problem is that both are busts rather than wax masks. 17 Pre-