For decades, historians have tried to faithfully recreate what historical figures may have looked like in real life. Now, thanks to modern technology, digital artists such as Daniel Voshart can gather evidence based on busts, drawings, and even coins to create photorealistic versions of past people. Stuck in quarantine, Voshart decided to re-create Roman Emperors in his “Roman Emperor Project.” The renderings coming up are just a small sample of the 54 emperors Voshart recreated using the best technology he could.
A Stunning Poster
To recreate Roman Emperors as accurately as possible, Daniel Voshart first had to gather all the evidence. He gathered 800 pieces of evidence to help fill in the cracks on 54 emperors. From there, he used multiple programs, most predominantly a neural-net tool called Artbreeder, to reconstruct the past.
It’s important to note that Voshart cannot promise true accuracy. He has created artistic interpretations based on the evidence and admits there are bound to be flaws. Because of this, he is constantly making an effort to update his photos as more evidence becomes available.
Augustus was the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. He lived from 27 BC until 19 AD, dying at the 75 from natural causes. To recreate him, Voshart relied heavily on the writings of Roman historian Suetonius.
Suetonius wrote, “His teeth were wide apart, small, and ill-kept … his eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent ever so slightly inward.”
Borin in Rome, Italia, Tiberius lived until he was 75-years-old, although the cause of death isn’t quite as clear as other Roman Emperors. His mother was Livia Drusilla, and much of his appearance was described by H.V. Canter, an American classical philologist.
Canter described Tiberius as having a, “face handsome but often, especially in later years, full of pimples and sores,” with hair, “full and worn so long behind. Bald in later life.”
As of this writing, Daniel Voshart has updated his photorealistic interpretation of Caligula twice. The Roman Emperor only lived to 28-years-old because of a conspiracy that involved Praetorian Guards and Roman senators.
Canter wrote this about the young emperor, “head misshapen, eyes and temples sunken; hair thin, with crown of head bald; hair and beard worn long for a time after death of his sister. neck covered with bristles and rest of the body hairy…”
Likely poisoned by his own wife at the age of 63 so his son Nero could rule, Claudius was the nephew of Tiberius, uncle of Caligula, and step-grandson of Augustus.
Suetonius described him as having white hair, while Canter wrote, “eyes at corners bloodshot. Health so precarious during childhood and early manhood that both mind and body were impaired, but generally in good health after he became emperor.” Along with these descriptions, Voshart used four busts to help flesh out this Roman emperor.
Nero has been through one update as of this writing, which is the image seen here. His reign was not well received and he was ultimately declared an enemy by the senate. Of course, it wasn’t just his politics people found troublesome.
Canter called Nero’s skin, “freckled and repulsive.” You can see Voshart had several conflicting images of Nero to try and recreate his photorealistic look, making this one of the more striking attempts by the digital artist.
Galba was the emperor of Rome from 68 to 69. He was the first in the Year of the Four Emperors, a period in which four emperors all ruled in succession.
While two of the three busts of Galba feature hair, Voshart used this partial description from Canter to help flesh out the man behind the history, “Medium height with no hair, a hooked nose and a heavyset body disfigured by arthritis and gout.”
Following Galba, Otho ruled briefly in 69, ultimately taking his own life after losing the Battle of Bedriacum at 36-years-old. The Roman emperor was born in Fenetinum, Italia, and has been noted for his odd facial hair avoidance practices.
Canter wrote that he, “rubbed his face with moistened bread to prevent having a beard, or shaved often. Suetonius added that “a well-made toupee covered his practically bald head.” Voshart’s interpretation of Othos is of him without his toupee on.
The next short-lived leader is Vitellius. Like Othos, he ruled during 69, the same year his rule ended. Aside from various busts that don’t really match, Daniel Voshart didn’t have a lot to lean on recreating the emperor.
While history has not been flattering to this brief emperor’s legacy, he is credited with two major changes to the Roman Empire; He ended the practices of centurions selling furloughs to their men and he expanded the offices of the Imperial administration to include Equites.
The final emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors was Vespasian. He took over near the end of 69 and ruled until 79. He passed away at 69-years-old of natural causes.
In trying to maintain more realism, Voshart portrayed his image of Vespasian as being more closely aligned with the less idealized busts. That meant giving him a less chiseled face and a bald head, an appearance feature also described by Canter.
The son of Vespasian and the next emperor of Rome was Titus. He rules for two years, dying at age 41 of natural causes. His brother was Domitian, who would also succeed him on the throne.
Voshart created two versions of Titus. The first one (not seen here) gave him softer features highlighted by blonde hair. The updated version, as seen, is rougher. His hair color was changed to a darker tone and he was given the slight appearance of facial hair.
Stepping into rule after his brother passed away was Domitian. He sat on the throne from 81 until 96, when he was assassinated by court officials. Thanks to his long reign, there were several busts and written descriptions for Voshart to use.
Canter described Domitian as having large eyes, “but not sharp-sighted… face modest and with tendency to blush… in later years exhibited pallor of body, bloated cheeks, and a haughty, savage, terror-inspiring, shameless countenance.”
Nerva had a short reign as the emperor of Rome, lasting from 96 until 98. He passed away of natural causes at age 67 after becoming the leader at an age beyond when most other rulers took charge.
Canter wrote, “Grayhaired, old, weak and ill when he became emperor; well born and worthy, but incapacitated by physical condition for difficult undertakings, his weakened condition being reflected in the lack of activity and energy which mark his reign.”
Trajan ruled for nearly two decades during years that are considered the geographical peak of the Roman Empire. He was the adopted son of Nerva, and therefore the heir to the throne when his father passed away.
Physically the opposite of Nerva, Canter described Trajan as having a “complexion fresh with glow of health; eyes large; face and countenance dignified.” Tragan ruled from 98 until 117, ultimately dying from natural causes at 63-years-old.
Hadrian spent 21 years on the throne, and to illustrate that, Daniel Voshart has two versions of him, one young and one older. The older version is the one seen here and has more defined facial features with a more tanned skin tone.
Hadrian was the adopted son of Trajan, and become the emperor in 117. His reign ended in 138. Canter wrote about his facial features that his, “hair curled on a comb; beard won full to cover over blemishes of the face.
Hadrian’s run as the emperor of Rome was followed by his adopted son, Antoninus Pius. Pius was in charge of the empire from 138 until 161. He was born in Lanuvium, Italia and lived to the age of 74.
Going off of these two busts to recreate Antoninus Pius, Voshart softened the curls of his hair and beard, helping to define his face a little more realistically while sharpening his overall features.
The heir to the throne of Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus was crowned the emperor of Rome in 161 alongside the more well known Marcus Aurelius. The co-reign lasted until 169 when Verus passed away from natural causes.
In a post on Medium written by Davide Cocci, Verus was described thusly, “He took such pride in his yellow hair, it is said, that he used to sift gold-dust on his head in order that his hair, thus brightened, might seem even yellower.”
Marcus Aurelius was the co-emperor of Rome alongside Verus until 169. After Verus died, Aurelius ruled by himself until Commodus was ready to join him, beginning in 177 and lasting until 190. He was the adopted son of Antoninus Pius and considered to be the last of the “Five Good Emperors.
Voshart created two versions of Aurelius. The first featured straighter hair, a featured that the digital artist chose to correct after finding evidence that “hair can stay upright naturally as shown in all busts.”
Commodus co-ruled the Roman Empire along with his father Marcus Aurelius from 177 until 190. After his father died, he ruled for two more years, meeting his end through unjust means in the palace. He was 31-years-old.
Canter wrote, “features clear cut and attractive; expression affable but dull, as usual in drunkards,” while Cocci added, “hair naturally blond and curly, and in sunlight as lustrous as if sprinkled with gold dust, or as if reflecting a divine splendor; cheeks covered with tender down; hair of face and head singed because he feared barber […] at times shaved his head and carried a statue of Anubis, Egyptian tutelary deity of the chase.”
Pertinax took over the empire after Commodus was overthrown. He bared no relation to the previous family line and was the son of Helvius Successus. His time in the palace was short-lived however as the Praetorian Guard removed him to sell off the empire to the highest bidder.
With only one bust and not many written descriptions to go off of, Voshart’s photo doesn’t vary much from his source material. The most noticeable change is that the photorealistic photo has softer features overall with shorter hair.