What Did the Roman Emperors Look Like?: See Photorealistic Portraits Created with Machine Learning

We can spend a life­time read­ing his­to­ries of ancient Rome with­out know­ing what any of its emper­ors looked like. Or rather, with­out know­ing exact­ly what they looked like: being the lead­ers of the might­i­est polit­i­cal enti­ty in the West­ern world, they had their like­ness­es stamped onto coins and carved into busts as a mat­ter of course. But such artist’s ren­der­ings inevitably come with a cer­tain degree of artis­tic license, a ten­den­cy to mold fea­tures into slight­ly more impe­r­i­al shapes. See­ing the faces of the Roman Emper­ors as we would if we were pass­ing them on the street is an expe­ri­ence made pos­si­ble only by high tech­nol­o­gy, and high tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped six­teen cen­turies after the fall of the Roman Empire at that.

“Using the neur­al-net tool Art­breed­er, Pho­to­shop and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, I have cre­at­ed pho­to­re­al por­traits of Roman Emper­ors,” writes design­er Daniel Voshart. “For this project, I have trans­formed, or restored (cracks, noses, ears etc.) 800 images of busts to make the 54 emper­ors of The Prin­ci­pate (27 BC to 285 AD).”

The key tech­nol­o­gy that enables Art­breed­er to con­vinc­ing­ly blend images of faces togeth­er is what’s called a “gen­er­a­tive adver­sar­i­al net­work” (GAN). “Some call it Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence,” writes Voshart, “but it is more accu­rate­ly described as Machine Learn­ing.” The Verge’s James Vin­cent writes that Voshart fed in “images of emper­ors he col­lect­ed from stat­ues, coins, and paint­ings, and then tweaked the por­traits man­u­al­ly based on his­tor­i­cal descrip­tions, feed­ing them back to the GAN.”

Into the mix also went “high-res images of celebri­ties”: Daniel Craig into Augus­tus, André the Giant into Max­imi­nus Thrax (thought to have been giv­en his “a lantern jaw and moun­tain­ous frame” by a pitu­itary gland dis­or­der like that which affect­ed the colos­sal wrestler). This par­tial­ly explains why some of these uncan­ni­ly life­like emper­ors — the biggest celebri­ties of their time and place, after all — look faint­ly famil­iar. Though mod­eled as close­ly as pos­si­ble after men who real­ly lived, these exact faces (much like those in the arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence-gen­er­at­ed mod­ern pho­tographs pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) have nev­er actu­al­ly exist­ed. Still, one can imag­ine the emper­ors who inspired Voshart’s Prin­ci­pate rec­og­niz­ing them­selves in it. But what would they make of the fact that it’s also sell­ing briskly in poster form on Etsy?

Vis­it the Roman Emper­or Project here. For back­ground on this project, vis­it here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Five Hard­core Deaths Suf­fered By Roman Emper­ors

Play Cae­sar: Trav­el Ancient Rome with Stanford’s Inter­ac­tive Map

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

The His­to­ry of Ancient Rome in 20 Quick Min­utes: A Primer Nar­rat­ed by Bri­an Cox

The His­to­ry of Rome in 179 Pod­casts

Roman Stat­ues Weren’t White; They Were Once Paint­ed in Vivid, Bright Col­ors

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (14) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (14)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Kathryn Wiley says:

    Cant bring up piics larg­er and cant find cap­tions indi­cat­ing who they are. Is This my or my com­put­ers prob­lem only? if so how to fix? Pls don’t pub­lish my E mail. Thanks. K Wiley

  • Robbie Skiles says:

    They look like Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats. Some things nev­er change.

  • Brian says:

    An inter­est­ing exer­cise, but you can real­ly see the effect of the gen­er­al trend toward more styl­ized artis­tic ren­der­ings as por­trai­ture strayed fur­ther from the verism that still held over from the Repub­li­can peri­od (and which had a marked revival under the Fla­vians). Just look at the wide doe eyes and smooth blank faces of Volu­sianus, Flo­ri­anus, Carus, Car­i­nus, and Nume­ria com­pared to the griz­zled and bru­tal­ly frank vis­ages of Gal­ba and Ves­pasian.

    The skin and hair might look real­is­tic com­pared to mar­ble, but the over­all shapes and pro­por­tions of the lat­er faces look more like those found in medieval icons than in real peo­ple. And it’s no won­der — fig­ur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Empire was already well on its way toward the medieval style in the third cen­tu­ry when the por­traits on which those recon­struc­tions were based were made.

  • Les says:

    The fact they all look Scan­di­na­vian makes me instant­ly sus­pi­cious. This is just more Euro­cen­tric non­sense.

  • maikel says:

    Lucio Sep­ti­mio Severo Per­ti­nax quedó per­fec­to. inclu­so por sus bus­tos, graba­dos y tex­tos descrip­tivos debió ser mucho más moreno.

  • Julio Calderon says:

    mmm… May be look like

  • Julio Calderon says:

    Posi­ble­mente así lucian,más o menos de joven o edad madu­ra. Hay otros que eran de ori­gen árabe y africano.

  • Bonus Ferman says:

    They look scan­di­na­vian? What does a scan­di­na­vian look like? Unless you mean stereo­typ­i­cal nordic blond. Don’t agree with you. Sep­ti­mus Severus, Caracalla,Geta, Hadri­an, Flo­ri­anus just as a few exam­ples do not look scan­di­na­vian if by scan­di­na­vian you mean nordic. Explain your state­ment that these recre­ations are euro­cen­tric non­sense.

  • Jovan says:

    They were black!

  • Francis J Bright says:

    None of them look Scan­di­na­vian, they look Mediter­ranean & mid­dle east­ern lol wtf are you on?

  • F. Ryde says:

    Not all of them do? But also don’t know what you’re get­ting at because southern/Mediterranean Euro­peans are Euro­peans? And some southern/Mediterranean Euro­peans are pale, have blue eyes, have red hair, etc. My grand­moth­er who is Sicil­ian and Greek is one of the palest peo­ple I know lol My friend from col­lege who is Lebanese has red hair and green eyes… Stop putting peo­ple into genet­ic molds. I know that many emper­ors were born in oth­er areas of the Empire, like Mar­cus Aure­lius Anton­i­nus who was Syr­i­an. But come on, Rome start­ed in Italy. Some of the emper­ors are going to look white-ish.

  • Mariano Mesiano says:

    They were Romans.

  • dane says:

    They lit­er­al­ly all have brown eyes.Romans were white. I have a friend from Per­sia, he con­sid­ers him­self Cau­casian. His skin is more of a red tone with black hair and brown eyes.They were white. They weren’t mid­dle eastern/arab or north african/egypitan. They had pale/olive skin col­or. Span­ish and Sicil­ians had a lighter skin tone. Once the Islam­ic inva­sions occurred did their skin tone take on dark­er shades. Look how weak their chins look? Is that a typ­i­cal Scan­di­na­vian trait? I do not think so. We know what they looked like, they had death masks made and an eques­tri­an fam­i­ly had a room where all there ances­tors faces were plas­tered on the wall. Get edu­cat­ed Les.

  • Totally Unsurprised says:

    Agree. Giv­en the geog­ra­phy where these men orig­i­nat­ed from and lived. And the fact that there were no easy routes to trav­el cross-coun­try much less across the world.…

    …all of them look­ing like VIKINGS staight-out­ta-val­hal­la is total­ly unre­al­is­tic.

    Also, no obe­si­ty, no male pat­tern bald­ness, etc.

    And anoth­er thing.…comparing your cur­rent “aunt” from Italy or “friend” from Lebanon to peo­ple from thou­sands of years ago who were most­ly locked to their lands (mean­ing they all looked alike).…is a total joke.

    That would be like say­ing all native amer­i­cans in North Amer­i­ca from 5000 years ago should look black with African fea­tures because my friend from Alaba­ma last year is black and has African fea­tures.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.