The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs

The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Affixed to the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice is the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. The statue presents four figures with identical faces, childlike proportions, and angular garments, carved in a deep purple stone that contrasts the white and green marble of the church’s exterior. Dating to around 300 CE, this sculpture is evidence of the tetrarchy in Rome – where power was divided among four rulers.1 In the context of earlier, more famous depictions of Roman emperors, such as Augustus of Prima Porta, the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs is highly unusual. It abandons the idealistic, naturalistic style of its predecessors and reflects the shifting goals of the empire at the time.

During the years 235-284 CE, Rome experienced a great period of instability known as the Crisis of the Third Century. Unpopular changes enacted by Septimus Severus (193-211 CE), including devaluing the currency and increasing the power of the military, lead to a battle for power between Roman generals after his death.2 The result was a rapid succession of over 20 different emperors, each ruling for only a few years before their assassination.

Organization of the tetrarchy

When Diocletian (284-305 CE) gained power in 284 CE, he quickly divided the empire into East and West and granted a second ruler, Maximian (286-305 CE), control in the West.3 Establishing joint rule was a strategy to stabilize the empire, under the realization that a single emperor could not effectively manage such a great area. In 293 CE Diocletian divided the empire further into four, appointing Galerius (293-311 CE) to rule with him in the East, and Constantius Chlorus (293-306 CE) in the West.4 Diocletian and Maximian held the title of the senior Augustus, while Galerius and Constantius were Caesars. Unlike the previous model of government, the new tetrarchy could persist through the possible assassination of one leader.

The four tetrarchs were not only politically united, they were also linked through family ties. Maximian’s daughter married Constantius in the West, and Diocletian’s daughter married Galerius in the East.5 These marriages established a forced loyalty between the rulers and an intended line of succession. When the Augusti stepped down, the Caesars would rise in their place, and their sons would assume the vacant positions.

The goal of the tetrarchy was to portray a strong, united front where no one individual was above the other, an image well-advertised by the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. The figures’ geometric style and similar appearances deemphasizes their individuality and instead highlights their unity. They are identical in height, dress, and therefore status.  The pairs embrace as a symbol of agreement and interconnected power; they are indivisible. The pose also conveys a level of exclusion, creating a closed circle of elites that the observer is not a part of.6 While in this embrace, the tetrarchs grasp their swords in constant preparedness for battle. Each foot is firmly planted on the ground, signifying that no force can displace them from their position of power.

The material itself is porphyry, a valuable stone only found at the Mons Porpyritis quarry in Egypt’s eastern desert.7 Porphyry’s rarity and color, imperial purple, elevates the status of the tetrarchs. The sculpture was further embellished with jewels or metal details, as indicated by the now empty notches in the tetrarchs’ hats.8 In comparison to marble, porphyry is a hard stone and difficult to carve.9 As a result, some scholars have concluded that the angular, simplistic style of the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs is simply a limitation of the material used. Other artifacts, however, such as the sarcophagus of St. Helena, show that smooth, intricate details were still possible in porphyry, suggesting the tetrarchs’ geometric style was intentional; the style conveys the order and stability of the empire. Another theory alternately identified the figures as Constantine and his three sons.10 However, close examination of the sculpture reveals the left figure as bearded and the right figure as clean-shaven, indicating one as the senior Augustus and one as the Caesar.

The statue was originally displayed at the Philadelphion in Constantinople.11 The pairs were likely separated on two adjacent columns that lined a grand entryway. In 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians cut the tetrarchs from their positions and brought them to St. Mark’s. The process left behind a corner of the sculpture, later discovered in Istanbul in 1965 to confirm the tetrarchs’ origin.12  

Roman sculptures not only serve a decorative purpose, they are tools of propaganda intended to impress viewers with the power of the empire. When Diocletian instituted the tetrarchy in 293 CE, the portrayal of power had to change with the government. The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, through its material, pose, and style, minimizes focus on the individual and emphasizes solidarity, permanence, and united power. On a broader scope, this sculpture is just one example of how portraiture can reveal the ambitions and goals of its subjects. 

  1. Kleiner, Diana E. E. Roman Sculpture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 403.
  2. Mark, Joshua J, “The Crisis of the Third Century,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, November 9, 2017, https://www.ancient.eu/Crisis_of_the_Third_Century/.
  3. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture, 399.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Chen, Anne Hunnell. “Omitted Empresses: The (Non-)Role of Imperial Women in Tetrarchic Propaganda.” Journal of Late Antiquity 11, no.1 (2018): 44-46.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Vio, Ettore, ed, St. Mark’s: The Art and Architecture of Church and State in Venice, trans. Huw Evans (New York: Riverside Book, 2003), 162.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Nancy H. Ramage and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art:Romulus to Constantine. 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2005), 320.
  10. Vio, St. Mark’s: The Art and Architecture of Church and State in Venice, 162.
  11. Nancy H. Ramage and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine, 322.
  12. Vio, St. Mark’s: The Art and Architecture of Church and State in Venice, 162.

Further Readings

Ağrtürk, Tuna Şare. “A New Tetrarchic Relief from Nicomedia: Embracing Emperors.” American Journal of Archaeology 122, no. 3 (July 2018): 411-26.

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