Monday, June 3, 2013

The Mummy of Herakleides – Roman Egypt at the Getty Villa

Posted by: HeritageDaily, May 28, 2013

Written by Londyn Lamar

The Getty Villa in Malibu, California is the beautiful educational center dedicated to housing the artifacts and antiques from the ancient Etruscan, Greek, and Roman periods.

Although their busts and statues are remarkable, while I went to visit this beautiful museum on the cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway, an acquisition that combined Roman and Egyptian culture snagged my interest. The Mummy of Herakleides, which is a Romano-Egyptian mummy found in Egypt about 150 A.D, emphasizes the traditions of both the Roman art style and the Egyptian tradition of life after death and their practices of caring for the dead and protecting them in the afterlife. The Roman style of individual portraiture, with the emphasis on the upper body and expression of the face and gestures, is evident in this depiction of Herakleides.

While the upper exterior of the dead permeates with the ideals and styles of the Roman Empire’s control Egypt, the body’s exterior as a whole demonstrates the ideals and practices of the Egyptians.

Herakleides went through the mummification process, and is not placed in a sarcophagus, similar to Etruscan tombs such as the Cerveteri Sarcophagus. Also, the designs on the body of the mummy are in the Egyptian style of depicting hieroglyphics and pictorial images, similar to the innermost coffin of Tutankhamen. Herakleides’s usage of the Egyptian processes illustrates his influence and fascination with the Egyptian traditions of the dead. The Mummy of Herakleides shows that Herakleides desired to portray his exterior portrait in the Roman style to demonstrate his lineage, but also wanted to illustrate his connection to the Egyptians through their mummification process and hieroglyphical designs.

The Mummy of Herakleides demonstrates the Roman influence from the Egyptians through the traditional mummification process. In 30 BC, Egypt became under the rule of the Roman Empire, and with this new emersion of Egyptian culture and society came the adaptation of Egyptian techniques and influence of the Egyptian religion by the Romans. One of the cultural traditions that the Romans practiced in their 200 year rule over Egypt was the process of mummifying their dead.

The Mummy of Herakleides, which was found in the First Century A.D, demonstrates many of the characteristics of mummification, including the full 70 day process, beginning with the removal of the internal organs. The Romans also removed the heart, which was uncommon under Egyptians because the belief was “the heart was necessary for life and regarded as the seat of intelligence” (Kleiner 43). As the Egyptians, the Romans then covering the body with salts, lotions, and resins, then wrapped tightly with about a hundred yards of linen. Although the emblems and amulets differed with the Romans (the Roman use of a bird in contrast with the Egyptian beetle), they were placed within the wrappings as protection for the body in the afterlife. (43).

The Romans also were influenced by the Egyptian religious beliefs of the afterlife. The Roman adaptation of the Egyptians’ beliefs of the afterlife and the desire to protect the dead was seen not only through the placement of amulets, but also through the illustration of the hieroglyphic designs on the body of the mummy. At the chest area, there are birds, in profile, drawn in black outlines, with white and green color filling in the wings and ground line, and the rest of the body of the bird is filled in with flat gold leaf. The abdomen illustrates a man, filled in with gold leaf, with the same black outline, profile stance, and use of white and green, with wings sprawled out from side to side, flanked by two smaller posts.

The same type of bird man and winged creatures repeat all the way down the mummy to his feet, and these symbolize rebirth and protection in the afterlife, which was a part of the Egyptian religion (Getty Villa 2010). This use of text and imagery on the outside of the mummy was common in the Egyptian culture, and can be seen also on mummies such as the innermost coffin of Tutankhamen, from his tomb in Thebes, Egypt. Although it was made out of gold and “inlaid with semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, and carnelian” (61) and presents hieroglyphics explicating the King’s rule and accomplishments, the mimicking of the designs on the mummy’s body clearly illustrates Egyptian influence on the Romans. Herakleides’s mummy shows that he was a Roman that wanted to demonstrate his Egyptian influence, widespread culture, and fascination with this conquered culture.

The Romans mummifying their dead and embracing the Egyptian cultural and religious traditions began to occur when Egypt was taken under control of the Roman Empire in 30 B.C. The Roman way of burial was through placing the body in a sarcophagus, with elaborate reliefs on the frontal side and a statue in the round of the person or persons deceased, in a reclining position on top of the sarcophagi. An example of this can be seen from the Etruscan Sarcophagus of Lars Pulena from Cerveteri, where the deceased reclining on top has a “somber expression” that “contrasts sharply with the smiling, confident faces of the Archaic era” (154). The main focus of the sculpture is the top half, with an emphasis on the realistic head and faces, and the placement of the hands. The expressions on the faces are quite stoic and have much control over their emotions, which was a common Etruscan, and later Roman, characteristic of portraits. This leads the way to the rise of the Roman Republic’s beginning of the individualized portraiture in sculpture.

This common Roman attribute of presenting an individual is seen in the Mummy of Herakleides, and many mummies created in Egypt for the Romans in the Roman Empire. Instead of the tradition Egyptian funerary masks, there were painted individualized portraits of the deceased on wood. For the Mummy of Herakleides, the deceased is depicted in typical Roman portraiture style, which emphasizes the individual’s features; individualized nose, long face, almond shaped eyes, tasseled hair, full lips, beard, and a long neck. He dawns a gold wreathe on his head, which his face is framed with gold leaf.

The expression on his face is stoic, with a side shift of the head with his eyes looking forward, which was typical of Roman portraiture, to have control and a regal heir over their expressions and the way they are presented, similar to the Roman sarcophagi in earlier periods of the Empire. Also, at the bottom of the mummy, there are drawn pairs of feet where his feet are wrapped, and above in black Greek letters spells out his name, which also identifies and individualizes him. These features, the painted individualized portrait replacing the death mask and the signing of his name in Greek letters, illustrates the Roman traditions and influences Herakleides wanted to have demonstrated in emphasized in death.

Both the traditions and influences of both Egypt and the Roman Empire permeate the Mummy of Herakleides, found in 150 A.D in Egypt during the reign of the Roman Empire.. The fact that the body of Herakleides is mummified and has the Egyptian religious traditions of placing amulets with the body and designs symbolizing protection and rebirth of the deceased illustrates that Herakleides wanted to be known for his cultured self in the art and ways of the Egyptians.

The mummy wrappings frame the entire personalized painted portrait of Herakleides, which illustrates that although he is a Roman in the Roman Empire, the cultural emersion into Egypt surrounds him and altars his way of depicting himself in death. Whether Tempera paint or Encaustic – colors mixed with hot wax – paint, Herakleides showed his Roman lineage through the individual portraiture and signing of his name in Greek letters, not losing sight of where he came from and that he was a Roman.


The Getty Villa. Malibu, California. 17 November, 2012.

Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Thirteenth Edition, Volume I. Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth, 2006.


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