Egyptomania in Ancient Rome and Golden Age America

By and

The fascination with ancient Egypt has inspired artists from many places over thousands of years. This article builds on our first in the series—Egyptomania in France– and continues our look at the works of art and objects of the Art Institute that refer to the land of the pharaohs and its emblematic visual heritage.

—Ashley Arico, Associate Curator of Ancient Egyptian Art, Arts of Africa


In 30 BCE, a year after his defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII at the Battle of Actium, Octavian (later known as Augustus) brought Egypt under Roman rule. Although Egypt and Italy had already been in contact for centuries due to various commercial, diplomatic and military interactions, it was the annexation of Egypt (as the Roman province of Aegyptus) that aroused a long-standing interest and a deep fascination for the region. Roman hearings.

ancient roman

This coin literally calls Egypt “captured” by Octavian and depicts a crocodile in the center of the reverse (back) of the coin, capitalizing on Roman notions of Egypt’s diverse landscape and the animals that inhabited it.

Not only was Egypt considered ancient compared to the nascent Roman Empire (it was already a thousand years old when it was annexed), but it was also a geographically remote place with a landscape very different from that of Italy, both in terms of its natural elements (eg the Nile and the desert) and man-made elements (eg the pyramids, obelisks and other monuments). Additionally, Egypt was also known to the Romans for its use of hieroglyphic script, its unique pantheon of gods, and its rich artistic traditions, characterized by a distinctive visual style and iconography. The Roman public had a particular taste for Egyptian sculpture, the most popular being those that seemed particularly “Egyptian” to the Romans, including depictions of kings and queens, mythical creatures such as sphinxes, and animals such as hippos and crocodiles.

As interest grew in the early Imperial period, a market developed for Egyptian-looking artwork produced in Roman Italy. Designated as aegyptiaca (a modern scholarly term), these works of art incorporating Egyptian subjects and styles were produced by enterprising artists and often adorned the homes of well-to-do Romans, not only in the form of architectural decorations such as wall paintings and mosaics on the floor, but also in the glass and metal tableware used during sumptuous dinners. Egyptian imagery also appeared in small-scale personal items, such as gemstones that functioned as seals or amulets, as well as in funerary works commemorating the deceased. Representations of Egyptian or Roman-Egyptian hybrid deities were also used in religious worship, both as cult statues and as dedications or offerings.

While some examples of Egyptianizing sculpture appear to have directly replicated known Egyptian works, many Roman artistic conventions and styles merged with Egyptian subjects. One such example is this bust portrait of Antinous, the beautiful young companion and lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138), who accidentally drowned while traveling on the Nile.

Devastated by the untimely death, Hadrian pronounced Antinous as a god and founded a city on the east bank of the Nile near where the young man died, naming it Antinoupolis (“Antinous-City”). Coincidentally, this tragic death occurred on the same date (October 24) when the Egyptian people annually commemorated the death of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld. After the deification of Antinous, Hadrian promoted his cult to the local Egyptian public as the embodiment of Osiris. In turn, many portraits of youth made after his death featured elements of Egyptian iconography. In the bust pictured above, Antinous wears the traditional headdress of an Egyptian pharaoh, known as the nemes, which is also incorporated into some images of Osiris. While the royal symbol of the uraeus (drawing serpent) was once on the forehead and is now almost entirely absent, the rest of the bust adheres to the artistic conventions of Roman portraiture.

Antinous can be easily identified by his distinctive features, repeated in his other portraits, particularly his oval face, almond-shaped eyes, full lips, and smooth, youthful complexion (as seen in the image to the right), as well than his broad, muscular chest. For Roman viewers, it is likely that the Egyptian elements of the bust were not read literally, but rather, when combined with his eternally youthful facial features and muscular body, they reinforced the message of his divine status. after death.

—Katharine Raff, Elizabeth McIlvaine Associate Curator, Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium Arts

Egyptianizing the Golden Age

The craze for ancient Egyptian aesthetics, themes, and symbols swept through 19th-century America with numerous archaeological excavations of Egyptian tombs; the premiere of Verdi’s opera in 1871, Aidawhat was set in ancient Egypt; and the popular Egyptian Court at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Widely circulated design manuals such as 1868 by Owen Jones The grammar of ornament also introduced many Egyptian motifs and ornamental designs. The dynamic visual culture and mystique of this ancient civilization has inspired a wide range of architecture and art objects.

Surviving examples of Egyptian-style silver, however, are relatively rare. The centerpiece below captures the passion for all things Egyptian in America during the Golden Age.

Dominick and Haff

Use the zoom tool (top right) to get a closer look at the details.

Here, four shimmering silver winged sphinxes support a dramatic lotus flower-shaped glass bowl, which rests on a matching etched glass top supported by a silver base with six vulture-capped Egyptian queens. The shape of the lotus, a symbol of the sun, creation, rebirth and regeneration in ancient Egypt, is also engraved on the glass and silver surfaces, unifying the separate elements of the centerpiece. The silver is hallmarked by New York silversmith firm Dominick & Haff and Cleveland jeweler and costume retailer Cowell & Hubbard and Co., suggesting the work was likely dazzled in a house of Ohio.

—Elizabeth McGoey, Ann S. and Samuel M. Mencoff Associate Curator, Arts of the Americas

Be sure to spend time in Life and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt on your next visit to the museum.


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