Ancient Romans knew all about personality cults. Successful gladiators were the Beckhams and Ichiros of their day, celebrated in graffiti scrawled on city walls. Emperors from the time of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) took it all one step further, with an official “cult” of the imperial personage that saw statues of rulers installed in dedicated temples known as sabasteia. The more ambitious among them (or perhaps the more unstable) sought to replace the empire’s pre-existing religions, and in A.D. 41 all hell broke loose when the mad Emperor Caligula gave orders that a statue of himself be erected in the sacred precinct of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

So visitors to the National Museum of Western Art finding themselves face to face with Julius Caesar or Augustus in the new show “Vixerunt Omnes: Romani ex Imaginibus” should be aware they’re eyeballing not a person so much as a phenomenon. Though Rome’s was the largest empire the world had then seen, with 5 million inhabitants within its borders circa A.D. 14, the individual mattered. Ridley Scott’s 2000 blockbuster “Gladiator” may have been a load of Hollywood hokey, but it reflected one fundamental truth about imperial Rome: Personality was destiny.

As such, the portraiture on show is less about aesthetics than advertising, the flaunting of personal achievement. Even those of humble rank commissioned elaborate monuments, enjoying Andy Warhol’s “five minutes of fame” until the next smart slab went up. (It’s ironic that these most mundane of artworks have, by their survival, won a kind of immortality for their owners.)

We’re talking posthumous fame, though, as for those outside the imperial family, funerary portraiture was most common. This generally took the form of sculptural bas reliefs, but also breathtaking — as showcased in a groundbreaking exhibition, “Ancient Faces,” produced jointy by the British Museum and the New York Met in 2000 — were portraits painted on coffin lids.

This Tokyo exhibition focuses on sculpture and the curators have assembled a selection from the Vatican Museums, whose marble halls are so stuffed with treasures that even the finest pieces here are surely barely missed back in Rome. These funerary monuments, produced to mark the passing of folk from all walks of life, often lack artistic refinement, but they possess a vigor and liveliness that reaches through the centuries. In that sense, many of these ancient artifacts speak more clearly to us than images from centuries nearer our own: starchy Renaissance portraits, for example, or formal Victorian-era photographs.

There is the slab of the Servili family, dignified Romans neatly labeled in schoolbook Latin: “Hilarus Pater (Hilarus, the father)” and “Globulus F[ilius] (Globulus, the son).” Young Globulus grasps his toga with the same self-assured gesture as his mother, while between them the paterfamilias calmly rests a hand on his breast. Their poise and confidence was hard won — they are a family of freedmen, former slaves. Their monument is a testimony to their successful social climbing.

There’s a similar air of upward mobility to the mortuary bas reliefs of two tradesmen, depicted in portrait and in scenes showing them at their work, one a mirror-seller, the other a furniture-maker. The craftsmanship is relatively crude, but catches the essence of both men as an astute caricature might. No doubt that those who knew the deceased would have had no trouble recognizing them.

The tradition of funerary portraiture grew out of elite practices during the years predating Augustus’ epochal Pax Romana, the era of (relative) peace brought about by Roman domination of the Mediterranean region. In those early years — the literary heyday of Rome (the first century B.C. produced Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Livy) — wax portraits known as imagines would be paraded in the funeral processions of the upper classes. These would then be displayed, perhaps alongside portraits or busts in bronze, marble or terracotta, in the lararium (household shrine), not unlike the way photographs of ancestors are displayed to this day on the butsudan (family altar) in many Japanese homes.

One of the most powerful pieces here is the head of a terracotta votive statue dating from the first quarter of the first century A.D.; the face is aquiline and patrician, seeming to anticipate the so-called hieratic style of later centuries. Or, rather, hieratic representation, which evolved in the third century, was a conscious effort to recapture the stylistic purity of such early Roman sculpture, after two centuries of cheerfully expressive but unrefined representation — as exemplified by those tradesmen’s funerary friezes.

In this terracotta head, composition is all-important, with symbolic weight given to the balance between, for example, the triangle formed between nose and mouth, and the circles of cheeks and chin. These geometric elements were seen as expressing power, resolve and dynamism — the triangle superimposed on the circle supposedly reflecting the ability to stamp authority onto the natural world.

At its best, Roman sculpture blends both the symbolic and the personal, and in few works more so than the busts of rulers showing here. This is a lineup familiar from history books: Julius Caesar; Augustus; general and statesman Trajan (ruled A.D. 98-117); and Caracalla (ruled A.D. 211-217), in whose reign the spectacular complex of baths that bear his name was built.

The head of Augustus is bland and characterless, as befits an empire builder who, even during his lifetime, was more icon than living, breathing personality. The head of Julius Caesar, though, is expressive and sorrowful, the very image of the tragic hero rendered in flawless, matte-white marble. The nose is large and noble, the cheekbones strong and refined, but there is a weakness about the mouth, lines furrow the brow, and the cheeks are hollow and gaunt.

It is a treat to look upon the faces of Trajan and Caracalla: the former a bloodhound of a man with a neat pudding-basin haircut and bared chest, his veined marble torso polished to a high sheen; the latter handsome and curlyheaded, bearing a more than passing resemblance to Russell Crowe in “Gladiator.”

The empire these men created famously declined then fell to barbarians in the fourth century. The writing is quite literally on the wall, here, with funerary monuments of the period little more than plaques incised with crude, cartoonish figures and engraved with badly spaced, wonky lettering.

But even as Rome’s grip on power weakened and its armies faced setback and defeat, the empire bestowed upon its citizens one final legacy that did more than any other, perhaps, to shape the modern Western world. In 312, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and in 330 he declared Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) the capital of a Christian empire.

In one form or another, that empire is still with us today, with an avowedly Christian superpower seeking to impose an uneasy global “peace” by means of military might.

But the final room of this exhibition urges us not to misread history’s lessons. In place of monumental imperial busts, we find modest and simple depictions of the apostles Peter and Paul in bronze, in silver, and as a tiny pair of encaustic paintings in seared wax. One lovely sculpture of St. Paul is the size of an ivory chess piece, and that seems appropriate: In the endgame of empire, the tentmaker of Tarsus outplayed the political forces of his day — and checked the might of Rome itself.

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