If you've ever set foot in a museum of Greek and Roman art, you've probably seen the rows of tranquil-looking concrete busts. They do, however, have no pupils in the eyes, lack any sort of color, and in general, get kinda repetitive after the third and fourth display hall.
But the artist named Haround Binous is bringing the dusty emperors back to life in a series of hyper-realistic illustrations. The guy from Université de Lausanne, Switzerland is combining facial recognition AI, Photoshop, and historical references to revive all the Roman emperors, from Augustus to Valentinian III.
The result is so precise and true to life, these ancient dudes with luscious curls and sun-kissed tans could easily pass as A-list Hollywood actors off duty. I mean, look at Augustus—is that you, Daniel Craig?
Turning cold emperors' stones into hyperreal flesh may seem like a mission impossible. But with the help of today’s machine learning technologies, images can be reconstructed and brought to life in colorful illustrations.
This is what Haroun has done for his Roman emperor recreations. With the help of AI, Photoshop, and historical references, he came up with these hyperrealistic illustrations giving us a glimpse of how great Roman emperors like Caius Julius Cæsar Germanicus and Nero looked in real life.
Haroun Binous said he used “superposition and simultaneous comparison” techniques that “allowed me to arrive at these faces.”But the facial features are just one part of the job.
In order to get hold of the textures and colors, Haroun researched original historical sources. “Eyes, hair, and colors were based on quotes from Suetonius,” he wrote.
In reality, it’s not entirely clear how accurate the emperors' busts are to begin with since our best evidence of how they looked are the busts themselves. However, we do perceive them as roughly accurate, since we now know that stylistically, the Romans preferred realism in their sculpture dating back to the Republican period.
Other than busts, historical sources do reveal a thing or two about the people of the Roman Empire. The Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, for example, who wrote during the early Imperial era, described some of the emperors in his notes.
According to Christies, Suetonius was very receptive to physiognomic thinking and “may have been swayed by them in his description of the fearsome appearance of Caligula.” He was presented as the epitome of arbitrary cruelty and immoral excesses that was reflected in his description of Caligula’s face.
On the other side of the opposite extreme, there was a fair share of heroic idealization of the most powerful men and it’s likely that their busts have done some justice to their looks. Who knows—maybe some of the most breathtaking busts have undergone an ancient equivalent of airbrushing? That, we may never know.