Veni, vidi, visage: Machine learning reveals the hot (and not) Roman emperors

A virtual reality specialist used historical documents, busts, and machine learning to create hyper-real likenesses of some of the most powerful men in history.

Statue of Roman Emperor Augustus

There's no dearth of literature or pop culture when it comes to Rome's rich history. Be it an HBO series or the seemingly countless historian accounts of past rulers, society's imagination and fascination with this segment of history is very much alive. As part of his quarantine project, virtual reality specialist Daniel Voshart reconstructed realistic depictions of Roman rulers during the Principate period — and stunned the internet in the process.

It took several tools, Photoshop, and of course some heavy lifting from historical literature to render the portraits so realistically. From the famous Augustus, notorious Tiberius, lascivious Caligula, and fiddling Nero, to Probus, Carus, Carinus, and Numerian, these are probably the most realistic portraits of Roman emperors yet.

Daniel Voshart

Machine learning brings you 54 portraits — With the help of the neutral net tool known as Artbreeder, alongside Photoshop and various literary mentions, and a lot of time at home, Voshart was able to create the best likenesses of Rome's top dogs we've ever seen. Voshart says he examined more than 800 busts to create his likenesses, which span the Principate emperors between 27 B.C. to 285 A.D. There's even a limited edition print for those interested in grabbing a physical copy of Voshart's efforts.

Daniel Voshart / Medium

How does it work — Voshart wrote that the main principle that guided the entire artistic endeavor was the generative adversarial network (GAN), which is a form of machine learning. Through his own cross-referencing (and there's a ton of that) involving looking at coins and reading historical documentation of these rulers, Voshart created portraits of 54 emperors. They seem highly realistic and detail-oriented.

For example, Voshart's rendering of Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus) of the Severan dynasty is surprisingly close to historical accounts of the emperor who, briefly and controversially, controlled Rome at the tender age of 14.

Daniel Voshart

Similarly, Voshart's depiction of Septimius Severus — who hailed from present-day Libya — shows an emperor of darker complexion, with famously thick curls and a beard. For anyone familiar with these names, the portraits provide a closer look at these powerful men from one of the most influential civilizations on earth.

Daniel Voshart

Furthermore, Voshart may not have intended this but the machine learning portraits also seem to debunk popular editions of Roman emperors in films like The Gladiator. Neither Marcus Aurelius nor Commodus, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix and Richard Harris respectively, resemble the actual Principate figures. Behold. But then, Mel Gibson doesn't look like William Wallace, either. Except, perversely, there's now a monument to William Wallace at the Wallace Monument in Stirling, Scotland, that looks like Mel Gibson... but we digress.

Daniel Voshart

We'll let you decide what's going on with Florianus.

Daniel Voshart

Refreshingly anti-romanticizing — Over the past few years, Roman history has become marred with controversy and overt revisionism thanks to the more alt-right corners of the internet. Voshart's project stands staunchly against it, he says. The idea isn't to romanticize or place these rulers on heroic pedestals, but to give a more detailed and nuanced look at the past. Voshart says that he favored busts "where the emperor was stereotypically uglier" so as to avoid any embellishments. After all, artists at the time were likelier to flatter the ruler than truly depict their true appearance. There's no fixing the awful, bowl-shaped, Zuckerbergian haircuts, though. Sometimes, that's just the fashion of the day.

It's one of the more interesting projects to come out of COVID-19-induced quarantine, and it's already making Roman history buffs, machine learning enthusiasts, and art observers pretty happy. You can add us to that list.