Analysis of The Portrayal of Pharaoh Hatshepsut and Empress Sabina in Art

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14 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2021

Words: 2699|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2021

Numerous civilizations have left their mark in history through artwork, allowing us to analyze the development of art and its use, and its influence in society. Two of the most prominent civilizations that advanced art immensely were the Egyptian and the Roman ones. The two artworks that I’ve chosen from these two civilizations are the The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut and Marble Portrait Bust of Empress Sabina. Although both artworks portray powerful royal female figures of their times, they differ extensively in the way these figures are depicted, and also in the artistic techniques employed.

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Egypt has a rich history and culture, centered around the afterlife, worship of numerous gods and goddesses and the liberation of the ka. From the Unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 2686 BCE, until it was taken by Rome as its province in 30 CE, Egyptian society was based on a hierarchy, which gave certain people certain importance. On top of this hierarchy stood the pharaoh, the delegate of gods and goddesses on Earth. Pharaohs took their title through royal birth, and enjoyed certain privileges throughout their lives as: godlike worship, unlimited power, rule over the government and the military. One of their foremost missions was to guarantee themselves a happy afterlife by building tombs, which evolved overtime from simple mastabas, to complex temples and pyramids. Egyptology is generally divided into three main periods: the Old Kingdom,the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom began 300 years after the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, when the rulers created a central government which gave supreme power to the pharaoh. The 6th dynasty of the Old Kingdom was challenged around 2150 BCE, and the land was in anarchy for more than a century. But order was restored by Mentuhotep II in 2040 BCE. He established the The Middle Kingdom,,which was a time in which art, trade, and the economy all flourished. Finally, the New Kingdom, considered a time of “renaissance in artistic creations” was a time in which “ the country went on to establish the world’s first great empire, stretching from Nubia to the Euphrates River in Asia”.

The The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut is from this time period, specifically from the 18th dynasty, 1479–1458 B.C., and it depicts Hatshepsut, one of the most important and controversial figures of her time. Hatshepsut was the first daughter of pharaoh Thutmuse I and his queen,Ahmose, she was supposed to become queen, and she took that title when she marries her half-brother, Thutmuse II. Marriages between family members were very common in Ancient Egypt, in order to assure the legitimacy of the royal succession. Thutmose II, was the son of Thutmose I and his secondary wife. Hatshepsut and Thutmuse II had only one daughter Neferure, so when Thutmose II. died around 1492 B.C.E., the throne passed to his son with a secondary wife, Thutmose III. However, as the boy-king was too young to rule, Hatshepsut took regency, and handled the affairs of state. After some years of rule, she gave herself the title of the pharaoh and became co-emperor with her stepson. The reasons behind this decision are largely debated, as some argue that she was ambitious, and some argue that she wanted to protect the rule of Thutmose III, by ensuring that he’d have a peaceful and prosperous empire when he’d be ready to rule individually. Hatshepsut’s rule was peaceful and prosperous; she promoted extensive trade, especially with Punt, and encouraged the development of the arts. In order to legitimize her rule, she began associating her accession line to her father, instead of her husband, claiming that Thutmose I had wanted her to take the throne. The construction of her final resting place at Deir el-Bahri began early during her reign, as Egyptian pharaohs always had their tombs built and lavishly decorated while they were alive, reflecting their preoccupation with the afterlife. Deir el-Bahri was remarkably innovative in terms of its architecture and mix with the landscape. It was decorated with reliefs of Hatshepsut, and colossal statues of her, often depicted making offers to the gods, or enthroned, as in the The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut.

The The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut is a granite life-size statue of a 170 cm height. Hatshepsut is enthroned, and depicted in the traditional Egyptian fashion, rigidly frontal and unnaturalistic. Her body is carved from the same stone block as the throne, so there’s no space between her arms and her torso, or in between her legs; this has ensured the longevity of the statue and its present condition. What’s most striking is the representation of Hatshepsut in an androgynous fashion. She’s portrayed in the traditional manner her pharaoh predecessors were. According to R. Tefnin, the official image of Hatshepsut has evolutionized through three phases: a first feminine phase, that is, with the iconography of a female pharaoh, for the inception of the reign ; then an androgynous step, when the reigning queen considerably reduced the iconographical explicitness of her femininity and, at the same time, put forward the insignias of her royal status; and, finally, a definitely masculine phase, with a fully masculinized image of her power, until the end of the coregency. This statue clearly belongs to the second period, as the feminine features of the face are no longer as visible as before, but it still doesn’t have the fake beard that male pharaohs wore. There’s a slight depiction of her breasts, but they’re certainly not emphasized as they would be in other portrayals of Egyptians women, because that would symbolize fertility, and Hatshepsut is not being celebrated for her fertility, but rather for her rule as a pharaoh. The face features have changed considerably from the former feminine portrayals: “the chin is now considerably lessened and the maxillary has lost its importance, giving a distinctive triangular shape to the face; the modeling of the visage has been simplified, with an extremely flat facial plan and a very geometric nose, whose profile is nevertheless still perfectly straight; and the mouth is small and narrow at the corners of the lips.” As Tefnin stresses, Hatshepsut wanted to project her own personality as a king, that’s why there’s experimentation with her image. Hatshepsut is wearing a female attire and a nemes headdress, underscoring her royalty once again. An inscription beside her legs gives her throne name “ Maatkare” and on the back of the throne part of a scene is preserved, which probably depicts goddess Ipi, that protected the royal family, as a pregnant hippopotamus with feline legs and a crocodile tail.

The second artwork is from the Roman Empire, one of the largest and most diverse empires in history. Legend has it that Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who as infants were left to drown in a basket, and rescued by a she-wolf. When they grew up Romulus killed his brother, and became the first king of Rome. After Romus there were several kings, until the monarchy was overthrown in 509 BC and a Republic was established. The power in the Republic was in the hands of the two elected consuls -who served as commanders of the army- and the Senate, which was dominated by patricians, wealthy landowners that were descendants of the original senators from the time of Romulus. During the Republic, Rome expanded and prospered, however conflict was increasingly present as the gap between the patricians the plebeians widened. The fall of the Republic came in 44 BCE, after Julius Caesar - who’d declared himself “dictator perpetuo” - was murdered by a group of enemies. A bloody civil war erupted and lasted until 31 BCE, when -Caesar's grandnephew and adopted son- Octavian triumphed over the forces of Mark Antony. Thus the Roman Empire was founded in 27 BCE, when the Senate gave Octavian the title of “Augustus”. Octavian was recognized as “principes” and all the powers and key positions were vested in him. The period of Augustus’s rule is famously called “pax Romana”, as it brought peace to a war-weary Mediterranean. Other descendants of Augustus took the title of emperor, until the Julio-Claydian dynasty ended after Nero committed suicide. The Flavian dynasty followed until Dimitian was assassinated by the Senate and Nerva was chosen to be emperor. Nerva established a pattern of succession based on adoption. The adopted emperors-Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius- proved to be some of the most successful ones, ushering a Golden Age and causing the Empire to reach the height of its power. Peace dominated this era, until Marcus Aurelius broke the pattern of succession, and on his deathbed named his son Commodus to be emperor. This marks the beginning of the end, Commodus and the emperors that succeed him bring the Empire into decline, disintegration and power struggle. The victor of these power struggles was Constantine, who emerged as the unchallenged ruler of the Empire, and founded “New Rome” at Constantinople. Constantine broke with the Classical tradition and culture, by declaring Christianity the official religion of the Empire. He brought temporary unity to the Empire, but after his death the decline was inevitable, and it rapidly continued until Rome fell in 476 CE.

The Marble Portrait Bust of Empress Sabina is a bust from the Hadrianic period, and depicts empress Sabina, who was the grandniece of Trajan, and wife of Hadrian.Vibia Sabina was born in 83 to Matidia, niece of emperor Trajan, and Lucius Vibius Sabinus. When she reached the age of puberty, Empress Plotina and her mother encouraged a marriage between herself and Hadrian-her second cousin-so that he could succeed Trajan in 117 AD. Hadrian was one of the “good Emperors”, he ruled for more than two decades and brought innovation to the Empire. By most accounts their marriage was an unhappy one,and it produced no children, as they couldn’t stand each other’s personalities, and Hadrian was a homosexual who openly favored his lover Antinous. It is said that Sabina also had affairs with officials of state, and that caused Hadrian to remove them from office. Hadrian took numerous great journeys around the Roman empire, and Sabina accompanied him at least in one of them, making her “the most traveled and visible empress Rome had ever known.” R. Abdy notes that she “is the first Roman empress to have a sustained, regular production of coinage at Rome.” Sabina was awarded the title of “ Augusta” in 128 AD, the female equivalent of “Augustus”, implying the greatest prestige. She died in 136 AD, some say that she was driven to commit suicide by her husband, nonetheless she was deified by him shortly after.

The Marble Portrait Bust of Empress Sabina must have been produced in the imperial workshop of Rome, possibly to be shown in the court.Most of it is incrustated from time, and part of the nose has fallen off, but the features are still highly visible. The portrait is very naturalistic, and it has a likeness to the actual appearance of the empress, although it is an idealized projection as most other Roman official portraits of the Hadrianic period.Her clothing is draped loosely and reveals her chest, creating an exceptionally feminine and sensual effect. The face is oval and features a straight nose, a small mouth, curved eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes. Her face is expression is serene and almost morose. Some observes,notely M. Bieber argue that in her images Sabina is insignificant and Hadrian’s supposed negative assessment of her personality is reflected. However, W. D. Gray agrees that she’s portrayed as “morose”, but doesn’t think that this is significant or related to her personality, but that expression is rather a “characteristic of all the portraits of the ladies of Trajan and Hadrian’s courts, Plotina, Marciana, and Matidia as well as Sabina.” One of the most note-worthy features of the portrait is Sabina’s coiffure, as in her portraits she’s depicted in different styles. “The hair is parted on the center of her forehead,brushed sideways over her ears, and fastened in the back in a loose bun. The overall effect is that of a simple unencumbered elegance, and it was inspired by a hairstyle worn by Greek goddesses in sculptures that Sabina may have seen in the course of her travels.” Kleiner notes that the elaborate hairstyles were arranged by slave women, denoting the elite status of the subject who wore them; they were also imbued with messages about the virtues of the subject possessed, as loyalty and faithfulness. It’s possible that the image of Sabina in this portrait may have attributes to a Greco-Roman goddess, perhaps Aphrodite, or Artemis, or Demeter, but this is debatable.

Seeing these two artworks superficially, no similarities whatsoever are evident; one is a full statue, one is a bust, one is made of granite, the other of marble, and one is of Egyptian culture, the other of Roman culture. However, the only key similarity stands in the positions of the two figures portrayed, both Hatshepsut and Sabina were queens (Hatshepsut was a pharaoh and Sabina was an empress), and this played an essential part in their portrayal. Both artworks were commissioned by the imperial administration, and the artists followed the demands of the queens. Both of them dictated how they wanted to be viewed by the public, thus creating their own royal image. Their figures are idealized, frozen in time as a mark on history, and do not show signs of age or deformities. This is the only similarity however, and what follows are only differences.

The differences between the two are numerous, and stem mainly from the differences of the two civilizations themselves. The most visible one is the manner of portrayal; Hatshepsut’s is very unnaturalistic, while Sabina’s is Classical and natural. Apart from the facial features? Hatshepsut’s statue doesn’t have many details and is very rigid, while in Sabina’s portrait minute attention is devoted to her clothing and her hair, giving a lively,realistic feel to her. The other main difference stand on the implications of the two images; Sabina’s image stands for what Hatshepsut’s rejects. As mentioned before, Hatshepsut’s femininity is largely concealed and not given importance to, she’s given male qualities of power and seriousness. In contrast, Sabina’s image stands for all the feminine qualities that Roman women should possess-loyalty, beauty, chastity, sensuality, modesty,fidelity- so that she would be a leading example to be followed. This is not due to the fact that they had different personalities, but rather because of the different natures of their reign, as Hatshepsut had a central administrative role, while Sabina had no real power, and was only an asset of her husband. Another point is that Hatshepsut’s statue was meant to be worshipped, that’s why her hands sit on her lap, because people were supposed to make offerings to her. On the other hand, Sabina’s portraits wasn’t worshipped, as Roman empresses weren’t worshipped as gods during their life, but after their deification upon their death.

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All things considered, both the The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut and the Marble Portrait Bust of Empress Sabina reflect the cultural and artistic values of the civilizations that produced them. The differences between the Egyptian and Roman cultures shape both sculptures, and make them unique from each other. It is essential to understand that while both sculptures portray two women who had the highest possible positions for women in their society, the roles that they played and how they were viewed by their people are extremely distinct.


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  • “The Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut.”,
  • Galán, José M. Creativity and Innovation in the Reign of Hatshepsut. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2014.
  • Gardner, Helen, et al. Gardner's Art through the Ages: Art through the Ages. 15th Edition ed., Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005.
  • Hannestad, Niels. Roman Art and Imperial Policy. Aarhus University Press, 1988.
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  • Kleiner, Diana E. E., and Susan B. Matheson. I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome. Yale University Art Gallery, 1996.
  • Mark, Joshua J. “Hatshepsut.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2 Nov. 2019,
  • “Sabina (88–136 CE).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia,, 9 Nov. 2019,                         
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Analysis Of The Portrayal Of Pharaoh Hatshepsut And Empress Sabina In Art. (2021, November 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
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