The Roman Empire was for a time after 293 ruled by a tetrarchy (a group of four rulers), instituted by Emperor Diocletian. The tetrarchy consisted of two Augusti (senior emperors) and two Caesars (younger emperors). The empire was territorially divided into western and eastern halves, with a senior and a junior emperor in each half. After Diocletian and his colleague, Maximian, retired in 305, internal strife erupted among the tetrarchs. The system finally ceased to exist around 313.
The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs symbolizes the concept of the tetrarchy, rather than providing four personal portraits. Each tetrarch looks the same, without any individualized characteristics, except that two, probably representing the older Augusti, have beards, and two do not. The group is divided into pairs, each embracing, which unites Augusti and Caesars together. The overall effect suggests unity and stability. The very choice of material, the durable porphyry (which came from Egypt), symbolizes a permanence of the kind reminiscent of Egyptian statuary and the early Kouros figures. Porphyry was rare and reserved for imperial use.
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