It may not be the handsomest ancient portrait ever discovered, but this tiny bust of a Roman boxer recently uncovered in the City of David in Jerusalem has attracted a lot of interest. The 2.5-by-1.5-inch marble head, which dates to the second or third century A.D., is one of only a handful of Roman-era figurine weights ever found in Israel and the first to reveal the face of a boxer.
Such figurines, typically made of bronze, marble or other heavy stones, were hung as counterweights on the scales used by merchants in bazaars and shops across the empire. The weights, which often took the form of famous philosophers, satirists and athletes of the day, no doubt made for good conversation pieces while merchants and shoppers haggled over prices.
Despite its small size, the bust meticulously portrays all the features of a bruising boxer. The man’s bearded face, almond-shaped eyes and plump, even bruised, cranial features are strikingly similar to other boxers’ portraits known from the Roman world, such as the famous bronze statue of a seated boxer now in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Boxers, much like gladiators, were among the most popular athletes in ancient Rome, and boxing matches were a regular form of popular entertainment across the empire.