Military History’s exclusive interview sheds light on a groundbreaking digital history project

The faces of men who commanded Rome’s legions in battle and lorded over gladiatorial combat have been digitally reconstructed by Canadian artist Daniel Voshart. The project began in quarantine due to the coronavirus, according to Voshart, who works in the film industry. An online forum sparked his interest in Artbreeder, machine-learning software that builds composites from images.

“I happened across this software in an online community that shares images of colorized statues,” Voshart told Military History in a phone interview. “I had some interest in Roman architecture, but not very much interest in Roman history.”

Voshart began experimenting with restoring the faces of Rome’s emperors. He created photorealistic images of 54 Caesars who dominated the world’s foremost military power during a three-century span known as the Principate, overseeing wars and political intrigues. Voshart’s detailed work gives a crystal-clear glimpse of what each emperor might have looked like face-to-face. 

“Each one took a really long day, including finding images of busts, doing Photoshop to repair them, and doing a paint-over for colorization in some circumstances,” Voshart said. “Overall each emperor took about 12-hours to complete.”

To ensure his portrayals were as realistic as possible, Voshart used historical research about each emperor’s appearance compiled from Latin and Greek sources. He also referenced artifacts, especially ancient coin depictions when no busts or statues were available.

Voshart’s reconstruction of Maximinus Thrax

“Some emperors like Aemilian had no busts. So the reconstruction was entirely based off coin profiles,” Voshart said. “In these cases, I did a Photoshop sketch to create a composite-type image. Then I examined several hundreds of images of people who would have been born in those regions, looking for facial traits to arrive at a depiction that best matched the emperor’s description.” 

Voshart most enjoyed recreating emperors with distinctive features, such as Maximinus Thrax. “I think the most fun was Maximinus Thrax,” he said. “Some faces, like Claudius Gothicus, looked very regular and some busts did not have much information or character. The less normal-looking the face, the more odd the depiction, the more interesting it was for me.”

Aside from his unique face, Maximinus Thrax had a distinctive career as a Roman soldier who seized power during the later stages of the Empire, ruling Rome from 235 to 238. He led a campaign against the Alemanni tribe and later marched on Rome itself.

Voshart’s project also brought him into close proximity not only with the faces, but with the lives of men he described as “highly flawed dictators.” Due to their legacy of violence and corruption, Voshart didn’t really take a liking to his subjects. “It’s not the most pleasant cast of characters,” he said. 

Voshart's photorealistic reconstruction of the notorious emperor Caligula.
Voshart's photorealistic reconstruction of the notorious emperor Caligula.

Some of the many notorious personalities whose visages he recreated include Tiberius, Nero and Caligula, the latter of whom he found particularly shocking. 

“When I began this project, I knew the name Caligula was often thrown around as representing an evil, depraved emperor,” he said. “Yet the more I read about him, the more that came into vivid detail. I’d say Caligula was especially cruel.” 

Despite having a full-time job, Voshart plans to continue working on the project due to the outpouring of public enthusiasm for his work.

“On my website, I said I’d continue the project if people supported it and bought the posters. And tons of people have,” he said. “I now have a budget to hire an illustrator to help me with the later Roman Empire.”

Rome’s later empire, known as Dominate or Tetrarchy, will be challenging due to the lack of marble sculptures to provide information about the emperors’ facial features. “There are a lot more missing busts during that era. I’d say about 80% of them are missing,” Voshart said.

Aside from Roman rulers, Voshart has other ideas for future projects, including long and short lists of possible subjects in need of his digital artistry. “Honestly, it’s probably about a two-year list to get through!” he said.

View posters of the Roman emperor project at www.voshart.com