The expression on this portrait of the Roman Emperor, Commodus, perhaps belies his noted love of combat and fighting in the arena. Unlike his more intellectual and philosophical father, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus was ruthless enough to order killings even of his own sister and aunt. He is depicted in military garb: a draped robe and fibula, or pin, rather than in the clothing of a senator or religious figure. In his era, it was customary for official portraits of rulers to be carved in Rome. From these, multiple copies would be carved, and sent out to provincial capitals around the empire, where they would become the models for additional portraits. Historians classify such portraits as numbered "types," which correspond to eras of the subjects' lives. By comparing things like hairstyles with those on portraits depicted on coins, scholars can date such types quite precisely. This bust is an example of Commodus' fifth type, which corresponds to his sole ascendancy to the throne, after serving as co-regent with his father.
When the Getty purchased this bust in 1992, scholars debated whether it was the work of a Roman carver, or a superb copy by a later artist who mimicked the Roman style. It came from the collection of the fourth Earl of Carlisle at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, who had acquired it in the 1700's, likely as an ancient Roman bust. What appears to be the work's untouched white surface is actually an element that is now known to indicate alerts previous restoration and recarving. Contemporary guidelines in conservation favor careful preservation of the ancient surface for scientific and aesthetic reasons, but the stark color and texture of this bust suggest that prior restorers used bleach or acid to clean it of perceived blemishes. Another example of restoration is on the left side of the Emperor's curly beard, where one rectangular area has curls carved in a flatter and less naturalistic way than those around it. This is likely because a post-ancient restorer re-carved curls that were damaged or missing from antiquity. Other indicators of the bust's ancient origin are the dark brown encrustations on the central back rim. When experts sampled this encrustation and examined it under a microscope, they discovered traces of material that confirmed burial or long-term exposure to the elements.