Titus Flavius Vespasianus (r. 79-81 A.D.) succeeded Vespasian to become the first emperor to succeed his biological father. Prior to his accession, he was in fact disliked by many, who believed he would become a “second Nero” (Suetonius in "The Life of Titus,” Lives of the Caesars, vol. 2.7). Yet, during his short reign, he gained one of the most esteemed reputations of any Roman emperor.
Titus’ most significant military accomplishment took place prior to his accession while serving under his father, when he captured the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The event was commemorated a decade later by his brother Domitian, who built the Arch of Titus, which still stands at the entrance to the Roman Forum. However, after returning to Rome, he rapidly came to be regarded as cruel and gained widespread unpopularity for exploiting his position, as a newly appointed commander of the Praetorian Guard, to remove political opponents on behalf of his father. Suetonius declares that, “besides cruelty, he was also suspected of riotous living, since he protracted his revels until the middle of the night…” (Titus, op. cit., 7). He incurred further disapproval through his association with Queen Berenice, a member of the Judean royal family, whom Titus had reputedly returned with after his travels in the east.
After his accession, he won back popularity by lavish expenditure, completing construction on various public buildings, including the Flavian amphitheater and erecting new imperial baths. Although many unfortunate disasters occurred during his reign (the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., a fire in Rome in 80 A.D., and an outbreak of plague), he exploited the opportunity to garner acceptance, donating vast sums of money and relief to the affected areas. Titus died of fever unexpectedly in 81 A.D., having reigned for only two years, two months and twenty days. He was deified by the Roman Senate and the people of Rome mourned him “as they would have for a loss of their own families” (Titus, op. cit., 11).
Rejecting the Julio-Claudian tendency of depicting rulers idealized and eternally youthful, Flavian portraits, like those of Galba and Vitellius that proceeded them, are more realistic. Titus’ physical resemblance to his father Vespasian is instantly evident in this portrait. Like Vespasian, his distinctive facial characteristics include a broad face and forehead, close-set eyes and a gently hooked nose.
According to Jucker (op. cit.), the present example may have been recut from a sculpture of Domitian, Titus’ younger brother and successor, after Domitian’s death in the late first century. Domitian was hated as much as Titus was popular and following his assassination in 96 A.D., the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae, when many of his portraits were destroyed or re-cut. This bust does not correspond to either of the two known portrait types of Titus, due to the absence of thick, irregular curls, which characterize both types. Seutonius, in "The Life of Domitian,” Lives of the Caesars, vol. 2.18, tells us that Domitian suffered from baldness. His later, third portrait type depicts him with hair brushed forward in comma-shaped locks to conceal a receding hairline (see the portrait in the Museo del Palazzo dei Conservatori, fig. 145 in D.E.E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture). That this example does not fit into an identified type is therefore understandable, given that the sculptor would have been unable to carve deeper curls from the pre-existing hairstyle of the Domitian portrait.
The practice of reworking portraits of condemned rulers into esteemed emperors was commonplace during periods of political transition. We can postulate that this bust was transformed posthumously, during the Trajanic period, as a commemorative gesture to the short-lived, but much loved, emperor. Two further examples of Domitian reworked to Titus have been identified, one in the Braccio Nuovo and the other in the Museo Chiaramonti, in the Vatican. For an extensive analysis of other portraits resulting from damnatio memoriae, see M. Bergmann and P. Zanker, "Damnatio Memoriae. Umgearbeitete Nero und Domitian portrats. Zur Ikonographie der flavischen kaiser und des Nerva," Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 96, 1981, pp. 317-412.