Few people have recently had as much face time with the ghosts of the Roman emperors as Mary Beard, a well-known professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her latest book – Twelve Caesars: images of power from the ancient world to the modern – examines every skin fold, hair lock, and ear shape of the existing sculptures and busts of these Roman autocrats. The result is a detective masterpiece of entertaining misattributions, reinterpretations, and blatant fakes.
By focusing on the so-called ‘twelve Caesars’ – from Julius Caesar, assassinated in 44 BC, to the last Flavian emperor Domitian, assassinated in AD 96 – Beard unravels the questionable moral character of those who inspired such venerated depictions. She also taps into the murky evidence for what they really looked like. It seems to have all begun with Julius Caesar, who was the first known Roman ruler to put his face on public money and to cultivate mass production of his statues on par with the gods, setting a precedent for obsessive and strategic dissemination of their own image that many rulers would follow.
These images continued to dominate entire art historical movements more than a thousand years later. From Titian’s Caesars and Veronese’s Last Supper, some of the leading artists of the Renaissance and beyond sought to capture the imperial Roman look in their canvases, be it as a standard for moral fortitude, timelessness, status, or even as an ironic commentary. It is astonishing that, according to Beard, ‘there were more images in Western art of Roman emperors than of any other human figures, with the exception of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and a small handful of saints’. Commercially packaged bust sets of the full imperial dozen became a go-to prop for elevating the interiors, and social status, of European palaces and castles in what, as the book tells us, was a decorative invention of the Renaissance. All of this begs the question, why is it that murderous autocrats who met sticky ends have become the role models for the way we depict power?
In a fascinating retelling of wishful misattributions and clumsy reinterpretations, Beard makes it clear that, despite a persistent reproduction of copious amounts of Julius Caesar heads, there is actually very little tangible evidence for the physical attributes of the man in question. Much of what we do know about all of these emperors rests on one written text by the 2nd-century AD court secretary and librarian Suetonius. Moreover, according to Beard, there is no definitive method for distinguishing modern marble sculptures from those of antiquity. Yet these sculptures are familiar images that have been reproduced persistently and often without question. And they continue to be reproduced, both intentionally and subconsciously, in the statues we see around our cities today.
Sculptors and painters alike have drawn from the imperial images, be it in the way a subject’s stance is captured (as is the case with Van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles I, which, Beard explains, was likely modelled on Titian’s version of the Roman emperor Otho) or how the skin folds on their neck (what seems to be one of the main qualifying signs for Julius Caesar). In some cases, attempts to elevate the status of later monarchs through Athenian attire led to comic results, as we learn from Queen Victoria’s birthday gift to Prince Albert. With all the dubious evidence behind the finds that inspired such later works of art, the subject of imperial imagery is not just about the historical truisms. It is as much about the imaginary value we attribute to these personalities.
The premise of the book is simple, to consider where these depictions come from, why they persist, and if we can possibly trust them. Were these often-vain marble depictions the Instagram selfies of the ancient world? Perhaps, unlike the ephemeral digital matter, they persisted and convinced us of their ‘authenticity’ simply by virtue of the compelling durability of their material. As engaging as this wryly written investigative masterwork is, the subject begs to be contextualised in today’s debate about public sculptures of historic figures, something that is absent from the book. The questions it explores, however, are as relevant for more recent figures as they are for Roman emperors.
Review by Eugenia Ellanskaya.
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. Mary Beard, Princeton University Press, £30, Hardback, ISBN 978-0691222363.