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How to tell your Roman emperors apart

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern Mary Beard

Princeton University Press, pp.376, 30

Rising professors do well to be controversial if they wish to be invited to contribute to mainstream media. But the elder professor, lauded, loved and telly-tastic, has the privilege of swerving controversy without losing the limelight. And so Mary Beard gives us this rich disquisition on the Caesars’ visual representation (and misrepresentation), from swapped plinths to forged heads.

Handsomely illustrated and brightly ringing with Beard’s enjoyment and scholarship, the book doesn’t inflame debate but brings it down a few degrees. While her publicist might have preferred more engagement with today’s ‘sculpture wars’ (touted on the dust jacket but not mentioned within), Beard provides no ammo for either side, but takes a wry long view. The effect is not to blister but to pour balm.

Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars seeded the Renaissance idea that selected emperors could form a set, not unlike the apostles or Seven Worthies. This was a collection to which everyone in due course aspired, from Gonzagas or Habsburgs seeking to underline their regal legitimacy in their interior décor, to 18th- century middle classes acquiring the full set of 12 numbered Wedgwood emperor roundels, one by one. Some groupings are maximalist — there is a set of 67 imperial busts, including selected wives, in the Room of Emperors in the new wing (Palazzo Nuovo) of the Capitoline Museums in Rome — but 12 is the accepted minimum, with respectable bods such as Hadrian or Trajan substituted for Caligula when a collector wanted a more ‘aspirational’ line-up.

Telling your Domitian from your Trajan is a complex business. Unlike Christian saints, who are generally pictured accompanied by helpful props (St Catherine’s wheel, St Peter’s keys) or monarchs, who were permitted a degree of physical quiddity (portly Henry VIII or hunched Richard III), the emperors were sculpted with the same heroic-type bodies, so everything comes down to the face.


Which is a glimpse of the Roman genius for rule: their coins promoted a mass-media illusion of intimacy. Romans carried detailed likenesses of their emperors around in their purses, and coins have continued to be the best way to put names to faces ever since. Julius Caesar’s combover, mentioned by Suetonius, is seen on coins, and Vitellius’ jowls, and Nero’s double chin and designer stubble. Ancient busts usually lack name tags, but Vespasian favoured representations of himself as an ageing tough-guy, while Otho, Suetonius tells us, is the one in the wig.

We come tantalisingly close to feeling we know these people. Several busts thought to be of Julius Caesar have the same subtle cranial deformities, a hint that the man himself may have sat for a (now lost) bronze which became a prototype, to be reproduced across the empire. However, of this there is no evidence, and anyway, the Julio-Claudian dynasty favoured idealised images, each wanting to look the part. Beard has seen too much to get excited. Of the British Museum’s Tusculum Caesar, identified in 1940, she says: ‘It may well be only a matter of time before it is relegated back to the status of “unknown old man”.’

She cites another sculpture, in the Vatican, which has been claimed for Augustus, Caligula and Nero — ‘not to mention the possibility that it might be an Augustus later re-carved into a Nero, or even a Nero re-carved back into an Augustus’. Her conclusion? Most identifications are more about fashion than fact:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that a perverse amount of scholarly energy has sometimes been devoted to drawing a fine line between subjects who were always intended to look the same.

But Beard convincingly identifies a lost set of tapestries owned by Henry VIII, previously thought to show scenes of the life of Caesar, as dramatising Lucan’s Pharsalia. She also makes sense of Antonio Verrio’s baroque King’s Stairs at Hampton Court, baffling until it was first paired, in the 1930s, with Julian’s 4th-century satire The Caesars, in which Romulus the God starts a conversation with the Immortals about which emperors they would invite to their dream dinner party:

They are not appealing guests for the divine company. Watch out for Caesar, Zeus is warned, he is after your kingdom. Nero is written off as a wannabe Apollo. Hadrian can do nothing but look for his lost boyfriend. And so on.

The vast majority are swiftly disinvited, with Marcus Aurelius judged the dinner winner. Beard shows the joy of classical texts, and how they are the ultimate resource when visual art fails to be comprehensible to us.

Her superb authority begins to flag when she rushes, in the afterword, through modern artworks such as Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Nero Paints’. I’d also have liked more on the creepy, staring Meroë Caesar, which, weirdly, she only describes as ‘calm’. She doesn’t mention how it was, according to the British Museum, pillaged from a Roman outpost in Egypt and stashed in a symbolically lowly spot under the steps to a sun temple by the one-eyed Kushite Queen Candace. But this book started out in 2011 as Beard’s contribution to the distinguished W.A. Mellon lectures, and owes more to Apollo than to Ares.

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