Book review: Twelve Caesars, by Mary Beard

Mary Beard PIC: David Hartley / Shutterstock

Reader’s Alert: If you’re expecting this to be a series of Twelve Caesars biographies from Julius to Domitian, perhaps a Suetonius review companion, take a look at the subtitle and think again. It is “Images of power from the ancient world to the modern age”. The book, which is beautifully illustrated, is based on Mary Beard’s AW Mellon Fine Art Lectures given at Princeton University in 2011. It is a refined scholarly work, intended for other scholars rather. than what Virginia Woolf called the common reader. Nonetheless, because Beard is the best-known classicist in Britain today and is also an accomplished and well-known critical journalist, thanks to his televised work, as a popularizer of Roman history and literature, the book is very far from a Dryasdust job.

There are busts galore of Caesars and life-size or larger-than-life statues. But how precise are they? How true to life? These are questions that we have often had to ask ourselves. Faced with the betrayal of Thane of Cawdor, Shakespeare makes King Duncan say “There is no art / To find the construction of the spirit in the face.” Indeed, in the gallery of the Capitol there is a room of imperial busts. One of them seems delicate, sensitive and refined, but is in fact in the likeness of Commodus, an emperor generally considered violent, untrustworthy and debauched. A portrait from life? A whimsical? Or not at all Convenient? Other busts of this emperor have him middle aged and bearded. There is an illustration of what is now called “the Getty Commode”, but Beard says we don’t know if it’s “old, modern, or a mix of the two”.

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In October 2007, French archaeologists exploring the bed of the Rhône in Arles brought out a marble head from the water. The team manager shouted “Damn, it’s Caesar”. Well, naturally if you come across an unexpected find you want it to be someone important and famous, not, say, the bust of a prominent citizen of the Roman city of Arles who had perhaps instructed the sculptor to make it as similar as possible to Caesar. However, “skeptics point out how the head of the Rhône appears to be different from the portrait of Caesar on contemporary coins.” Coins can actually provide a more faithful representation of emperors than bust portraits. After all, they were struck during the lifetime of an emperor.

Twelve Caesars

“Representing the Roman emperors inspired ancient artists and artisans in business,” writes Beard. “It was a large-scale production, thousands and thousands … in all shapes and sizes, materials, styles and idioms.” Many were undoubtedly inspired by similarities made during the lifetime of an emperor (often his coins). Others will be based on the verbal descriptions proposed by Suetonius in his “Lives” of the Caesars, from Julius to Domitian. But Suetonius, born in North Africa in 69 AD, never saw the emperors whose lives he wrote. Presumably, he based his description of most of them on busts or statues carved during their lifetime and on written descriptions offered by others, with what precision we cannot tell.

The Renaissance saw interest in imperial Rome flourish and its influence was manifested in all the arts. Kings, generals and statesmen were all described as emperors, senators, military commanders. The Caesars and the Roman poets echoed everywhere. Sometimes they still are. Consider the beautiful Alexander Stoddart statue of a toga-clad David Hume atop Edinburgh’s High Street. The references to ancient Rome, however, were not always admiring. Beard notes that portraying kings and statesmen as Roman emperors may seem to emphasize the greatness of dynastic rule, but can also be seen as evidence of corruption. After all, anyone who had read Suetonius knew how horrible most of her emperors were.

Beard has written a fascinating book, one to read with pleasure. It sparkles with ideas, many of which are typically provocative. In pictures, it is a pure delight. As for the issue of attribution or bad attribution, well, you can read this delicious book in the mind of a detective.

Twelve Caesars, by Mary Beard, Princeton University Press, 384 pages, £ 30

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