Heads & Tales

‘Twelve Caesars’
Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci, Julius Caesar, ca. 1512–14 (Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Returning to the United States from Beirut in 1837, Commodore Jesse D. Elliott brought with him some remarkable souvenirs: two marble sarcophagi. Elliott claimed that one had been the final resting place of the Roman emperor Alexander Severus, who reigned from 222 to 235 CE, and he offered it to President Andrew Jackson—a “patriot and hero,” wrote Elliott—for Jackson’s own use upon his death. 

Jackson responded to Elliott’s offer unequivocally: “I cannot consent that my mortal body shall be laid in a repository prepared for an Emperor or King—my republican feelings and principles forbid it—the simplicity of our system of government forbids it.” Himself accused of behaving “like a Caesar”—that is, autocratically—by his political enemies, it would have been, in today’s parlance, bad optics.

But Jackson need not have worried. Elliott based his claim of the sarcophagus’s imperial lineage on a bad reading of an inscription and wishful thinking; it was almost certainly not Alexander Severus’s tomb. After Jackson declined Elliott’s offer, the sarcophagus was moved to the National Mall in Washington D.C. An informational placard introduced the artifact as “Tomb in Which Andrew Jackson REFUSED to be Buried,” and the sarcophagus remained on the Mall until the 1980s.

This is the tale with which the classicist Mary Beard begins her latest book, Twelve Caesars. Based on a series of lectures, it examines how Roman emperors have been depicted in Western art since the Renaissance, and asks why the images of emperors still carry so much meaning for us today. The idea of being buried—or not buried—in an imperial tomb “obviously meant something” to people like Elliott and Jackson. But what? And why have the images of ancient despots signified something—or anything—to people centuries and millennia later? “Over the last five hundred years or so,” Beard writes, “emperors...have been recreated countless times in paint and tapestry, silver and ceramic, marble and bronze.... Caligula and Claudius continue to resonate across centuries and continents in a way that Charlemagne, Charles V or Henry VIII do not.” Images of Roman emperors—usually, but not always, the set of “Twelve Caesars,” described by the Roman writer Suetonius, who ruled right after the fall of the Republic—decorated the palaces, homes, and churches not just of the wealthy, but also of the middle classes. Beard writes that we often assume that these images are meant to reinforce a connection with the ancient world, and that preserving this connection is a natural thing to do. But images of emperors, she writes,

have been as much a cause of controversy as they have been bland status symbols. Far from being merely a harmless link with the classical past, they have also pointed to uncomfortable issues about politics and autocracy, culture and morality and, of course, conspiracy and assassination.

And then there are the questions of how we identify which images are “emperors” at all. Just as Elliott misidentified the sarcophagi, so too do we regularly mistake later representations for ancient sources, or “emperor-like” images for accurate depictions of how an ancient figure actually looked. “Such stories of discovery, misidentification, hope, disappointment, controversy, interpretation and reinterpretation are what this book is about,” Beard writes. 

She begins her study with depictions of Julius Caesar, who as Rome’s first emperor helped turn the Republic into the Empire. Key to projecting his authority was a sustained campaign to put his image on coins throughout Roman lands. “Never before had portraits been used so concertedly to promote the visibility, omnipresence and power of a single person,” writes Beard. It’s still these coins, along with Suetonius’s description of Caesar, that are the most reliable sources for determining whether an image is meant to be Julius Caesar.

But this can be more complicated than it seems. Caesar’s immediate successors—known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty—sought to make themselves resemble Caesar as closely as possible on coins and statues. They took pains to emphasize continuity so as to legitimize their rule to the citizens of the empire. (It’s worth remembering that only one of the Twelve Caesars succeeded his biological father, and that only one of their deaths was not suspected to be murder. Sometimes, continuity really was the coin of the realm.) These extremely similar depictions can make telling one emperor from another all but impossible. In her typically wry style, Beard observes, “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.”

Sometimes trying to determine which images are “really” Caesar involves comparing images to coins and making educated guesses—and Beard repeatedly emphasizes that we are not necessarily better at making these identifications than the scholars of centuries ago. Sometimes, an image believed by one generation to be a depiction of Julius Caesar is reclassified as an “unknown Roman” by another, or reidentified as a different emperor entirely. It gets even more complicated when trying to identify a “hybrid.” A statue of one emperor could have been modified or recast as another to save marble, or the head of one emperor might end up on the body of another. Sometimes a forgery or a pastiche can be mistaken for the real thing. Beard offers the example of the “Green Caesar,” a bust of a man made of green Egyptian stone that once belonged to Frederick II of Prussia. People have speculated for centuries about its connection to ancient Egypt. “Is it, as one writer has recently hoped on almost no evidence at all, the very statue that Cleopatra put up in honour of Caesar in Alexandria after his death? Is it perhaps no more than a portrait of ‘one of Caesar’s admirers from the Nile’, aping the style of his hero? Or is it actually an eighteenth-century fake, but intended to pass for Caesar all along? Who knows?”

Beard is less concerned with determining what images are “real” emperors than with studying the purpose of these images and their significance.

To some degree, Beard is less concerned with determining what images are “real” emperors—authentic images that depict an emperor’s true likeness, or images intended by their creators to represent a specific emperor—than with studying the purpose of these images and their significance to “those of us who look.” During the Renaissance, Beard writes, coins “were more than just the best evidence available for the appearance of Roman emperors; they provided a lens through which those rulers were repeatedly re-imagined and recreated in modern art.” They were the most readily available images of emperors because of how common it was to see one, given that they were distributed throughout the empire, and for centuries onward had been unearthed and collected by ordinary people. They were incorporated into all kinds of items, including clothing, jewelry, architecture, and art. Such images were more than mere decoration, Beard argues. They could have a multitude of meanings—legitimizing (as Caesar’s successors endeavored) the rule of a leader, or advertising wealth, or forging a visible link to the past.

Beard offers dozens of examples of such items, accompanied by beautiful color illustrations. One example is Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin (1471–74), whose subject holds up to the viewer a coin stamped with the image of Nero. Why does he brandish the image of one so infamous? “The faces of Roman emperors on coins served to validate the images of living sitters as well as the subjects of the past. Portraiture could be perceived not simply as a binary relationship between artist and subject, but as a triangulation between artist, subject and the image of the emperor—in coin.” Another example Beard offers is a sixteenth-century chalice made in Nitra, Slovakia, which has eighteen coins with the images of Roman emperors set into the cup and stem. Beard writes that “if anyone should be tempted to assume that all this was ‘just decoration’, de-signified trinkets from a distant past or boasts of modern wealth, they should reflect on the experience of sipping communion wine out of a vessel that gave worshippers a close-up view of some of the greatest persecutors...in the history of the church.” These images, in other words, were part of the “cultural currency” of the Renaissance. While Beard doesn’t offer an overall answer to what these images tended to signify, she invites their study under these terms to overcome the assumption that such imagery is “too banal to be investigated.”

One of Twelve Caesars’s most illuminating chapters is about images of emperors used subversively or satirically. In the nineteenth century, a favorite subject of art was the assassination of emperors. “Whether prompted by contemporary politics or not,” Beard says, artists “regularly used imaginative re-creations of scenes of assassination to interrogate the imperial system itself, reflecting on the vulnerability of the ruler, and on where power really lay.” Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1859 painting The Death of Caesar, a widely copied specimen, depicts the moments just after Julius Caesar’s death. Caesar, a mere “blood-stained bundle,” lies ingloriously in the corner of the painting while his assassins plot and scheme, already adapting to a world without the emperor: “Here Gérôme is reminding us of just how fleeting autocratic power is.” Another painting, Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s depiction of the death of Caligula and Claudius’s assumption of the throne, shows a frightened Claudius hiding behind a curtain by a statue of Pompey with a bloody handprint. The suggestion: “violence and lawlessness...was always at the heart of the imperial regime,” and any idea that emperors rule justly is an illusion.

Beard also examines the King’s Staircase at Hampton Court—an unlikely place to find a critique of royal power—which shows a series of paintings of ancient rulers made fools by the Roman gods, who are forcing them to compete to be invited to a heavenly dinner party. “In one of the most ceremonial areas in this royal palace we are presented with an array of Roman emperors as laughable failures,” Beard observes. Why? These images “were prompting a dialogue between…imperial power and the power of the modern king…. [T]hey maybe even provided a lens through which the modern monarch could face up to monarchy’s discontents.” In other words, heavy is the head that wears the crown. If artists like Gérôme and Alma-Tadema could sense the fragility of imperial power, it should be no surprise that royals themselves did too.

Beard’s style of investigation is often just as interesting as some of her findings. “I have been by profession a classicist, historian, teacher, sceptic and occasional killjoy,” she cracks in the introduction. As in her magnum opus, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Beard first emphasizes not what she knows but what can’t be known—at least not unless more evidence comes to light. She takes visible pleasure in questioning the assumptions of the casual observer and the professional historian alike. “Are we sure we know that?” is her consistent refrain. It’s a refreshing sort of intellectual humility—speaking confidently when an answer can be known, but also recognizing when caution is warranted.

Twelve Caesars also confirms Beard’s fondness for the deep dive, as when she offers microhistories of some of these beautiful and fascinating objects. But these detailed examinations come at the expense of wider insights the reader can glean after her discussion of dozens of statues, portraits, coins, and tapestries. Why did images of Roman emperors come to mean so much to modern people, as she asks in the introduction? What messages overall does she think wealthy members of Renaissance society, or nineteenth-century artists, or even we today, intend to communicate by using images of emperors? Beard gives careful, unwavering attention to each individual object she considers and sometimes draws definite conclusions about them, but she is often hesitant to generalize about any larger answers, even tentatively. Sometimes maybe a little less caution is warranted.

Or maybe it’s just that Beard understands the appeal of elusiveness, the way that ancient images and objects can tantalizingly withhold the secrets we want to pry from them. “Part of the dynamic fun of the images of the Caesars, part of the reason for their visual longevity, is that they are so hard to pin down,” Beard concludes. “They are not a breed of iconographic fossils.”

Twelve Caesars
Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern

Mary Beard
Princeton University Press
$35 | 392 pp.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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