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?”