Inside Story

What the Romans have done for us

Celebrity classicist Mary Beard turns sleuth in an entertaining account of the long afterlife of twelve emperors

Stephen Mills Books 22 October 2021 1880 words

Julius Caesar meets his end in Vincenzo Camuccini’s Death of Caesar (1806). Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea

Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern
By Mary Beard | Princeton University Press | $49.99 | 384 pages

Why do the Roman emperors loom so large in the way we talk about politics? Doesn’t it seem odd that our political language is informed by a collection of autocrats from 2000 years ago?

Just last month, the nuclear subs deal was presented by one commentator as a crossing of the Rubicon, a reference to Caesar’s point of no return in his invasion of Rome. During the bushfires, Scott Morrison’s Hawaiian holiday irresistibly summoned the image of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Kevin Rudd gleefully destabilised Julia Gillard on the Ides of March, recalling the day of Caesar’s assassination.

Gough Whitlam, of course, was the supreme master of this game. He likened prime minister Billy McMahon, scheming on the Isle of Capri, to “Tiberius with a telephone” and a well-lubricated governor-general Sir John Kerr, “weaving his way from the Imperial box” at the 1977 Melbourne Cup, to Caligula: “The fascinated crowd and a million viewers may have thought the horse would have made a better proconsul.”

Mary Beard has the answer. In Twelve Caesars, the professor of classics at Cambridge University explores in fascinating and entertaining detail how the long-dead Roman emperors have lived on in the Western imagination, providing a rich store of moral and political exemplars to instruct, warn and mock their successors.

Her title pays homage to Suetonius, the Roman historian whose Lives of the Twelve Caesars recorded the virtues and vices of the first emperors in salacious and sometimes horrifying detail. In doing so he turned those dozen autocrats into an enduring canon: the dictator Julius Caesar, appointed after the demise of the republic in 48 BCE; the Julio-Claudian emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, who came after Caesar’s assassination and a civil war; the three short-lived emperors Galba, Otho and Vitellius, who ruled during another civil war in 69 CE; and the Flavian dynasty of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, who was assassinated in 96 CE.

In this book, as her subtitle suggests, Beard is interested in the “images of power” — that is, the visual representations of the emperors. As she did in SPQR, her 2015 bestselling history of Rome, she reveals her great talent for transforming the arcane and ancient into the relevant and contemporary, and for bringing the highest levels of scholarship into a popular and entertaining narrative.

The medium in which the most numerous of these images are preserved are the coins bearing the emperors’ portrait and name, which helped the regime enforce its authority throughout its huge empire. With a slogan or a symbol on the reverse side, they made for effective propaganda. Production of individual images on this scale had never been required during the republic, with its regular rotation and sharing of power (in theory, at least) among numerous office-holders.

Statues and busts of the emperors were also widely disseminated, with more than 200 inscribed pedestals of Augustus alone having survived. Judging by the fragmentary remains of pastry moulds found amid the ruins of Roman kitchens, imperial portraits even appeared on cakes and biscuits.

But identifying who is depicted on any particular sculpture is frustratingly difficult. Most have been separated from their named plinths, and few display the physical characteristics Suetonius so vividly describes. Indeed many of them, found thousands of kilometres apart, look broadly similar; it’s difficult to distinguish an Augustus from a Tiberius, a Caligula, a Claudius or a Nero.

Beard suggests that individual likeness might not have been the point — that they shouldn’t be taken at face value, as it were. Image-making may have instead been designed to achieve “carefully constructed similarity (as well as the occasional difference).” Whatever the physical characteristics of individual emperors, their statues and busts seem designed to assert a shared imperial authority, which became even more apparent as the emperors began to be regarded as divinities.

Idealisation and anonymising are even more apparent in the images of the emperors’ female relatives. At the imperial court, wives and mothers were political players, especially in questions of succession; they were accused of adultery, incest and poisoning. Yet their statues and busts blandly represent dynastic stability and fecundity. Again, likeness is not the point.

Beard, best known as a historian of Rome, takes her analysis well past the imperial age, exploring the “images of power” produced by medieval, Renaissance and baroque artists, by the Victorians and into the modern era. Twelve Caesars ranges widely across paintings, drawings and books; marble and bronze; metalwork and tapestry; from Titian and van Dyck to Alma-Tadema and Anselm Kiefer. For two millennia, images of the Twelve Caesars have been lost and rediscovered by archaeologists; imitated, copied and reinterpreted by artists — and by forgers; bought and sold by dealers and collectors; displayed by kings, wealthy elites and museums; looted by armies; burnt in fires.

It’s here that Beard tells a wonderful story about the Aldobrandini Tazze, a set of twelve “grand and exquisitely decorated silver-gilt dishes” dating from the late 1500s. Incorporating thirty-seven kilograms of silver, the set is a showy product of extreme wealth and elite taste. For Beard, it constitutes the earliest surviving attempt to illustrate Suetonius’s Lives in material form: each bowl is decorated with scenes from Suetonius’s account of the life of one of the Caesars, and at the centre of each bowl stands a miniature statue of the appropriate emperor.

So far so good. The Caesar statues are even inscribed with their names, making identification certain. But there’s a problem: the statues were made to be screwed in and out of the dishes — presumably so they could be cleaned and polished — and somewhere along the line, several of them were screwed back into the wrong ones. (It’s so hard to get good help!)

Over the centuries, the dishes were auctioned off in ones and twos to collectors and dealers and museums. The statues became irretrievably separated from their correct locations.

Enter Professor Beard, scholar and sleuth. In 2010 she popped into London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to inspect its single dish, which the museum believed to depict Domitian. Beard confirmed the statue was indeed inscribed as Domitian. But — and you can imagine the V&A curatorial staff experiencing a tremor at this point — “it was soon clear that there was something very wrong indeed with the scenes on the bowl.” In particular, Beard noticed that the supposed scene of Domitian’s triumphal procession after defeating the Germans “had nothing to do with” Suetonius’s description of the event. Instead, it looked more like the triumph of Tiberius.

“For me,” she writes, “it was a clear hint that the bowl had been wrongly identified and was attached to the wrong emperor. So it turned out… It took only a careful look, and a text of Suetonius, to see that the wrong emperor was on the wrong bowl.” The real Domitian bowl has turned up in Minneapolis, accompanied by the statue of Augustus, and the Augustus bowl is in Los Angeles with Nero.

Beard reports another clever piece of research, this time involving a series of twelve Flemish tapestries depicting the life of Julius Caesar that were bought by Henry VIII in the 1540s and hung in Hampton Court. The tapestries disappeared, probably simply worn out, in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Thanks to the work of art historians using documentary archives and studying copies, the scenes have been largely reconstructed, but several curious misidentifications persist.

Why, for example, does the scene supposedly showing the (male) soothsayer Spurinna predicting the death of Caesar actually show a woman? And why does that woman have a cauldron, bats and snakes? Because, Beard triumphantly points out, the scene is taken from Pharsalia, an epic by the first-century poet Lucan. In Lucan’s narrative, the witch Erichtho predicts, in gruesome detail, the death not of Caesar but of his civil war rival Pompey.

Twelve Caesars is a rich but loosely arranged miscellany. At one level it reads like an upmarket version of Fake or Fortune?, the BBC program that tests the authenticity and provenance of unrecognised art works. I am sure the TV rights for Beard’s book will be snapped up. Fiona Bruce had better watch out.

But Beard provides instruction as well as entertainment, and the fun of chasing down the provenance of arcane objets is not intended to conceal the more important puzzle that lies beneath. Why have these emperors exercised such a continuing and profound fascination? Why have their images been so frequently and carefully studied, emulated and multiplied?

They were, after all, an unattractive bunch, less known for civic virtue than for personal vice — “death, destruction, imperial sadism and excess,” as Beard puts it. Only one of the twelve, Vespasian, died in his own bed; or two, if you count Tiberius, who died there only because that is where he was when (probably) suffocated by a loving relative.

The rest were assassinated, poisoned, forced to “fall on their own sword” or, in the case of Vitellius, dragged through Rome by a lynch mob, “tortured, beaten to death, impaled on a hook and thrown into the Tiber.” Though they are arranged into “dynasties,” many sons were executed and only one (Titus) succeeded his father as emperor. After the relative tidiness of republican rule, the Roman imperial system never worked out an orderly transfer of power from one autocrat to the next

And here of course is one answer to the puzzle. The emperors provided important lessons to subsequent rulers. For wannabe autocrats, absolute power is, of course, its own attraction. When Julius Caesar terminated the Roman republic he took the title “dictator.” Literally, his word was law. Mussolini took the same title, set up a fascist regime, and sought to recreate a Roman Empire in Africa.

But even more orthodox rulers — such as those kings and emperors who continued to carry the name of Caesar (as Kaiser and Czar) right through to the early twentieth century — might have found useful lessons about the hazards of succession, the perils of civil war, and the interplay of court politics and national welfare. Beard suggests that the Renaissance and later artists, who were commissioned by princes and dukes to portray the lives of imperial Caesars, not infrequently combined flattery with coded nuance, hidden meanings, and “unsettling version[s] of one-man rule.”

Today, this enduring artistic project, the visual reinterpretation of the Twelve Caesars, appears to be in decline. Briefly traversing the TV drama I, Claudius, the Carry On franchise and Gladiator, Beard bemoans the “visual descent of a once challenging iconography into the realm of a visual cliché.”

The same can be said of our political language. Whitlam’s elaborate put-downs were informed by his education in the classics; it is hard to identify anyone today who could follow his lead. A cartoon of Nero fiddling is indeed nothing more than a visual cliché. Then again, we are democrats and — unless Trump returns — have no need for tales of imperial excess.

This is a beautifully produced hardback. The text, with fifty pages of notes and bibliography, is brilliantly illustrated with 242 colour plates and just enough family trees to help the reader distinguish the Julio-Claudians from the Flavians, and Agrippina the Elder from Agrippina the Younger. Princeton University Press is to be congratulated. •