Twelve Caesars by Mary Beard

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Everybody knows what Julius Caesar, Caligula and Nero, to name just a few Roman emperors, looked like. We’ve all seen sculptures of them, some created by well-known artists. They’ve all been on television. Of course, we know what they look like.  Mary Beard, variously a leading classicist and cultural commentator, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, a specialist in Roman history and art, and the author of best-selling and award-winning books, doesn’t think so. In her disagreement lies the kernel of her book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. Now, when you think about it, that’s a very big nut to crack.

The study needs a focus, and Beard gives it one in her singling out of the twelve Caesars identified by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus in the second century CE. In his Lives, he tells of the emperors who held power in varying degrees throughout the first one-and-a-half centuries of one-man-rule. His is the only surviving manuscript that contains physical descriptions of his subjects. Beard wants to know what a Roman emperor really looks like. She rejects the facile images modern society accepts, since her knowledge of human behaviour leads her to conclude that what we see is a cumulative historical construct, an evolving mental image, influenced as human beings are by our temporal uncertainties and our thirst to know something definitive about the Roman world.

Beard’s text is a fine example of even finer thinking. When writing about a representation of the face of Julius Caesar, she asks some important questions for the purpose of containing discussion. “What was the purpose, and the politics, of portraiture in the Roman world itself? How did its role change through the reign of Julius Caesar and his successors? How (and how reliably) have ancient portraits of these rulers been identified, when almost none are named or carry any other identifying mark” (46)?

To move her study forward, Beard attempts to ask what the Caesars looked like (a basic question but a difficult one to answer given that every plutocrat with a bit of money collected images, suitably idealised, in his emperor’s or his own, likeness). She queries whether the artists creating their images of Caesar really cared, really sought accuracy and truthful representation. Finally, since the book covers the period to modern times, she questions why European monarchs and their followers liked to see themselves in togas. That is, how were the present and past to be envisaged, and how were the similarities and differences between the ancient and modern worlds to be expressed (113).

Such a study, consisting of these elements, is not likely to make the academic world excited. Beard may find the subject matter appealing, the average don may not. Yet Beard’s book is a huge success. The reason is not hard to find. Beard has the skill of writing descriptions and insightful answers in brilliantly clear prose, often accompanied by gripping images. She rearranges how her readers think about material that has lain undisturbed, but when set in a new light, becomes fully accepted as valid and true. In short, she up-ends conventional thinking with lucid argument.

The author supplies an inexhaustible stream of sensible commentary on diverse subjects including tapestry, murals, historical painting such as Titian’s spectacular room of the Caesars, portraits, sculptures, and prints. Cogent information and believable ideas pour from her pen with the momentum of an unstoppable force. Her mind is a sparkling mountain stream compelled to hasten and share original ideas with the lumbering stream that is humanity. She demonstrates scholarship in providing solid evidence that images of Roman emperors influenced art, politics, and culture over the best part of two millennia… “an idiom of the past was repeatedly adapted for the representation of the present. This was what Reynolds’s shorthand would later represent as ‘timelessness’’’ (114). Concluding that the Henry VIII Flemish tapestry that had disappeared long ago could be reconstructed through written descriptions or comparison with similar works, she proceeded to do so, in the process discovering that its creator was, in fact, the Roman poet, Lucan.

That Suetonius identified his ‘Twelve Caesars’ is beyond dispute. But to prompt new perceptions, Beard prefers to focus on the collection’s “disorder, their subversive variants, their losses, incompleteness, misidentifications, rearrangements, and frustrations…as a paradigm that has always been pointedly resisted as much as it has been followed, a focus of debate an uncertainty as much as an artistic rulebook or straitjacket” (122).

Beard is especially informative when she writes about the importance of coins in establishing identity. “From the mid-fourteenth century to the end of the sixteenth in particular…coins were generally thought to offer the most vivid, authentic and available vision of the rulers of the Roman world” (84). She discovers that the minting of coins was never trivial but followed a mass production model (83). Imperial images of Rome’s first rulers have come to us in marble, stone, metals and, most importantly when accuracy of identity is needed, coins. Their legacy extends into modern life in still photography and the cinema.

Why do I consider this book such a success? It is complete. It contains a story that tells all. The writing is never confusing but always directed at its subject. Younger readers will struggle with certain ideas, but these are few. The non-specialist educated person will understand without fear of being overwhelmed. The book is meant for such as they. A relaxed style carries the reader into territory that might be foreign but is certainly fascinating. The artwork has been selected with great care. Its reproduction is without blemish and is generally warm and welcoming and always informative.

Twelve Caesars


By Mary Beard

Hardback (B315) | Oct 2021 | Princeton University Press | 9780691222363 | 384pp | 241x165mm | GEN | AUD$49.99, NZD$54.99

NewSouth Books

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