Opinion: It’s good to be king. It’s better to be Caesar.


The prolific classicist Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University, wrote books on Pompeii, the history of Rome, the Colosseum, and the Roman triumph, among many other books and scholarly articles. She also addresses popular perceptions of the classical world through her blog, published by the Times Literary Supplementand she popular twitter account. In Twelve Caesars: images of power from the ancient world to the modern worldan engaging, scholarly, and immensely informative book, it analyzes the reception and adaptation of ancient Roman imperial portraiture in Western European and American art from the 15th century to the present day.

Its subject matter is relevant to anyone who has wondered why a statue of Benjamin Franklin by Francesco Lazzarini – commissioned in 1789 for the Library Company of Philadelphia – shows him wearing a toga. And why in September 2021, just as Beard’s book was published, the equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed from its base on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.

Mary Beard’s fascinating book asks its readers to be curious and critical of the redeployments of images of Roman emperors from Renaissance Italy to 20th-century America.

The idiom of the bronze equestrian statue may seem generically triumphant to contemporary American viewers, but it is as reminiscent of ancient Rome as the toga. This artistic style descends from famous antecedents like 2nd century bronze equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius which was mistakenly believed to be Renaissance to represent the 4th-century Christian emperor Constantine. (Although Beard does not discuss this example, misidentifications of imperial portraits are a major theme in his book.)

Beard’s fascinating book asks its readers to be curious and critical of the redeployments of images of Roman emperors from Renaissance Italy to 20th-century America. What choices do artists and patrons make? How might ancient Roman imperial portraits be received (and misunderstood) by later audiences? What do images of Roman emperors tell us about the later cultures in which they were reproduced?

The opening vignette of the book features a marble sarcophagus, allegedly used for the burial of Emperor Alexander Severus, who reigned in 222-235 AD It was discovered in Lebanon in 1837 and brought to the United States by Jesse Elliott, a commander in the United States Navy. Elliott donated it to the nation in 1845 and hoped that Andrew Jackson might choose to be buried there. Jackson vehemently refused, writing that as a patriotic American and a lover of Republican values, he did not want an imperial burial.

Beard illustrates the story with a photograph of two visitors to the sarcophagus in 1965 reading a label about Andrew Jackson’s refusal. Beard does a quick job of this legend: Not only did the marble sarcophagus not belong to Alexander Severus (who was probably buried in Rome, not Lebanon); there is no indication that the sarcophagus belonged to a Roman emperor. But these facts matter less than the role the ancient Roman “imperial” sarcophagus played in shaping American presidential identity in the 19th century, and as a reminder of the strength of American democracy for visitors to the National Mall in the Twentieth century.

Beard’s book is replete with such evocative and sometimes startling examples (among them, an ancient marble head of Julius Caesar excavated from the bed of the Hudson River in 1925). The chapi of Them All” (on Titian’s 16th century paintings of Roman emperors exhibited in Mantua, Italy). This division and focus on images reflects the book’s origin in the A. W. Mellon Fine Art Lectures Beard delivered at the National Gallery, London in 2011; Twelve Caesars is an updated and expanded version of the course material.

Beard’s analysis spans confidently across media—paintings, sculpture, tapestries, coins—and eras, with most analysis focusing on the 15th through 17th centuries.

After this first group of chapters, Beard moves on to analyzing those reuses of Roman imperial iconography that were not necessarily positive. These include tapestries created for Henry VIII that seem ambivalent about royal power (whether royal patrons were aware of it or not), as well as portraits that convey lessons about imperial vices. Beard also devotes a chapter to portraits of imperial women, showing how they have been used historically: for example, images of Agrippina, wife of Germanicus, have served in art history as an example of devotion and loyalty family, unlike those of the young Imperial Agrippina, mother of the infamous Emperor Nero. The author also presents a bloody medieval handwritten painting of Nero calmly observing his mother’s dissection to see her womb, no better representation of the anguish of maternal power.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Beard writing this book. His granular knowledge of ancient Roman history, literature and art, combined with an encyclopedic understanding of the visual culture of neoclassicism in art, creates a book of great interest to scholars, students and the general public. Beard’s analysis spans confidently across media—paintings, sculpture, tapestries, coins—and eras, with most analysis focusing on the 15th to 17th centuries.

His analysis is insightful and groundbreaking. It reallocates a vermeil dish at the Victoria and Albert Museum which was associated with Domitian, noting that the scenes depicted on part of the dish are from the life of Tiberius. Beard also points out that the “generic scenes from the life of Julius Caesar” depicted on tapestries made for Henry VIII are actually illustrations of “Pharsalia,” the epic poem by first-century poet Lucan.

A caveat to the ambitious range of material is that the chapters can overwhelm the reader with their level of detail. Beard is both comprehensive and accurate, so some sections of this book (particularly those describing reconstructions of lost monuments) require sustained concentration (and proofreading) to follow.

Beard ends his book with a photograph of the present-day setting of the “imperial” Roman sarcophagus that Jackson refused to use for his tomb. It sits in storage at the Smithsonian in Maryland, obscure again after its brief moment in the sun as a symbol of American democracy.


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