Missing the boat in a broad canvas — Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard review

Mary Beard focuses on more tangible aspects of Roman imperial representations

Nero and Aprippina
The Shipwreck of Agrippina by Gustav Wertheimer. Credit: Heritage Auctions via Wikipedia Commons

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, whose Lives of the Twelve Caesars is one of the key sources for the history of imperial Rome, the emperor Tiberius enjoyed watching victims suffering under torture. At gladiatorial shows he would order fallen combatants to be butchered “so that he might see their faces in the agonies of death.” Nero was of an even more psychopathic disposition, among other things raping a Vestal Virgin, defiling his relative Aulus Plautinus before having him murdered, and arranging for his mother, Agrippina, to be drowned. The almost comical story of the latter episode is recounted in a later chapter of this book: Nero had arranged for Agrippina, whose power over him he was starting to resent, to be ferried in a boat that was rigged so that it would submerge (often humorously referred to, as here, as Nero’s ‘collapsible boat’). However, Agrippina managed to swim to shore, whereupon Nero put into effect Plan B, whereby she was slashed to death by a group of soldiers who were sent to kill her. Her last words were said (on what evidence, one might well ask) to be a defiant encouragement to her killers to “strike the womb” whence had sprung her monster of a son. Suetonius further reports that Nero later appraised his mother’s dead body, cup of wine in hand, with a mixture of approval and critique, thus adding the ingredient of sexual degeneracy to the enormity of matricide.

Mary Beard is well known as an ancient historian whose personal and professional inclination it is to question the reliability and historicity of such material. But while these stories about Tiberius and Nero are the kinds of anecdotes that will readily spring to many classicist readers’ minds in response to hearing her book’s title Twelve Caesars, they are not the subject of her investigation or elaboration here. This book originated in a series of Fine Arts lectures, and in this case, rather than taking issue with such dubiously historical accounts of imperial misdemeanours, Beard applies herself more to tangible and visible aspects of the representation of the Caesars: the images found on a wide range of material objects, notably on coinage, in sculpture, and in paintings. In the case of these latter artistic forms, moreover, the book focuses more on representations from later centuries (broadly speaking, from the Renaissance right up to the present day) than on the iconography of the early period.

While Suetonius’s account began with Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BC) and ended with the death in 96 AD of the last of the Flavian emperors, Domitian, Beard’s book opens with the detailed story of a misidentified sarcophagus located in Washington DC. Given that the sarcophagus was once supposed to be that of Alexander Severus, Roman emperor from 222 to 235 AD, it is immediately apparent that the notion of Twelve Caesars must be extended chronologically and thematically to indicate something readers have not been led to expect from the title: the book’s subtitle, Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, more accurately indicates the scope of the volume. Beard chooses her opening story to illustrate the ‘twists and turns, debates, disagreements and edgy political controversies’ that recur in her accounts of the fates and fortunes of images derived from Roman imperial representations across the millennia. (‘Edginess’ is a favourite notion, though one wonders whether the aim to find something subversive in any representation, however bland and sober, is not bound to be self-fulfilling). The misidentifications and misappre­hensions, no less than the attempts at adaptation, copying, and recreation of ancient images, are grist to her mill: she is more interested in the reception of such objects and images, and what they might have meant to viewers then and now, than in any ‘original’ meaning or purpose (apparent or intended) of their Roman models and predecessors.

Why did artists produce tens of thousands of images, now mostly lost, of emperors and their families, often long after those emperors were dead? Apart from reasons of promotion, propaganda, and the requirements of patrons, the Caesars and their families were widely recognisable figures who could be reimagined in different forms and contexts, and whose images could bespeak power and prestige or, if desired, sensation and scandal. In 1887 a Spanish painter, Arturo Montero y Calvo, painted an enormous canvas five metres across with a scene depicting Nero before the Corpse of his Mother. The image shown of the painting in this book (which is generously and appealingly illustrated throughout) unfortunately comes across as unduly gloomy in a matt colour reproduction, as well as being spread awkwardly across the book’s deep centrefold. As a result, the principal and best-lit figure in the painting appears to be neither the young Nero nor the dead Agrippina, but the toga’ed figure of an advisor (is it Seneca or an anonymous physician?) craning forward to scrutinise Agrippina’s corpse with a curious and voyeuristic intensity. I should have liked to know more about it.

While we learn nothing more about Montero y Calvo, and why he should have chosen to portray this particular scene with its characterful voyeur from the stories told about Nero, the chapter introduces the reader to various other representations of Roman imperial women, notably the Agrippinas (three, including Vipsania Agrippina, the wife of Tiberius, and possibly the subject of a commonly misidentified portrait by Rubens). Others, such as Messalina – stepping forward with, curiously, breasts bared in Aubrey Beardsley’s 1895 art-nouveau drawing – also make an appearance. Much of the material covered (and, in various senses, uncovered) by Beard will be unfamiliar to many who are not specialists in art history. It is easy to admire her copious breadth of learning, inquisitive vigour, and evident aesthetic fascination; and it would be interesting to know whether the interpretations proffered will be well received by art historians less expert in the ancient history underlying the images than is the author herself.

Occasion­ally, it feels as if passing mentions (for example, to Carry on Cleo, ‘Augustus’ beer-mats, or Ridley Scott’s Gladiator) are too disconnected from the book’s theme; or that a deliberately humorous fictional misidentification, such as Max Beerbohm’s ‘Roman emperors’ (from his Zuleika Dobson), adds little to an argument it may be thought to present. I came away from the book feeling that I had many new ideas and images to learn and think about in relation to ancient history and its reception in art. But I was sorry to miss even a passing mention of the extravagantly baroque painting of Nero’s ‘collapsible boat’, its timbers irrevocably shattered, and its ruched canopy and floridly designed crimson rug on the point of being submerged, in the painting entitled The Shipwreck of Agrippina by Gustav Wertheimer (1847-1902).

Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard, Princeton University Press, pp 392, £30


Armand D'Angour