Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a scholar and man of letters on the imperial payroll in early second-century Rome. Around 120 ce he completed his Lives of the Caesars, a set of biographies informed by his access to official libraries and his longstanding insider status at court. Suetonius began with the career of Julius Caesar, whose rise to political supremacy 170 years earlier had marked the end of republican Rome. His sequence finished with the emperor Domitian, after whose assassination in the year 96 power passed to the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, for whom Suetonius was then working.
The continued popularity of Suetonius’ Lives is a triumph of content over form. His approach to biography was plain and procedural: ancestry, political rise, executive actions, personal qualities and deficiencies, death – in most cases by malice. To each of these, however, Suetonius brings the attentive curiosity of a journalist, punctuating his reports with judgments that are brisk and to the point: ‘So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster.’ The life of a first-century Roman emperor seems typically to have been a sorry business. The vast polity looked to a single authority for stability; but for those who either pushed themselves or were pushed into the role, it was hard to resist acting like a child in a sweet shop. The various gluttonies, sexual or otherwise, not only of Caligula but of Julius Caesar and Tiberius before him, and afterwards of Claudius, Nero, Vitellius and Domitian, have offered endless amusement to readers never likely to be so tempted.
Mary Beard tells us that in later centuries, The Twelve Caesars (as Suetonius’ book was often called) did more than any other text to kindle interest in Roman emperors, especially after printed editions began to appear in 1470. Beard’s own Twelve Caesars is a book about the images of those rulers and about the idea of imperial power represented by Suetonius’ dozen – or by any comparable selection from the 67 autocrats whose busts now stand in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. While she acknowledges that these were persons who led actual lives, Beard is more concerned with their personas in a world ushered in by humanist learning and the new printed books of the Renaissance. In this latter-day existence, the emperors functioned, she argues, as identities of high potency, trump cards in iconography. She surveys the material range of their reappearances from the 15th to the early 20th century. ‘Recaptured in marble and bronze, in paint and on paper, turned into waxwork, silver and tapestry, displayed on the backs of chairs, on porcelain teacups or stained-glass windows, emperors mattered.’
Beard is phlegmatic as to how much we can say for certain about Julius and the succeeding caesars who adopted his cognomen. Is it for us to judge them morally? At one point, she commonsensically assumes that any autocrat will be a ‘very ordinary human being’; elsewhere, she concedes that Caligula, Nero and Domitian were ‘appalling’. But how much can we affirm beyond that? Suetonius’ third or fourth-hand informants, reporting on Julius Caesar’s ‘rather full face’ (or ‘mouth’, perhaps), contradict the impression of a lean and aquiline physiognomy conveyed by the coins he issued ‘in his own image’, which continued to identify the ruler down through Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, painted in the 1480s, to the Asterix cartoons of Albert Uderzo. Nor does Suetonius mention the genocides that Caesar – by his own account – ordered during his conquest of Gaul, atrocities frequently ignored by his admirers. The Victorian classicist Sabine Baring-Gould, for instance, who wrote the words to the hymn ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, rhapsodised over an eagle-nosed bust in the British Museum, admiring its ‘sweet, sad, patient smile, the reserve of power in the lips, and that far-off look into the heavens’. Quoting Baring-Gould and other devotees of the same sculpture (it was ‘the noblest presentment of the human countenance’, according to John Buchan), Beard allows herself a smile in reserve. Under re-examination by 20th-century curators, the bust lost its honoured plinth in the museum. Once hailed as a study done from life, it is now stored away as an 18th-century pastiche.
Beard relates many such comedies of wishful thinking. At the same time, she grants that some common physiognomic basis must underlie the muddled traces and misdirections, suspecting that even the fake busts and the comic strips converge: ‘My guess is that they would roughly have signalled “Caesar” to Roman viewers too.’ But the history she is tracing turns less on the original facts than on the signalling itself. When Rome’s sculptors and medallists fashioned imagines (heads and busts, in other words) at least half the art was in projecting markers of individual identity. Images of Caesar, for instance, often featured a distinctively wrinkled neck: we see it in the coins that he himself issued. In this they kept to the instincts of the republican era, in which the moulding of a person’s flesh by heredity, age and circumstance was seen as crucial. Classicists speculate that the imago began as an analogue to a death mask, and whether the artist chose to emphasise lopsided brows, sunken cheeks or a double chin, it showed that the subject was an experience-laden somebody. Republican politics kept many somebodies in play: the imago asserted that you had made the grade.
All this changed, as Beard explains, when Augustus took command, ending fifteen years of civil wars that followed the death of Caesar in 44 bce. Augustus, whose four-decade rule fundamentally restructured Roman government, also oversaw a redefinition of imagery. Statues and coins would now display the somebody who stood for everybody: himself. This meant the effacement of all signs of individual frailty, to arrive at a wrinkle-free effigy of ‘slightly icy perfection’. This deliberately boring image – Beard calls it ‘shockingly innovative’ – could afterwards be lightly inflected, just enough to differentiate each new successor to the throne. Here then was Roman art’s complementary aspect: something we might now call ‘idealisation’ as opposed to ‘realism’. The interplay of the two became convoluted. At the end of 69 ce – ‘the year of the four emperors’, during which warring claimants gained transient ascendancies after Nero’s suicide – Vespasian took control. He was a canny operator keen to establish a reformist profile and his imagines, chunky and characterful, suggested that Mr Everybody could also be a no-nonsense somebody. But this nod to old republican values was conditional. Suetonius, writing fifty years later, reported that the average imperial career was an unhappy one – Vespasian, his son Titus and Augustus were the only exceptions – but he entertained no thought of restoration. Empire had become the default reality.
It remained so when Renaissance humanists looked at the evidence of antiquity, after many centuries in which images of ancient caesars were little more than occasional adjuncts to sacred art. If the assertive new somebodies of the 15th century wanted a licence for self-promotion, they could turn to Jesus balancing the things that are Caesar’s against the things that are God’s, legitimising both. Why not supplement the carved and painted saints in church with secular portraits that referred back to imperial imagines? A marble by Mino da Fiesole from 1455, ‘almost the earliest free-standing portrait bust of a living person to have survived from the modern era in the West’, shows a son of Cosimo de’ Medici ‘dressed in elaborate antique armour’. Thus by way of sculpture, and by way of medals that imitated ancient coins, Beard argues, ‘Roman imperial portraits underpinned the idea of modern portraiture.’ They pitched it into a long-lasting dialogue with ancient idioms and costumes, as witnessed, for instance, in Joseph Wilton’s sculpture of George II wearing Augustus’ laurels, breastplate and cloak. When Thomas Hollis, a radical grandee of the era, commissioned his own bust from Wilton, he proclaimed his ‘anti-monarchical credentials’ with bared head and chest, but the format itself still smacked of autocracy. Caesarishness remained the norm: there weren’t many visual prototypes to go by if you wanted to look republican.
What Beard is most keen to examine, however, are the reappearances, across five centuries or more, of Augustus and Co themselves. She wants to reconnect us to an era when ‘thousands of prestige buildings’ adorned their façades with ‘coinlike profiles of emperors’, when those profiles were standard referents for describing physiognomies, and when swathes of visual culture revolved around major ‘sets’ such as the canvases painted by Titian for a camerino in the Gonzagas’ Mantua palace or a late 16th-century silver table service, surmounted by figurines of caesars and chased with narratives of their reigns, that came to be owned by the Aldobrandini family. Beard examines tapestries and history paintings that took their cues from Suetonius and such other accounts of imperial careers as we possess, all the way down to a near geometric Death of Nero composed by Vasily Smirnov in 1887 – a classicistic foretaste of Suprematism, constructed with stark bands of black and white and red. Beard notes some lightweight citations of empire from the more recent past (Uderzo’s graphics or the head of Nero on a box of matches), but her real fascination is with the vanished ceiling under which high culture once sheltered. ‘It is now almost impossible to re-imagine the European world of the 17th to 19th centuries,’ she says at one point, and repeating that refrain begins to sound almost elegiac.
‘Emperors mattered,’ Beard writes. Why, though? Her most persuasive argument is that ‘the presentation of the Gonzaga as the inheritors of the prestige and power of the Roman caesars might have been aimed not so much at outside visitors, but at the Gonzaga themselves.’ It could perhaps make the bosses feel more gung-ho about their jobs. Or – since the majority of those caesars pursued such dubious careers – they could at least serve as a schooling for the princes of the ancien régime: ‘Don’t end up like him!’ It would be satisfying to go along with this hypothesis, with Beard’s generous concern about ‘the awkwardness of power for the powerful’. But I am puzzled as to who, within a court’s internal dynamics, was actually devising the iconography for whom. Did one monarch order his designer to instruct the next? I don’t see much evidence for that. Beard is puzzled too. The more she pursues her far-reaching researches, the more she encounters ‘political edginess’ in decor decisions, such as the recherché satire deriding the Roman emperors that Antonio Verrio painted at Hampton Court in 1701. ‘What on earth,’ she wonders, ‘was the point?’
There must be a point, she thinks, because eight decades earlier, when Charles I bought the Gonzaga Titian canvases and installed some of them in his Whitehall palace, ‘Roman emperors … were used to make a point about modern monarchy.’ The Hampton Court fresco must have been ‘prompting a dialogue’, offering ‘a lens’ through which to ‘face up to monarchy’s discontents’. But there is an occupational bias to Beard’s insistent hunt for political intentions: after all, making a point is what lecturers do. What visual artists do, primarily, is fill a space. Beard is aware of this, but not entirely comfortable with it. In her introduction she addresses the assumption that caesar images were ‘little more than … expensive “wallpaper” for aristocratic or aspirational houses’, conceding that ‘sometimes that is exactly what they were.’ But to write a book about ‘little more than’ wallpaper is not what she set out to do.
The resulting iconographical quest often has to parry a suspicion that Beard herself acknowledges when she salutes ‘the beguiling power of the number twelve’. Why else would image-makers pay the same attention to each of Suetonius’ subjects – a wildly uneven assortment, ranging from the world-altering Augustus to the three mayfly pretenders of the year 69 – if not because of the satisfying, space-filling stability of three times four? In other words, the first term of Twelve Caesars may have ‘mattered’ to European visual culture no less than the second. If so, Beard’s theme isn’t necessarily diminished, but it is repositioned. She only glancingly relates her emperor images to the saint images of the Twelve Apostles. But surely Suetonius offered an orderly secular grouping that the patrons and artists of the Renaissance could adopt in imitation of an existing grouping that was orderly and sacred. This sort of meaning is more spatial than political, which is why their largely deplorable careers in office did not preclude the recirculation of their images.