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According to the French Ministry of Culture, this bust — recently found by archaeologists in the Rhône River in France — is the oldest surviving portrait of Julius Caesar, dating from 46 BC. (Tip of the hat: rogueclassicism.)
If true, that is a pretty remarkable discovery. There are almost no portrait busts of the consul who became dictator dating from his own lifetime. (46 BC was two years before his assassination.) The sculptures of Caesar that have survived are idealized figures from the Empire period.
Discoveries like this often leave me a fraction dubious, though. The official statement from the French culture ministry says, "il date sans doute de la création de la ville d’Arles en 46 avant Jésus-Christ" (it undoubtedly dates from the creation of the town of Arles in 46 BC).
Okay, from its location and surroundings, it might be possible to surmise that this sculpture dates from that year. But what reason is there to state, with such assurance, that this is a likeness of Caesar?
The culture ministry's statement says only that it is "typical of the realistic portraits of the Republican era." I do not understand the parenthetical phrase "(calvitie, traits dus à l'âge...)" that follows; help, anyone who knows French better than I?
But Arles long predates 46 B.C. It was a Greek colony for centuries earlier. It was Roman as early as 123 B.C. After the Civil War, in which Arles was canny enough to side with Caesar against Pompey, Caesar made Arles into a colony for settlement by veterans of his Sixth Legion. Rewarding his veterans with money and land was a key part of Caesar's political policy for retaining their loyalty, something that no Roman could count on in the very unsettled times of the late Republic. (I happen to remember this because I am reading a biography of Julius Caesar, by Adrian Goldsworthy.)
Caesar, I believe, was involved in the African campaign in 46 BC, or in any case not in Arles. The town would have been ruled by a local magistrate, probably under the proconsul in charge of Transalpine Gaul. My point is this: it is certainly possible that a bust of Caesar was created in Arles in 46 BC, but could have been of many other people as well, maybe even a rich private citizen.
Are archaeologists, or culture ministers, publicity hounds? Have they identified this portrait as being Caesar simply because they know that will attract the most interest … and help them get more funding for their digs?
Mind you, I'm all for archaeology. Digging up remnants of the past is fascinating, and should be funded much better than it is. (I understand that there is a treasure trove of stuff still unexcavated at Herculaneum, in danger of imminent destruction by pollution, and the archaeologists there are beside themselves with frustration because there's no money for the work to bring the artifacts to light and preserve them.)
Still, there is such a thing as intellectual honesty. Or humility in the face of what can't be known for sure. Even government culture ministries — no; especially government culture ministries — ought to keep to the straight and narrow and leave sensationalism to the tabloids.
Here is an interesting article about the archaeological finds as Rome builds a third Metro line. One problem is that they dig up so many ancient artifacts that there is no place to put them all! Incredibly, it seems that some are just being recorded and destroyed. What a waste. Surely there could be some kind of "you come take it away, it's yours" system. I'd be glad to do my bit by accepting an interesting piece of the ancient world, even if it wasn't of any great historic or artistic importance.