Wednesday, May 14, 2008

They came, they saw, they issued a press release

A certified Obama-free posting™ !
No artificial ingredients


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.



Mary Jane said...

This may be the bust of Tiberius Claudius Nero, Caesar's quaestor and the actual founder of the colony. See my first comment here:

Furthermore there is one undisputed lifetime portrait of Caesar, the so-called "Tusculum Caesar":

Rick Darby said...

Mary Jane,

Ah, yes. As soon as I saw that "Tusculum Caesar" I remembered it; Adrian Goldsworthy includes it in his Caesar biography.

One of the lessons I took away from the book (which I haven't quite finished yet -- can't wait to find out if the plot to assassinate Caesar is foiled at the last moment) is how vulnerable Caesar's grip on power was, despite his incredible string of military victories and the unprecedented powers voted him by the Senate. There was always bitter opposition to him from one quarter or another, even after Pompey and Cato were dead.

Further, he was rarely in one place, including Rome, for very long. It's no exaggeration to say he spent most of his adult life in military campaigns, even after defeating Pompey. So it shouldn't surprise us if there are almost no portraits done from life. He scarcely would have had time to pose for one!

Thanks for your comment. I was hoping to get a reaction from classicists.

Mary Jane said...

The earliest known portrait of Caesar is on a coin from Nicaea, either from 48BC or 47BC:

The interesting thing however is that it shows Caesar as a young person. (Notice the hair near his forehead. ^_^)

But I think there were lots of portraits made of Caesar (cp. e.g. the many images on his coins), but either most of them didn't survive, or single "official" portraits (like the Tusculum Caesar) were preferred (cp. the dependency of the Corinth Caesar on the Tusculum Caesar), or the old portraits were abolished under Augustus, because Roman aesthetics became more hellenized and Caesar was visually re-invented as the god Divus Iulius, which we definitely know from coins and later statues.

On the assassination plot: I could tell you lot about that and about Caesar's vulnerability, but since you don't seem to know the outcome, I don't want to spoil the fun. (~_^) Let me know when you've finished the book and I'll add more later.

Rick Darby said...

Mary Jane,

Thanks for the coin portrait. Who issued it?

How do I get in touch with you when I've finished the book?

Are you a numismatist or classical scholar?

Mary Jane said...

I'm afraid I don't know who issued it. Today I found the coin in an article by Reinhard Herbig on Caesar's iconography, but Herbig only writes that the coin was in the collection of the Ist. Studi Romani in Rome. It may be a portrait referring to the times when he had fled Rome to the East in order to evade Sulla.

Another coin mentioned by Herbig is one from Corinth, namely this one:

The Corinth issue (LAVS IVLI CORINT) started in 46 and probably ended in 44 or 43 BC. It is definitely the imperator Caesar (cf. the laurel wreath), but according to Herbig, his features might echo Caesar as a younger person, which is feasible, because the Greek always tended to rejuvenate the iconography, which in Rome was only done after Caesar's death and apotheosis.

As for getting in touch: just leave a "Finished!" here, and I'll know. (~_^)

Mary Jane said...

By the way, concerning your first comment: a very good book on the vulnerability (or rather "powerlessness") of Caesar's power is this one:

But I fear that there's no English translation. Meier (and others) have made the case that Caesar had been constrained in bringing about the change that he envisioned. (It had to take the tyrannical and polarizing Augustus, after decades of wearing down and demoralizing the political sphere, to finish Caesar's plans.)

Caesar had always characterized himself by his speed and agility, lean and mean politics, but also by clemency, unity, charity, non-divisiveness and a new kind of liberty. But in Rome it was fairly saturated and inert, there were vested interests of many old-school Republicans, who were not very keen on revolution, equality and brotherliness. Furthermore Caesar was very much confined by the open flattery, divine and semi-divine honors, with which the Romans approached him ceaselessly. Caesar couldn't reject all of them (he surely also welcomed it to some extent), but he seemed to have lost the balance and the sense of proportion.

Mary Jane said...

One last thing… I didn't see your question: I'm not a "scholar". I did study Roman history and the history of religion for a few years, but switched to freelance research, because it's hard to find courses of study that specialize on Caesar's deification and cult, which is my primary field of interest. So I've been preoccupied with Caesar (and especially the civil war) as well as his apotheosis and cult for a few years now. It seems that I know more than the average person (incl. numismatics and epigraphy), but I don't have any academic credentials in this field.

Rick Darby said...

"It seems that I know more than the average person (incl. numismatics and epigraphy), but I don't have any academic credentials in this field."

If you hadn't guessed, I have none either!

Rick Darby said...

I must say I am very pleased that this posting has drawn so much readership, mainly thanks to the link from rogueclassicism. Those of us with an interest in classical antiquity, and who are not professionally involved in the field, are likely to feel like isolated oddballs. Well, that describes me to a T, but it's good to connect with others who try to keep up with the latest from 2,000 to 2,500 years ago.

Rick Darby said...

Mary Jane,

I have finished the Caesar bio.

Like most people who have looked at the man's life, I came away with very mixed feelings about him. There is much to respect and admire -- his obvious intelligence and tactical brilliance, his lenience toward defeated enemies (as long as they made no more trouble for him), and what appears to have been a genuine concern for the less well-born Romans.

Of course his self-interest came first, and he helped put an end to the Republic. You could argue (and I'm sure it has been) that the Republic, having suffered periodic crises for more than a century, was doomed anyway. But I can understand why even some of his admirers felt that a dictatorship of indefinite length just wasn't on, and that there was no choice but to end it the way they did.

Possibly the tragedy of Caesar was the time he lived in. He perhaps couldn't afford to give in to his best impulses, or his enemies would have crushed him. In a more stable, less corrupt era he might have been a hero and distinguished Senator within the Republican system.