Tag Archives: augustus

Briefly revisiting Julius Caesar

In my recent post, “‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?”, I may have come off a bit hard on the now-traditional reading of Roman history that Augustus, not his Great Uncle C. Julius Caesar, was the first emperor. If we ask ourselves what, legally and constitutionally, the emperors have in common, it is clear that Augustus has it and Julius does not. That I never doubted.

What I wanted to do was to engage with the idea of Julius Caesar as emperor — an idea that most ancient Romans themselves believed. Even if our vision of Roman history is clearer than theirs, their vision was still, well, theirs.

The Roman and mediaeval belief in Julius Caesar as emperor demonstrates to us a few things:

The pro-Julius campaign of his immediate successors and then of the dynasty that bore his name seems to have been successful. Rather than being just another Late Republican dictator — even if dictator perpetuus — Julius Caesar is raised to the status of an emperor among emperors, alongside the luminaries such as his illustrious successor Augustus and the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius — not to mention the less shining holders of Roman imperium such as Caligula or Commodus.

Augustus pretended to restore the Republic, and future generations would see him as the legitimate successor to the first emperor rather than the creator of something entirely new. Fictions both, but powerful ones.

Second, we are blessed with clearer vision than our forebears. This is not say that they were bumpkins who knew no better than just to simply say, ‘Oh, Julius Caesar. First Emperor of Rome.’ They believed a falsehood — but doing history for them was a lot harder than it is for us.

The necessary primary source documents for Roman history are available to us in the same wording with indices at the back, for one thing (that is, in modern printed editions). We are not confronted with inscribed laws scattered all over the Mediterranean. When we go to a library, we are not looking through a series of papyrus scrolls stored in leather tubes. Our chronicles are manageably published in codices. The Roman imperial archive has been shown to be efficient enough to draft laws in Late Antiquity, but not very efficient by modern standards; finding what exactly you want could be a very difficult labour, indeed. The task of the historian would have been very, very different and difficult back then.

Furthermore, our goals are different. Tacitus is one of the few Roman historians who claims to be seeking just the truth without malice or bias. As inevitable as all bias is, most ancient writers did not try very hard to tone theirs down. There is always an ulterior motive to ancient and mediaeval history writing — conveniently, they tend to let it out (whereas we try to hide our bias and ulterior motives). Thus, some truths get lost in the thick of the thrill of the fight, in the midst of the moralising tales, in among the desire to flatter some men and scorn others.

As a result, for whatever reason, it was perfectly normal for ancient Romans to consider Julius Caesar the first emperor. We usually stop there and say that they were wrong. But if we consider why they were wrong, we find a few more insights into the Roman world and mindset. These are just the insights from some general remarks about Roman society — imagine what a proper study of the sources about Julius Caesar would find us!

Seductive Suetonius

I am reading Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, in my spare time right now.* I’ve read three Caesars — Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius.

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI posted as my Facebook status the other night that when Augustus (pictured left in a cameo at the Bibliotheque nationale de France that I happily viewed) died, I was a bit sad. It’s true. Suetonius takes you on this journey with Augustus wherein you see the many things he did, allegedly to better the Roman imperium, you learn about his character, all that stuff. And when he dies, with that line about them applauding him if he’d played his part well, and then his last words to Livia — it’s a sad scene.

The Green CaesarJulius Caesar (pictured right as viewed by me at the Altes Museum, Berlin), the first of the Twelve, on the other hand — that is the death you know is coming. This is probably one of the most famous assassinations in all history, if not the most famous. Certainly the most famous ancient assassination. So when the Ides of March come, you don’t need Shakespeare to tell you that bad stuff is going to go down. Suetonius has brought us to this point of inevitability, building it up with portents, omens, soothsayers, and Caesar’s own attitude towards it all. I felt no sorrow. Just the weight of necessity.

Tiberius (left, no photo of mine since that section of the Vatican Museums was closed the day I went!) — well, no one’s sad that Tiberius dies. His biography is interesting in that it starts off with him as a pretty decent senator and member of the imperial family. And then it descends into the dark caverns of Tiberius’ appetite for wine, boys, and song (if you will), his bloodthirstiness, his neglect of the Eternal City, and so forth. So when he dies, there is almost a sense of relief. Almost as though, ‘The city can be free!’

Of course, we all know Gaius’ nickname — Caligula — so we know it won’t be so. The same is true Suetonius’ original audience, I reckon. Who among the senatorial class of the 100s wouldn’t have had the names of the infamous emperors etched into his memory?

Nonetheless, equipped with this knowledge, Suetonius seduces you into his narrative, into his tales. Well, he seduced me, anyway. I felt what I was supposed to feel with all three deaths. He painted for me the portraits he wanted to, and my subconscious was drawn into those images.

Now, I know that the truth of all three of these men is not entirely Suetonius, both in terms of nuance as well as in omissions or additions to the historical record. I’m not a dummy; I know how to read a source better than that.

But Roman historians aren’t just sources — they are writers of literature. Indeed, history is included amongst the branches of literature, not philosophy, in the ancient handbooks. And so, to look at Suetonius as a writer, I find him seductive. His story and his vivid portraits draw me in.

Tomorrow I’ll begin Caligula.

*For work I’m reading Augustine, City of God, and a whole bunch of manuscripts, so the Early Empire = not work.

Ancient Things found in Paris

Me at the Roman Baths

In Paris, I have seen Roman Baths in the Musée du Moyen-Age and some remains of the Roman wall and some of a hypocaust system on Ile-de-la-Cité beneath the Parvis de Notre-Dame.

But the Musée du Louvre is one of the best places for the Classicist in Paris.

This morning I saw a bunch of paintings (there was some wee pic of a lady called the Mona Lisa, but whatev), and then, besides the Victory of Samothrace, I observed with some enjoyment a bunch of Greek vases and some Cypriot artefacts, ending the morning with the quickest run through an Egyptian exhibit in my life.* Then I dined.

The Victory of Samothrace

Following lunch, I went off to visit the rest of the Greco-Roman antiquities at the Musée du Louvre. I saw a very lovley Etruscan funerary statue of a couple, then a variety of other interesting things.

But things got really exciting for me when I wandered into a gallery and saw the head of a woman from a three-quarter view from behind. There she was, with that bun at the lower back of her head as well as the distinctive pouff of hair at the front. The Empress Livia (58 BC – AD 29), wife of Augustus (63 BC – AD 14). I danced over, and proclaimed, ‘Yes!’ quietly as I surveyed the sign.

Empress Livia (d. AD 29), wife of Emperor Augustus

Emperor Augustus (d. AD 14)

Then I danced over to a statue of … yes, Augustus! (Fist-pump!) Plus three Augustus heads! This was an Early Imperial treasure trove! Smiling with glee, I made my way to the start of this particular gallery of Roman art. Ah, yes, a Late Republican head. You can tell, the realism and severity reflect the uncertainty of the times.

Severe Late Republican Head (c. 50 BC)

Like a child, I surveyed the art in this room. And … what’s this? The Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus? You don’t say! How exciting!

‘Altar’ of ‘Domitius Ahenobarbus’ (late 2nd c. BC)

Mars (detail from Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus)

Detail of the cow for sacrifice (Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus)

I was also quite smitten by the examples of Roman wall painting. Very nice. Especially the fairy-eared, winged fellow. Looks like what C S Lewis dubbed the longaevi in his book The Discarded Image.

A longaevus? (from a villa near Pompeii)

Roman portraiture is so vivid, so real. I felt like I was looking at Agrippa himself (right-hand man of Augustus, 63 – 12 BC). I mean, pallid and bodiless. But, still. Agrippa. The man himself.

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63 -12 BC)

And then that heroic nude of Marcellus.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, nephew and son-in-law of Augustus (42 -23 BC)

Also … indeed! Indeed! The Ara Pacis! How wonderful! I mean, a fragment. But, still! Look at the relief carving! Look at the folds of that drapery! The skill, the essence of the moment!

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

Indeed, the skill of the ancients at drapery is one of the things that most caught my eye today, as in this statue of Empress Messalina:

Empress Valeria Messalina (AD 17-48), third wife of Emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), and their son Britannicus (AD 41-55)

Or cute, little Nero:

Nero (AD 37-68), c. AD 50

Not that statuary is all that those Romans were good at. No, indeed. There was also a mosaic:

The Judgement of Paris, from Antioch c. AD 115-150

Continuing along, after a lovely double-faced stele with relief carvings from the cult of Mithras, I happily identified Marcus Aurelius (fist-pump, ‘Yes!’), and was enraptured by the luscious locks of Lucius Verus.

I even saw the head of a flamen. That’s right.

A flamen, an ancient Roman priest, c. AD 250-265

And then I giggled with glee upon seeing my fifth-century imperial friends, Theodosius II and Leo I. Good seeing you, guys. Great, in fact.

(Eastern) Roman Emperor Theodosius II (r. AD 408-450)

(Eastern) Roman Emperor Leo I (r. AD 457-474)

I continued on to have many grand adventures amongst the Greek statuary, including the mob that continually throngs the Venus de Milo — with the excitement of a lady who actually stepped over the barrier and laid a hand upon the statue for a photo! AS IF! She got yelled at and merrily stepped out.

The Venus de Milo (c. 130 – 100 BC); Look at that drapery!

I am also fond of the less famous Venus of Arles, by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles (370-330 BC)

‘Vieux Pecheur’ (aka Seneca Dying), 2nd century AD

There were other Roman statues I enjoyed, such as Sénèque Mourant and one of Trajan that stands within the tradition of the Prima Porta Augustus. And a lovely porphyra Minerva. Although things get blurred — is that Greek or Roman?

As I surveyed the various Graeco-Roman antiquities on display in the Louvre, I was a bit miffed at how many people breezed by. As though, if it’s not the Victory of Samothrace or Venus de Milo, who cares about ancient art? I mean — part of the Ara Pacis! Trajan in your face! Livia, identifiable across the room!

But as I ran out of steam and entered rooms I knew less about, containing paintings/artefacts I enjoyed less than the Roman world, I started breezing through. No doubt a Rubens enthusiast would have shaken her head or an expert on Van Dyck would have told me that King Charles I wasn’t the only thing worth noting in that room.

But there is too much, I only have my own specialised knowledge. Yet this serves as a reminder that my knowledge increases my love of the art — and the art makes the world I have studied that much more real.

*I have seen Egyptian exhibits at the Glenbow, the ROM, in Egypt, in Milan, in Scotland, and at the Ashmolean Museum. Not counting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, until my most recent visit to the Ashmolean, there was rarely anything new to say.