book reviews

Book Review: Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard

Title: Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern
Author: Mary Beard
Dates read: 27/12/2021 – 09/01/22
Rating 3/5

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Number of pages: 392
Fiction or non-fiction: non-fiction
Subject or genre: art history, history

Book Blurb From the bestselling author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, the fascinating story of how images of Roman autocrats have influenced art, culture, and the representation of power for more than 2,000 years

What does the face of power look like? Who gets commemorated in art and why? And how do we react to statues of politicians we deplore? In this book–against a background of today’s “sculpture wars”–Mary Beard tells the story of how for more than two millennia portraits of the rich, powerful, and famous in the western world have been shaped by the image of Roman emperors, especially the “twelve Caesars,” from the ruthless Julius Caesar to the fly-torturing Domitian. Twelve Caesars asks why these murderous autocrats have loomed so large in art from antiquity and the Renaissance to today, when hapless leaders are still caricatured as Neros fiddling while Rome burns.

Beginning with the importance of imperial portraits in Roman politics, this richly illustrated book offers a tour through 2,000 years of art and cultural history, presenting a fresh look at works by artists from Memling and Mantegna to the nineteenth-century African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, as well as by generations of now-forgotten weavers, cabinetmakers, silversmiths, printers, and ceramicists. Rather than a story of a simple repetition of stable, blandly conservative images of imperial men and women, Twelve Caesars is an unexpected tale of changing identities, clueless or deliberate misidentifications, fakes, and often ambivalent representations of authority.

From Beard’s reconstruction of Titian’s extraordinary lost Room of the Emperors to her reinterpretation of Henry VIII’s famous Caesarian tapestries, Twelve Caesars includes some fascinating detective work and offers a gripping story of some of the most challenging and disturbing portraits of power ever created.

Published in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

How I discovered or acquired this book: I’ve been a fan of Mary Beard for a while and had just finished doing a classical studies unit in my Open University module. I’d also watched recently watched an online lecture Mary gave about Nero.

My thoughts: This wasn’t quite the book I was expecting it to be. Perhaps if I’d looked more into it before checking it out the library, past ‘ooh the library has the new Mary Beard, ooh the 12 Caesars’ I wouldn’t actually have read it. I was expecting it to be more of a history of the Twelve Caesars. I was expecting classical antiquity, the twelve Caesars, Roman politics, revolutions, and wars. I was not expecting a trip through art history. It started off pretty interestingly, looking at sculpture, paintings, engravings and coins but it got a little repetitive if I’m honest – a lot of telling us how much we don’t know about ancient art and discussions on different art historians thoughts on the authenticity of pieces. Which, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not my thing and wasn’t what I was expecting to read.