Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern (Paperback)

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Staff Reviews

The brilliant Mary Beard's Twelve Caesars examines both how autocratic rule was presented contemporaneously in the visual rhetoric of Ancient Rome (Julius Caesar was literally the first person to come up with putting a ruler's face on the coinage; each emperor exporting his visage in mass production throughout the empire) and how the images of Roman emperors have been consistently used from the Middle Ages to the present in not only art but also in more maligned genres like engraving, plateware, chair backing, political caricatures of a politician with lyre and flames in the background etc. Beard moves from the Roman biographer and gossip Suetonius and the ancient anonymous portrait busts of emperors and “emperors” to Medieval stained glass, from Titian & Rubens to the reception of particular works (a massive “imperial” sarcophagus in which Andrew Jackson refused to be buried), to the African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Twelve Caesars is as much about Roman emperors as it is about the history and practice of identifying or misidentifying them, about how their iconography has lasted two millennia, and how they mean power.

Dafydd Wood


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 American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, as well as by generations of 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 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 Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

About the Author

Mary Beard is one of the world's leading classicists and cultural commentators, and the author of bestselling and award-winning books, including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Women and Power: A Manifesto. A specialist in Roman history and art, she has also written and presented many television programs, from Civilisations and Meet the Romans to The Shock of the Nude.

Product Details
ISBN: 9780691225876
ISBN-10: 0691225877
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication Date: September 12th, 2023
Pages: 392
Language: English