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

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

by Mary Beard

Unabridged — 10 hours, 11 minutes

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

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

by Mary Beard

Unabridged — 10 hours, 11 minutes

Mary Beard

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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

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Editorial Reviews

Christian Science Monitor

"[A] fascinating book, which embarks on a study of not just the Julio-Claudian dynasty of caesars made infamous by Suetonius and Robert Graves but also of their ubiquitous iconography – in statues, on coins, in paintings and sculpture. It’s an eye-catching field guide to these famous ancient rulers."

Canberra Weekly

"An enthralling story of how images of Roman emperors have influenced art, culture, and the representation of power for more than 2,000 years. . . . Drawing on a wealth of research, and a multitude of paintings and sculptures, Beard explores the importance of portraits in Roman politics and provides interesting insights into famous pieces of art. A fascinating book."

From the Publisher

A Library Journal Fall 2021 Nonfiction Must

"A Barnes & Noble Best History Book of the Year"

"One of Kirkus Reviews' Best Nonfiction Books of the Year"

"One of Kirkus Reviews' Best Biographies of the Year"

"A Waterstones Best History Book of 2021"

"A CapX Book of the Year"

ARTnews Magazine

"With her reputation for viewing Roman history through a feminist lens, Mary Beard may be the most popular classicist in the world. . . . Focusing on images of power throughout the ages, from ancient Rome to the present, [Twelve Caesars] will only grow her fan base."

New Yorker

"This thoroughgoing survey examines the relationship between ancient imperial imagery and the modern visual imagination. . . . With handsome illustrations of coins, canvases, frescoes, and teacups, Beard brings the prestige and power of these emperors’ half-invented faces into tighter focus."

B&N Reads

"A sumptuously illustrated, beautifully designed, gloriously rich work of history from the distinguished classicist with a lively literary voice, an extraordinary eye for telling detail, and a grand sense of humor. Twelve Caesars is a masterful, brilliant work of detection, a joy to read."

Margaret Atwood

"What better escape from the woes of our present day than rolling around in the intrigues of the Roman Empire? Naughty Caesars! Pictures too! Avidly I plunge in!"

New York Times

"This deeply researched account explores how Roman art has shaped the Western world’s understanding of power for two millenniums, from ancient Roman imperial portraits to the work of the 19th-century American sculptor Edmonia Lewis."

Margaret Atwood on Twitter

"What better escape from the woes of our present day than rolling around in the intrigues of the Roman Empire? Naughty Caesars! Pictures too! Avidly I plunge in!"

Library Journal


Images of Roman emperors have been emblems for centuries, even as they change in meaning and medium throughout time, from sculptures to coins to tapestries to paintings. Classicist Beard (Univ. of Cambridge; SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome) argues, with characteristic incisive prose and wit, that we can learn much about an era from its images of the central "Twelve Caesars" and the way they were used and understood at that time (despite disagreement on that canon of caesars). She also argues that in spite of the evolution of the Twelve Caesars in image and concept, some aspects of the narrative never changed. Beard explains that wishful thinking and misreadings of Latin abound in establishing the identities and provenances of artworks and antiquities depicting Roman emperors. When the symbolism of a portrait would seem to go against the ideological tenor of its era, Beard cuts through scholarly speculation; she points out that anachronism might result from simple misidentification or the prosaic decorative and acquisitive aspects of collecting imperial images. Assembling a full set of caesars was, and is, a common pursuit of collectors, Beard writes, and for rich and powerful collectors, it was all the better if the portraits tied their owner's legacy to the continuity of Roman power. Extensive illustrations of emperors and their likenesses are featured throughout the book. VERDICT Based on a series of Beard's lectures, this lavishly illustrated volume will be accessible and interesting to a wide variety of readers; a must-read for anyone interested in classics or art history—Margaret Heller, Loyola Univ. Chicago Libs.

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2021-08-25
The renowned classicist and bestselling author of SPQR (2015) considers Rome’s first rulers as they have come down to us in marble, stone, coins, and metals.

During the time of the Roman Empire, artists churned out an avalanche of portraits of Rome’s emperors, a trend that continued after their deaths, beyond the fall of the empire, and during the centuries following up to the modern age. Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, which later became one of “the most popular history books of the European Renaissance,” contains the only surviving physical descriptions. Many modern historians, however, consider his stories “the gossip of the palace corridors, or even outright fantasy, but…they have become inextricably part of our view of Roman emperors.” No statue from ancient times has a label; this is not the case with innumerable Roman coins minted during their reigns, but the tiny heads are little help. Beard points out that beginning in the Renaissance, rulers and wealthy patrons not only collected images of emperors and their consorts—or, more likely, a copy, fake, or image of someone else—but they also began portraying themselves as if they were Roman. A leading scholar as well as a writer of bestsellers, Beard, as always, asks important questions: What did the Caesars look like? Did the artists themselves care? Why did European plutocrats, aristocrats, and monarchs like to see themselves in togas? She leads us through the best available evidence (even if it’s not always satisfying) and delivers insightful answers in lucid prose accompanied by dazzling images. Along with a steady stream of commentary on portraits, sculptures, and prints, the author devotes long sections to artistic masterpieces, including tapestries, murals, enormous historical paintings, and Titian’s spectacular room of the Caesars (11 of them, not Suetonius’ 12), now lost.

A lively treatise on Roman art and power, deliciously opinionated and beautifully illustrated.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940175521383
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/07/2022
Edition description: Unabridged

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