Eleventh Annual Leon Levy Lecture

supported by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation

The Roman Caesars in Modern Art: Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge, Fellow of Newnham College
November 2, 2017 at 6pm

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 19, Fall 2017.

This lecture will explore the representations of The Twelve Caesars (from Julius Caesar to Domitian) in western art since the Renaissance, aiming to show that they are a much more difficult, edgy, and contested art form than those standard line-ups of busts on museum shelves would suggest. Examples will range from ceramic to waxwork, stone to silver, and they will include the extraordinary set of sixteenth-century Silver Caesars (known as the Aldobrandini Tazze), which are shortly to feature in their own show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. One underlying question (often taken far too much for granted) is why generations of dynasts, autocrats, the old and the new rich, chose to decorate their homes and palaces with this collection of (largely) monsters.

A woman in a red shirt and black slacks sits on a stone stair and looks into the camera.Mary Beard is one of Britain’s best known Classicists—a distinguished Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Newnham College, where she has taught for the last 30 years. She has written numerous books on the ancient world, including the 2008 Wolfson Prize-winner, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, which portrays a vivid account of life in Pompeii in all its aspects from food to sex to politics. Previous books include The Roman Triumph, Classical Art from Greece to Rome and books on the Parthenon and the Colosseum. Her interests range from the social and cultural life of ancient Greece and Rome to the Victorian understanding of antiquity. Her latest book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome was published in 2015 to critical and popular acclaim.

 In addition, Prof. Beard is Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement and writes an engaging blog, A Don’s Life, selections of which have been published in book form. In 2013 Confronting the Classics was published, a collection of essays and reviews that she has written over the last 20 years for the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, and New York Review of Books.

Prof. Beard has been invited to deliver various prestigious lecture series. In 2008 she was Visiting Sather Professor of Classical Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where she gave the Sather Lectures on Roman laughter. A based on the lectures, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, was published by the University of California Press. In 2011 she delivered the Sixtieth A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on the imagery of the Caesars. Prof. Beard’s academic achievement was acknowledged, in 2010, by the British Academy, which elected her as a Fellow, and in October 2011 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as a Foreign Honorary Member. In 2012 she was also elected as an International Member of the American Philosophical Society. In the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list for 2013, she was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for services to Classical scholarship. In 2014 The Royal Academy elected her as Professor of Ancient Literature, an honorary position first instituted in 1770, and most recently in 2016 she was awarded the prestigious Spanish prize, the Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences.

Prof. Beard is a regular broadcaster and commentator on radio and television, on programs such as BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, and has written and presented television documentaries on Pompeii and Caligula, as well as the highly acclaimed TV series, Meet the Romans and Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit. She has recently finished filming for the new BBC landmark Civilisation series.