Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Debate Over Caesar's Head

When French archaeologists dug up a Roman bust from the bottom of the Rhone River in Arles, I was immediately sceptical about its identification. It was claimed that the bust depicted Julius Caesar and had been produced during his lifetime. Now, two years later, the statue has been restored and studied and scholars are in disagreement over who the bust depicts. Portraits of Caesar are rare and none exist that date from his lifetime (except those on coins). The sculptures that have been identified as Caesar are idealized and it is hard to determine his true likeness.

The archaeologists who found the bust say that it looks like Caesar and is from the mid 40's BCE. I disagree, and I'm not the only one. First of all, the bust was found in the Rhone River out of any discernible context. Without context, little can be known about the statue outside of an art historical perspective. What does that art historical context tell us? The statue is clearly Roman but it is impossible to date down to Caesar's lifetime as claimed by the French. Roman portraiture didn't change much over several centuries and this bust could easily be from either the 1st centuries BCE or CE. Without any context, it's nearly impossible to date the statue to a five year span. Furthermore, the article below quotes one of the French archaeologists dismissing criticism, asking "which noble from Arles would order a bust of himself made in the best, the most expensive and rare marble, and ship it by boat?" I strongly disagree with that statement for many reasons. First, Arles was heavily Romanized in the last 1st century BCE and any aspiring, wealthy citizen would have desired such a bust as a symbol of their position in society. Also, what was the context in which this bust was found? Was it found in a boat, and if so when does the boat date from? Who's to say that this bust ended up on the river bottom in Roman times? I understand that this bust was found on the river bottom, and there are many reasons why it could have ended up their. The only information I have been able to learn is that this bust was found with other Roman artifacts, including a 3rd century statue of Neptune. If there is more detailed information about the archaeological context of this bust, it needs to be published to place the artifacts in context.
Claiming that Roman statues represent famous Romans is a long lived and misguided aspect of art history. From the earliest discoveries of Roman statuary, nearly every statue dug up had a name assigned to it and most of the time the identification was completely arbitrary. The study of coin portraits led to more accurate identification of some statues, mainly emperors and their family, but old habits apparently die hard. Could this bust in Arles depict Caesar? It is possible, but I don't believe the evidence is at hand. Jumping to conclusions does nothing but stand in the way of serious scholarship.


Aeneas said...


I saw this article in NYT and was fascinated. I'm here less to comment on the article and more to greet a fellow classicist. I too am trying to get a Phd in Classics, so best of luck to you sir!