Gaius Julius Caesar was born into a Roman patrician family in mid-July 100 BCE.  Having progressed though the cursus honorum (a sequential journey made up of public and military offices, designed for men of senatorial rank), he gained popular Roman approval and by 63 BCE was elected as Pontifex Maximus. Caesar subsequently held various other offices and gubernatorial roles, whilst further illustrating his military prowess in Spain, North Africa, Greece, Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. In 44 BCE, the year of his assassination, Caesar became Dictator Perpetuo. In 42 BCE the senate declared that he would be recognised as a god.

According to the ancient biographer Suetonius, Caesar was, “tall, of a fair complexion, round limbed, rather full faced, with eyes black and piercing… [and] he enjoyed excellent health, except towards the close of his life.” Furthermore, he appeared to be pedantic about his appearance, so much so, “that he not only kept the hair of his head closely cut and had his face smoothly shaved, but used the hair on other parts of the body to be plucked out by the roots. His baldness gave him much uneasiness, having often found himself upon that account exposed to the jibes of his enemies. He therefore used to bring forward the hair from the crown of his head; and of all the honours conferred upon him by the senate and people, there was none which he either accepted or used with greater pleasure, than the right of wearing constantly a laurel crown.”

The Tusculum portrait bust appears to provide a likeness of Julius Caesar just prior to his death. The essence of the youthful Caesar that Suetonius describes appears absent from this sculpture. Instead, the viewer is confronted by a man rather than a god: his face and neck lined with age and his his bulging irregular cranium barely covered by sparse and receding hair. 

Conversely, the Chiaramonti portrait bust, likely executed during the time that Augustus (Caesar’s nephew, adopted son and predecessor) held office, treats the viewer to a powerful and idealised experience. The facial lines that reflect the subject’s political gravitas, vast military experience and maturity are present, yet appear soft enough to suggest that age nor time could rob the divine sitter of physical power. Furthermore, the dramatically receding hairline, so evident in the Tusculum portrait bust, is barely noticeable in the Chiaramonti version. Accordingly, the literary portrait of a balding, self-consious Caesar, provided by Suetonius bears little resemblance to the thick-haired, relaxed and confident Chiaramonti Divus Iulius. 

References: C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Complete To Which Are Added, His Lives Of The Grammarians, Rhetoricians, And Poets, Project Gutenberg, 2016. 

E Badian, “Caesar’s Cursus and the Intervals Between Offices,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 49, Parts 1 and 2 (1959), pp. 81-89. 

Publius Ovidius Naso, Ovid’s Fasti: Roman Holidays, trans. Betty Rose Nagle, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1995.

Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth and Esther Eidenhow eds., The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Images: Portrait Bust of Julius Caesar, circa 44 BCE, marble, Turin, Museo di Antichita.

The Chiaramonti Caesar, 30-20 BCE, marble, Rome, Musei Vaticani

Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.

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