Archaeology Magazine Archive

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(Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images)

French archaeologists announced that divers working in the Rhone River near Arles in the south of France discovered "the oldest portrait of Julius Caesar" ever found. Or did they? The impressive marble bust was salvaged along with many other high-quality artifacts including a large marble statue of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Many reports about the discovery jumped at the idea that the bust was the earliest portrait in part because Caesar supposedly founded Arles (Roman Arelate) in 46 B.C. However, the dictator was actually not the colony's founder, but rather its pater (father). There is only one securely identified lifetime portrait of Julius Caesar (although there are many posthumous ones), and the Arles bust has some distinct differences from the so-called Tusculum Caesar. While many of these details might be noticed by only the most sensitive Roman sculpture expert, the overall impression the bust makes even to the relative novice is that is not the same Caesar. Distinguished classicist Mary Beard of Cambridge University even goes so far as to say, "There is, I suppose, a remote possibility that it does represent Julius Caesar, but no particular reason at all to think that it does." Furthermore, the suggestion by the project's lead archaeologist that someone threw the bust into the river after Caesar was assassinated in order to avoid association with the dictator seems a bit far-fetched, especially since after his death Caesar was elevated to the status of a god. There's no evidence for a watery damnatio memoriae, the Roman state's official obliteration of the memory of especially hated individuals. Nonetheless, the bust is a particularly well-preserved and stunning work of Roman Republican portraiture, which is characterized by realism and expressiveness over the blander and more idealizing style of the later Imperial period. If not for the finds of the much more securely-identified colossal Imperial statues from Sagalassos, it might have been in this year's Top Ten list.

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