Mistaken Identities: How to Identify a Roman Emperor | Summary and Q&A

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October 28, 2011
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Stanford
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Mistaken Identities: How to Identify a Roman Emperor

TL;DR

The identification of ancient Roman emperors and their portraits has been a subject of debate and misidentification for centuries, highlighting the fluidity and ambiguity of ancient image making.

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Questions & Answers

Q: Why is it difficult to identify Roman emperors based on portrait images?

The lack of surviving portrait images with names and the ambiguity of ancient descriptions and coins make it challenging to definitively identify Roman emperors based on their portraits.

Q: What role did misidentifications play in ancient Roman society?

Misidentifications of portraits were important for succession and dynastic legitimacy. Similarity and ambiguity in the portraits of imperial family members helped in parading and legitimizing the next ruler.

Q: How have misidentifications influenced modern art and scholarship?

Misidentifications have been a subject of fascination and inspiration for artists and scholars. They have been portrayed in paintings, informed cultural and historical analyses, and opened up discussions about the fluidity and interpretation of ancient imagery.

Q: What impact did misidentifications have on the perception of historical figures like Agrippina and Vitellius?

Misidentifications of figures like Agrippina and Vitellius in art and scholarship have shaped public perception and created ambiguity regarding their roles and actions in history. These misidentifications have been instrumental in influencing interpretations and creating cultural narratives.

Summary

This video lecture discusses the misidentification of Roman emperors in ancient and modern art. The speaker focuses on the images of Julius Caesar and the Julio-Claudian emperors, highlighting the challenges of correctly identifying ancient portraits and the impact of misidentifications on our perception of these figures. The lecture also explores the cultural and historical significance of the misidentification of emperors in art, emphasizing the fluidity of identification throughout history.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the significance of the recently discovered portrait of Julius Caesar?

The recently discovered portrait of Julius Caesar has generated a lot of attention and excitement because it is believed to be a carved image of Caesar from his own lifetime. However, its authenticity has been questioned due to its differences from other supposed portraits of Caesar. This highlights the challenge of identifying Roman portraits and the questionable methods used in the process.

Q: How many books has Mary Beard written on various aspects of ancient civilization?

Mary Beard has written a total of 10 books on various aspects of ancient civilization. This includes books on Roman religion, Roman history, and biographies of notable individuals in ancient Rome.

Q: How has Mary Beard's work in classics reached a wider audience?

Mary Beard's work in classics has reached a wider audience through various means. She has produced a TV series on Pompeii that aired on the BBC, providing an update on what is known about the famous site. She is also an editor for the Time's Literary Supplement, where she educates the public about developments in the field. Additionally, Mary maintains a popular blog called "A Don's Life," which offers insights into the world of classic scholars.

Q: What is the history of misidentifications in Roman portraiture?

The history of misidentifications in Roman portraiture spans centuries and has been a continuous challenge for art historians. This is particularly evident in the identification of Roman emperors, where misidentifications have been more common than correct identifications. The methods used to make these identifications have remained largely unchanged, with art historians comparing and contrasting images, though different interpretations have led to different identifications.

Q: How have modern scholars attempted to identify images of Roman emperors?

Modern scholars have attempted to identify images of Roman emperors by focusing on key diagnostic features, such as hairstyles and facial features. For example, the layout of locks of hair has been closely studied in order to identify distinct portrait types. However, despite these efforts, there is still much debate and uncertainty surrounding the identification of Roman emperors in portrait images.

Q: What is the significance of the similarity in portraits of the Julio-Claudian emperors?

The similarity in portraits of the Julio-Claudian emperors is intentional and reflects the dynastic nature of their rule. The portraits were meant to make the heirs and rulers look similar to one another, emphasizing the continuity and legitimacy of the dynasty. This intentional blurring of individuality allowed for a smooth transition of power and ensured that every ruler of the dynasty resembled Augustus, the founding figure of the dynasty.

Q: How has the misidentified portrait of Vitellius had an impact on art and culture?

The misidentified portrait of Vitellius, known as the Grimani Vitellius, has had a significant impact on art and culture. Despite being incorrectly identified, it became synonymous with Vitellius in the cultural imagination for centuries. It appeared in various artworks, such as Thomas Couture's "Romans in the Decadence of the Empire" and Jerome's gladiatorial scene. The misidentification of Vitellius in these artworks helped shape the interpretation and moral dynamics of the scenes depicted.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • The identification of Roman emperors and their portraits has been a challenge, with misidentifications and contested identifications being common.

  • Ancient literature and surviving statue bases provide some clues, but no surviving portrait images are named.

  • Modern scholars have used comparisons and key diagnostic features to identify portraits, but there is still much debate and uncertainty.

  • The misidentification of portraits has had significant cultural and artistic impacts, influencing paintings, sculptures, and public opinion.

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