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Marble portrait of Julius Caesar

Bust, c AD50, from the Sanctuary of Athena in Priene, perhaps Julius Caesar


Height: 39.500 cm

GR 1870.3-20.201 (Sculpture 1152)

Room 70: Roman Empire

    Marble portrait of Julius Caesar

    Roman, around AD 50
    From the Sanctuary of Athena in Priene, modern Turkey

    The head has been burnt and is badly damaged, with the proper right side and back of the head missing. The features of the portrait, in particular the hair and the profile, correspond very closely to those on other images of Julius Caesar. Caesar, one of Rome's most capable generals, as demonstrated by his conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC, became embroiled in the civil strife that accompanied the disintegration of the Roman Republic. In 48 BC he crossed the River Rubicon, took Rome and effectively became the first citizen. His presumed desire to abandon the Republic as a form of government and return to monarchy led to his assassination in 44 BC. The ensuing civil wars culminated in the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra by Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, who as Augustus ushered in the Empire.

    The head was found, along with other pieces of sculpture, including a head of Claudius, on the floor of the cella (main cult room) of the Temple of Athena, during excavations in 1868/9. The sanctuary was dedicated to Athena - specifically to Athena Polias, literally 'the guardian of the city'. An inscription commemorating the dedication of the temple by Alexander the Great is preserved in The British Museum, as are fragments of the colossal cult statue of the goddess. In the Roman period the sanctuary was rededicated to Athena Polias and Augustus, reflecting the new importance of the imperial cult throughout the empire. Special buildings were erected or, as here at Priene, existing sanctuaries and temples were adapted to accommodate the statues and busts of the emperor, his family and ancestors. Caesar's family claimed direct descent from Venus through Ascanius (Iulius) the son of Aeneas, the Trojan prince who brought his people to Italy. The worship of the imperial family was fundamental to the new imperial order, and it was the unwillingness of the Christians and Jews to comply in this which led to their persecution.

    S. Walker, Roman art (London, 1991)


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