‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’
As an artist I would suggest
Abstraction, Landscape, Perspective, Portraiture and Sculpture!!! So I was inspired to deliver a series of the first two dozen Roman emperors by my love of history and art. The Romans painted in perspective and four different styles, they even humanized Greek’s statues.
I have taken a bust of each of the first 24 dictators of the roman empire and given them a digital spin for today.
I Julius Caesar (100BCE – 44BCE)
Well where else to start!? As an Asterix fan there was no where else but. Still despite this comic interpretation Caesar was indisputably the person who led the Roman Republic down a path, once he crossed the Rubicon, to the inevitable series of emperors that were to follow.
If there was a person who ever lacked ambition it was not him. Driven by the knowledge that his hero Alexander the Great had conquered the known western world and created an enormous Macedonian Empire all the way to India before dying at 33 he set to work. His bust provides an emphasis on cerebral as well as military power. Undoubtedly he was a general of genius as his conquering of Gaul at Alesia tells us.
The cerebral features reminded me not only of his great strategic and tactical thinking when in battle but also of his possibly greater political sensibilities. He manipulated the then political constructs to ensure he ruled supreme. A power-base that quickly turned even his closet friends against him in the end. I felt the 27 stabs, as I painted, that brought his reign to an end and his immortality to a beginning.
II Augustus (63BCE – 14CE)
So after having upset the apple cart Caesar set in motion a period of civil war. A period that was finally ended after his adopted nephew Octavian defeated Mark Anthony at the naval battle of Actium outside of Alexandria leading to the now famous suicides of both the latter and Cleopatra. On this success he changed his name to Augustus (‘His majesty’ – as you would!) and from then he continued consolidating absolute power until he become the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. How to do justice in Acrylic? Well his political nouse I felt through his image (albeit propaganda for the time) a man who trusted no-one. As exemplified at his end where he would only eat figs direct from the tree fearing poisoning even after 40 years in power.
Clearly no artist could do justice to a person who’s legacy was to last 1500 years but I picked on an early bust (around 30 BCE) to draw upon. I imagined a young leader destined to rule for four decades and tried to find the threads of that success in the lines of this face.
III Tiberius (42 BCE – 16 March 37 CE)
Well were to begin? How to paint a man who has become notorious for all sorts of sinful (even by today’s standards) actions? Emperor he became as the step-son of Augustus after the latter’s death. He had learnt his military skills under the great general Marcus Agrippa and this eventually led to him becoming the second most powerful man after Augustus. But, not for the last time, he shrank from Rome by suddenly announcing in 6BCE he was retiring to Rhodes after lording it over the Eastern half of the Empire.
Living so long Augustus saw the deaths of his heirs/grandsons leaving him little choice but to adopt Tiberius as his successor. Tiberius lent heavily on his head of the Praetorian Guard, the infamous Sejanus, whose plot to murder Tiberius and take control of the Empire for himself was ultimately foiled. During this time Tiberius had transferred his base to the island of Capri providing a distance from Rome from which perhaps was the only way he could retain power given his limited skills as a politician.
A painting of a man promoted beyond his ability.
IV Caligula (12-41CE)
‘Little soldier’s boots’ as this name means, referring to his time as a little boy dressed in army uniform running around the army camps of his father Germanicus. Being alongside Tiberius when he died (or maybe smothered by Caligula himself) Caligula (real name Gaius) immediately seized power as Tiberius’ adopted son and put to death anyone that may have had a claim on the role. Although typically known to us today as a megalomaniac tyrant and the ultimate symbol of absolute power corrupts absolutely he was in his time a very popular leader. Not least for his understanding that the real power was with the ‘mob’. So by entertaining them lavishly with games and food he was successful at ensuring the populist support while drawing more and more to his role as emperor (ring any bells?)
How to paint from a a bust now devoid of colour of its time a man of exploits that most of us find crazy. I found a man of his times, a man who could and did as the system allowed. However, there were those who saw a chance to reintroduce the Republic and took him down.
In the end he was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy by officers of the Praetorian Guard and senators.
V Claudius (10BCE – 54CE)
As Caligula’s uncle Claudius was an example of the older taking over from the younger. A person of intellect that fooled everyone not least the Praetorian Guard. The first Emperor to be born outside of Italy. He needed a military victory so took on Britain and won after being thought an idiot hiding behind a curtain. So how to represent a man of intellectual skill such as this?
It is interesting that Claudius carried out a census in 48 CE which showed there were just under 6 million male roman citizens in the Empire at that time. He also carried through a large number of public works, including aqueducts, roads, canals and not least at Rome’s port of Ostia which was built in a semicircle with a lighthouse at its mouth.
The cause of his death also remains unclear as to whether he was poisoned by his wife or simply died of old age. A moment I try to capture.
Due to illness at a young age he was afflicted with a limp and slight deafness but it was this that probably enabled him to have survived so long since he was never perceived as a serious threat to power.
VI Nero (37 – 68CE)
Nero was Augustus’ great, great grandson, descended from the first Emperor’s only daughter Julia and just sixteen years old when he became Emperor.
At first his mother Agrippina seems to have wanted to rule though her son. Eventually Nero had had enough and arranged for his mother’s murder by having his freedman Anicetus arrange a shipwreck; Agrippina survived the wreck and swam ashore and was executed by Anicetus, who reported her death as a suicide.
In 68 CE Vindex, governor of the territory Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled. He was supported by Galba. Although Vindex was defeated Nero had fled Rome. The end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His suicide would plunge Rome into a civil war and ‘the year of four Emperors’ since he had no successor.
I paint a man who fiddles during a fire! (But a great supporter of the arts).
VII Galba (69CE)
Galba, on the death of Caligula, had refused the invitation of his friends to make a bid for the empire, and who loyally served Claudius. However, on hearing in 68CE that Nero was planning to have him murdered he decided the best form of defense was attack so he moved on Rome. After Nero’s suicide Galba was proclaimed Emperor whilst still in Spain, the first to made emperor from outside of Rome. He was 73 years old at the time.
As Galba approached Rome, he was met by soldiers presenting demands; Galba replied by killing many of them! He then set about setting the Empire’s finances straight starting with not paying the Praetorian Guard their dues for their treachery to Nero. So immediately divided both the army and Rome in gaining power. Not surprisingly he was, in turn, murdered by his own Praetorian Guard.
So how to paint an old man with a moment in power!
VIII Otho (69CE)
Otho was Emperor for just three months. Until 58CE he had been a friend of Nero but his wife became the latter’s mistress. When Galba marched to Rome in revolt against Nero Otho accompanied him, perhaps with revenge as his initial motive. But soon his ambition grew and quickly brought the Praetorian Guard to his side and had them murder Galba and pronounce himself as Emperor.
Before he could really get a grip the Empire was in full civil war and it all came to a head at the battle of Bedriacum where Otho’s forces were defeated and after which he supposedly said “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one” before committing suicide. A death that was much respected by all.
Suetonius describes Otho:
‘He is said to have been of moderate height, splay-footed and bandy-legged, but almost feminine in his care of his person. He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head…’
IX Vitellius (69CE)
Vitellus was proclaimed emperor by the armies of the Rhine, Britannia and Gaul who refused to follow Galba but by the time they reached Rome it was now Otho’s forces they faced and defeated. On succeeding Otho his claim to be emperor was soon challenged by legions in the East who proclaimed their commander Vespasian emperor.
During his short term as emperor he has been described as an obese glutton, not too surprisingly as he was someone who enjoyed a feast eating four banquets a day. In contrast he is said to have starved his mother to death thereby ensuring a prophecy that he would rule for longer if she died first. But his rule did not last long as Vespasian’s troops entered Rome and dragged Vitellus out of hiding before executing him.
So a glutton I have painted with behind the eyes a mother he would starve.
X Vespasian (69 – 79CE)
Vespasian was not of aristocratic stock but had worked his way up during the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Under Claudius he was involved in the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE as leader of one of the four legions that crossed the Channel and conquered the South-West finally setting up camp at Isca Dumnoniorum – modern day Exeter where 70% of the Roman walls can still be seen. Under Nero he was brought back to lead Rome’s response to the uprising in the province of Judea. Whilst not a household name his legacy is now with the plunder secured from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and also because he started the construction of Rome’s most iconic structure – the Colosseum.
Not classically handsome since he had striking punctilious features nevertheless a painting of the man is attempted.
He was mortally ill he exclaimed “Dear me, I think I’m becoming a god” and on his death he was first Emperor to be succeeded by his natural son thereby starting the Flavian dynasty.
XI Titus (79 – 81CE)
Titus succeeded his father Vespasian upon his death, thus becoming the first Roman Emperor to come to the throne after his own biological father. Titus had been left in charge of finishing off the rebellion in Judea when his father became emperor. In 70CE he capture Jerusalem destroying the city and the second temple in the process. His arch commemorating this triumph is still to be seen in Rome. Although his reign turned out to be short it was full of activity beginning with the completion of the colosseum and then by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE followed by a major fire in Rome in 80 CE. The former occurred only a couple months into his reign and it completed destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He visited Pompeii twice himself as part of the relief effort he initiated and it was during his second visit that large parts of Rome was destroyed by a severe fire lasting 3 days and nights.
It was shortly after the end of the 100 days of the inaugural games at the colosseum that Titus fell ill and died. I painted a man of the people and their death.
XII Domitian (81 – 96CE)
Titus was succeeded by his younger brother Domitian who would come to rule the longest of the three Flavian emperors. He moved all power to himself and started to rule the Empire as a Divine King. He went about this through the micro-management of all aspects of government and by all accounts did a reasonable job of it.
Not one to forget himself Domitian built himself a palace on the Palatine Hill and at least six other villas together with Rome’s first purpose built athletics stadium. Perhaps he is typically remembered for his deep beliefs in the traditional Roman gods, Jupiter and Minerva in particular. He set about an impressive restoration of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill to emphasize his divine connection with the god and had a shrine to Minerva built in his bedroom.
Apparently he used to say ‘that the lot of Emperors was most unfortunate, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been murdered.’ Well he did not uncover the conspiracy against him as he was assassinated by his court officials on 18th September 96CE.
XIII Nerva (96 – 98CE)
On the same day as Domitian’s assassination Nerva was proclaimed emperor by the Senate. At first sight it seems an odd choice given his advanced age (65), no children and he had had no major previous political office. But it may have been precisely these attributes that made him an ideal choice in the eyes of senators. In return he proclaimed that no senators would be put to death under his reign.
Whilst he proved his worth in ensuring a peaceful transition of power at the end of Flavian dynasty and thus avoiding the civil wars that followed that of the Julio-Claudian dynasty the question of his succession was soon an issue. He was even held hostage by his own Praetorian Guard until he agreed to handover those responsible for Domitian’s death. Realizing his own vulnerability he chose Trajan from amongst his generals to become his adopted son. In effect from that moment on Trajan was essentially co-emperor.
Nerva died of natural causes following a stroke and Trajan succeeded him without incident. A portrait of a complex man I paint.
XIV Trajan (98 –117CE) Trajan was to become Rome’s most successful soldier-emperor leading the Empire to serious territorial expansion. Moreover, he implemented many social welfare policies and oversaw extensive public building programmes. It was by order of Trajan that the amazing Alcantara Bridge was built in Spain and it still stands today as monument to Roman engineering skills. Other notable structures include the Baths of Trajan and Trajan’s Forum.
Trajan is mostly known for the Dacian wars which end with complete Roman victory and whose most important moments are depicted in stone relief on Trajan’s Column in Rome. His ashes were laid to rest under the column after his death from a stroke.
A roman general of the highest order is painted here.
XV Hadrian (117– 138CE) Trajan was succeeded by his adopted son Hadrian now known for entrenching the Empire’s borders. Hadrian would not be a stay at home emperor and during his reign he travelled to nearly every province with a special love and admiration for Greece. He even tried to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire. He is the first with a beard!
Of course he ordered the building of Hadrian’s wall in Britannia thus defining the Empire’s northernmost boundary and the Limes Germanicus to define the boundary with Germania. Whilst the former survives the latter, being built of wood, does not.
But perhaps most impressively he oversaw the rebuilding of the Pantheon in Rome. Shortly before his death from an heart attack he has been accredited with composing this poem:
Roving amiable little soul,
Body’s companion and guest,
Now descending for parts
Colourless, unbending, and bare
Your usual distractions no more shall be there .
XVI Antonius Pius (138– 161CE) Antoninus Pius accession was secured as he was Hadrian’s adopted son. His reign was the most peaceful in all of the history of the Roman Empire. It maybe because of this that he concentrated his effort into building temples, theatres and mausoleums, promoting the arts and sciences and encouraging teachers of rhetoric and philosophy.
As emperor he managed not only to expand the free access to drinking water, not only in Rome but all across the Empire, through the construction of aqueducts. Not only did he manage this he also left a major surplus in the bank for his successor. Perhaps this is evidence of the financial cost of wars of which he had little to do with during his time.
At the age of 74 he died of natural causes and was succeeded by his two adopted sons Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. As the adopted father of stoic philosophy I do entomb him in paint.
XVII Lucius Verus (161– 169CE) The Senate were going to proclaim Marcus Aurelius sole emperor but he refused to take up the role unless his ‘brother’ Lucius was given equal status. So they co-ruled and during the relatively untroubled early period of their reign the sharing of power enable Marcus to concentrate on his love of philosophy.
Trouble did erupt with war with Parthia and so Lucius Verus was dispatched to take direct leadership. Despite this serious military endeavour he did not give up his love of a luxurious lifestyle. Accompanied by musicians and singers he feasted his way to resort outside of Antioch where was spend most of the campaign. He led the invasion of Mesopotamia and it has been reported he was an excellent commander often delegating to more competent generals. After ensuring victory he returned to Rome in triumph where he continued his extravagant lifestyle (even building a tavern in his house).
Early in 168 CE war broke out with Germania and it was on returning from the front he fell ill and died possibly from smallpox. A man who did everything is painted.
XVIII Marcus Aurelius (169 – 180CE)
Known as the Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a practicing Stoic and he writings now titled ‘Meditations’ is one of the major works of Western philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius had to deal with the problem that the returning armies from the wars with Parthia brought with them what is now called the Antonine Plague, possibly measles or smallpox. It spread across the Empire and up to 2,000 people were dying a day in Rome and around 5 million deaths in total.
It was during his reign that contact with China was achieved when a Roman ‘ambassador’ visited the Han court in 166 CE.
For almost all his reign and until his death in 180 CE he was involved in wars with the Germanic tribes across the Danube personally leading the troops. In between periods on the front he toured the eastern provinces with his wife Faustina including a visit to Athens where he proclaimed himself a protector of philosophy. He died in modern-day Vienna and was succeeded by his son Commodus. Philosophy is an Art.
XIX Commodus (180 – 192CE) Commodus had actually been co-emperor with his father since 177 CE and then became emperor in his own right in 180CE on his father’s death at the age of 19. Whereas his father’s reign was spent in constant warfare Commodus was to experience a relatively peaceful period from a military perspective. However, his personal leadership style became increasingly erratic and arbitrary leading to one contemporary observer to say his accession marked the descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’.
Commodus saw himself as a source of god-like power and statutes of him portrayed as Hercules can be found all over the Empire. And it perhaps as the Emperor-Gladiator that he is mostly remembered. He would charge Rome 1 million sesterces for each appearance in the arena where he won all his fights. In addition he would get amputees, other disabled and ill citizens to be tied up enabling him to club them to death whilst pretending they were giants. Having done with humans he would indulge himself in slaying elephants, giraffe and lions (one hundred in a single day). No wonder he was eventually assassinated on the last day of 192 CE. An Herculean effort in paint.
XX Pertinax (193CE) Pertinax was the first of five emperors during this year. He was serving as an urban prefect at the time of Commodus’ assassination when he was rushed to the Praetorian Camp where his expectation was that he was to be executed on the orders of Commodus but actually was proclaimed emperor the very next day, the 1st January 193 CE.
His reign was short not least because he never got a grip of the Praetorian Guard. In March that year over 300 of them rushed his palace and instead of fleeing he tried to reason with them but they cut him down.
He was by most sources a good upright man but it is interesting that he is used as an exemplar by Machiavelli in his famous book ‘The Prince’ as how easy it is for a ruler to be hated for good actions as for bad ones.
A good human painted of his time.
XXI Didius Julianus (193CE) Didius Julianus bought the role of Emperor from the Praetorian Guard who put it up for auction after assassinating Pertinax. He immediately reduced the value of Roman currency which did not go down well in Rome or the provinces. He was harassed and berated wherever he went. The news of the anger in Rome spread across the Empire and several generals refused to recognize him as their leader. The closest General was Septimius Severus in Pannonia who marched on Rome and easily pursued the Praetorian Guard, who were strangers to actual fighting in fact they were better trained in debauchery and sloth, to side with him. Didius Julianus attempted to negotiate a sharing of the Empire but was murdered by a soldier in his own palace with his last words being ‘But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?’ The senate proclaimed Severus emperor.
Money over man is painted here.
XXII Septimius Severus (193 – 211CE) Emperor Severus wisely immediately dismissed the Praetorian Guard and replaced them with his own loyal soldiers. However, Severus had bigger problems since he had two other contenders to his throne who were also proclaimed emperor by their legions during the short and problematic reign of Didius Julianus. These were Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. The latter was brought into line by giving him control of Britain, Spain and Gaul but Severus had to fight with Niger for another two years before finally defeating him in 197 CE.
Late in his reign he travelled to Britannia with the intention of conquering Caledonia (Scotland) which he invaded in 208 CE. But he had to give in to his ambition in 210CE as he fell ill and eventually died in early 211CE in modern day York. Under his reign the Empire had reached its greatest geographical extent of approximately 2 million square miles. He was succeeded by his sons Geta and Caracalla.
Painting a human with sons to deliver but the North in his liver.
XXIII Geta (211CE)
In reality Geta had been co-emperor with his father Severus and his older brother Caracalla since 209CE but once his father died the brothers were incapable of following their father’s wish of ruling side-by-side despite mediation by their mother. Caracalla eventually used his mother’s keenness to reconcile their disputes by getting her to arrange a meeting with Geta where he had his brother murdered whilst in his mother’s arms.
Very few marble busts of Geta survive thanks to the very thorough process of eliminating all traces of his existence ordered by his brother once he taken power for himself.
So this is a portrait of a weaker brother but only relatively.
XXIV Caracalla (211 – 217CE) Caracalla had actually been co-emperor with his father (and later his brother) since 198CE. His reign is known for granting Roman citizenship to virtually all freemen throughout the Empire. He is also remembered for the enormous Baths of Caracalla which are the second largest in Rome.
His legacy is probably set mostly by his tyranny as a cruel and evil leader which he started as soon as his brother was dead by massacring everyone in anyway associated with Geta. When the people of Alexandria heard that he claimed to have killed his brother in self-defence they produced a satire mocking this idea. When visiting Alexandria in 210CE he responded by slaughtering all the leading citizens gathered to greet him and then let his troops run a muck in the city for several days.
It is interesting despite all the possible enemies Caracalla must have made he was finished off when stopping to urinate, whilst on his way to lead the invasion of Parthia, by a disgruntled soldier whom Caracalla had refused to make a Centurion. How to paint such a death!
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