Classics Ambassador Declan Boyd reports on Super Saturday: Professor Dame Mary Beard’s Presidential Address given for the Classical Association on 9th November 2019, entitled Caesar’s Wife Must Be Above Suspicion:
In her Address, Professor Beard took us on a fascinating journey through time to explore artistic representations of the Roman empresses – and the sinister tales told about them – across the ages.
Ancient Roman writers such as Tacitus and Suetonius never failed to criticise the wives of the Julio-Claudian emperors and to accuse them of horrific and immoral deeds: Augustus was commonly believed to have died at the hands of his wife Livia, who wished to secure the succession of her son Tiberius; Claudius’ wife Messalina is said to have challenged the prostitutes of Rome to sleep with as many men as they could in one night (and won!); and Nero’s mother Agrippina is not only said to have poisoned Claudius but also to have been her son’s lover. Such damning accounts of these powerful women, whether true or fuelled by Roman misogyny, have never failed to thrill and have pervaded artwork as favourite subjects from the ancient world to today.
Professor Beard gave us a captivating insight into the artistic depictions of a moment in the life of the poet Virgil, who, upon reading an excerpt of his Aeneid about the death of the imperial prince Marcellus, caused Marcellus’ mother Octavia, the sister of Augustus, to faint. This is one tale that has been a favourite subject for modern artists, such as the French neo-classicist painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who painted more than 100 versions of this single moment! Although Livia is not mentioned by ancient sources as having been present at Virgil’s recitation of his poem, painters nonetheless tend to include her in the scene as a passive figure, not reacting to the horror of the collapse of the emperor’s sister but watching events unfold with an apathetic gaze.
The scene gains force when one remembers the allegations that Livia herself was believed to have had a hand in Marcellus’ death (again to remove a rival to Tiberius). This rather chilling image of Livia failing to respond in any way, failing to show any concern whatsoever for Octavia’s health, reminding us of the crime that she is supposed to have committed, is a clear indication of the extent to which the idea of Livia as a wicked schemer pervaded artistic representations from Ancient Rome to the modern world.
The same can be said for the many representations of Nero’s fascination with the corpse of his mother, Agrippina the younger, whose death he had ordered. Suetonius records a gruesome anecdote that Nero rushed to view his mother’s naked dead body, examining it closely, commending some parts and criticising others, while simultaneously quenching his thirst with a glass of wine. Such a grotesque tale as this was bound to attract the attention of artists, and Professor Beard explored multiple presentations of the examination of the corpse, with Nero casually sipping at his wine in some, getting uncomfortably close to the body in others, and even, in a plethora of rather hideous images, dissecting his mother (an episode never mentioned by any of the sources).
The existence of this scene, invented by artists but notably popular, highlights Nero’s obsession with his mother’s body – which is often portrayed rather erotically, lying out nude before the emperor, who seems desperate to touch her – and reminds the viewer of the incestuous relationship between the two, which Nero seems to long for even in his mother/lover’s death. It emphasises the critical view of Agrippina as seductress and of Nero as a sexual deviant, as well as the macabre way in which we often view the empresses of Rome.
In an unexpected and engaging conclusion to her address, Professor Beard explored the connection between Agrippina and Letizia Bonaparte, the mother of Napoleon. In the early nineteenth century, the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova modelled a statue of Letizia on a classical statue believed at the time to represent Agrippina. However, it was uncertain whether the Agrippina represented in the statue was Nero’s mother Agrippina the Younger, the incestuous schemer who murdered Claudius, or that of Agrippina’s mother, also named Agrippina (the Elder), who was celebrated due to her opposition to the tyrannical rule of Tiberius and her marriage to the beloved prince Germanicus. Was Canova therefore trying to represent Letizia as a great woman or as an evil one?
Professor Beard offered a solution: it did not matter whether the Agrippina used as a model for Canova’s sculpture was the Elder or the Younger. What mattered was that both had given birth to monsters: Agrippina the Younger to the despised Nero, Agrippina the Elder to the equally (if not more) cruel Caligula, often described as a sadistic man who slept with his three sisters. Despite the widely differing opinions of each Agrippina, the message of Canova’s sculpture was a clear criticism of Napoleon, exemplifying the way in which classical associations (I think we all enjoyed Professor Beard’s pun here!) can continue to be used in artwork to further the artist’s message.
I would personally like to thank Professor Beard for this compelling lecture, which I believe conveyed one of the key reasons why the classical world must continue to be studied: it is a world which never fails to enthral us, whose stories are just as enjoyable when told today as they were two thousand years ago, and because the messages of the ancient world can continue to be relevant in modern society.
Were the Roman empresses really as bad as Tacitus and Suetonius made them out to be? Well, probably not. But at least, as this fascinating Presidential Address showed us, they give us some good stories to tell!
Follow us on twitter @lsaclassics to see other live tweets from the Address (including the story of Nero and the Frog!). Huge thanks to Declan for this blog, and to all other ambassadors and students who attended the event last week.