A History of Rome in Paintings: 13 Hail Caesar

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Erasmus Quellinus II (1607–1678), Caesar’s Triumph (after part No. II and IX in the cycle painted by Andrea Mantegna) (date not known), oil on wood, 87 × 91 cm, Národní galerie v Praze, Prague, Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

When Julius Caesar reached Alexandria shortly after Pompey had been murdered, he is said to have wept with regret over that, and won over those who had supported his rival. But his enemies weren’t done yet.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Cleopatra before Caesar (1866), oil on canvas, 183 x 129.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

While Caesar was in Egypt, he grew angry with the co-ruler Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra VII Philopator, known simply as Queen Cleopatra, exploited that by having herself smuggled into Caesar’s palace, so that she could meet with him. Plutarch reports that she was smuggled in inside a bed-sack, but this has traditionally and more romantically been described instead as a large roll of carpet, as shown in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Cleopatra before Caesar from 1866.

She became Caesar’s mistress, bearing him a son, and convincing him to fight and defeat Ptolemy’s army at the Battle of the Nile, so restoring Cleopatra to her throne.

Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669), Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt (c 1637), oil on canvas, 255 x 267 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Pietro da Cortona’s Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt from about 1637 shows Cleopatra successful in her mission to become sole ruler of Egypt.

Caesar returned through Asia, where he and his Roman army took on Pharnaces, son of Mithridates, near the city of Zela. The battle was fierce, and led swiftly to the total annihilation of the barbarians, which Caesar apparently summarised in three Latin words often attributed to his visits to Britain: Veni vidi vici, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ He then returned to Rome to resume his dictatorship. The following year he was made consul, and crossed into Sicily in pursuit of Cato and Scipio.

Cato the Younger had been left in command of the forces in North Africa. Scipio assumed overall command, and wanted to please the African king Juba by killing all the citizens of Utica, which was thought to have swung towards support for Caesar. Cato strongly opposed this, and helped Utica to defend itself. Caesar enjoyed victory at Thapsus, where the defeated Scipio and Juba were among the few who escaped. Cato advised the citizens of Utica to defend themselves against the forces of Caesar, but their senate decided instead to sue for peace.

With his world falling around him, and Caesar’s army approaching, Cato bade the citizens of Utica farewell, as if he was going to leave them. He then took a bath, after which he sat at supper with friends. He retired to his room, where he read Plato’s On the Soul. He looked up for his sword, which had been removed while he had been eating, so summoned a servant to fetch it for him.

His son and friends had by this time recognised that Cato intended to end his own life, and Cato had to insist, quite angrily, that he was of sound mind and capable of making his own decisions. His friends finally withdrew, and his sword was brought in to him. Towards dawn, Cato drew his sword and stabbed himself in the abdomen using a hand which was inflamed and weakened. This failed to kill him, but he fell from his couch and overturned a nearby abacus.

His son and friends ran in when they heard the disturbance, and found Cato covered with blood, most of his bowels protruding, but still alive. A physician went in and tried to repair this, but Cato pushed him away and tore at his wounds until he died. The citizens of Utica honoured him in death, burying his body near the sea. He was only forty-eight. On discovering that Cato had committed suicide, Caesar said “Cato, I begrudge you your death; for you begrudged me the preservation of your life.”

Cato’s daughter was Porcia Catonis, the wife of Brutus, who two years later was one of those who killed Caesar.

With France’s own Reign of Terror only past some three years earlier, Cato’s suicide was a strange choice as the subject for the prestigious Prix de Rome competition in 1797 – the first time that it was held since 1792. This was one of only three occasions in which the jury decided to award three equal first prizes, to Louis-André-Gabriel Bouchet, Pierre Bouillon, and Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

Louis-André-Gabriel Bouchet (1759–1842), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 114 x 144.5 cm, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Bouchet’s entry is skilfully composed, and employs a strong diagonal formed from outthrust arms bringing the gaze onto Cato’s injured abdomen. Although a powerful moment, it lacks references to preceding or successive events.

Pierre Bouillon (1776-1831), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 123 × 163 cm, Musée de Tessé, Le Mans, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Bouillon uses Cato’s outstretched form to make another strong diagonal, but is less directive of the gaze, and less structured altogether. It’s hard to know exactly which moment in the story he is showing us, and the geometric diagrams in the lower right corner are confusing.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1797), oil on canvas, 113 x 145 cm, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guérin has outstretched arms leading us not to the wound, but to Cato’s head, and he in turn fending the physician away. The two figures on the left don’t appear to contribute a great deal, but the narrative is clearer.

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921), The Death of Cato the Younger (of Utica) (1863), oil on canvas, 158 x 204 cm, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t until 1863 that the young Jean-Paul Laurens tried a different approach which I think proved most successful. In this earlier moment of the story, Cato is trying to sink his sword into his belly, when quite alone.

When Caesar returned to Rome, he celebrated his backlog of triumphs, in respect of victories in Egypt, the Black Sea, and Africa.

Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530) and Alessandro Allori (1535–1607), Triumph of Caesar (c 1520), fresco, 502 x 356 cm, Villa medicea di Poggio a Caiano, Poggio a Caiano, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

This large fresco in the Villa Medicea in Poggio a Caiano, Italy, was painted by Andrea del Sarto and rather later by Alessandro Allori. It shows an unconventional scene in the Triumph of Caesar (c 1520), in which Caesar sits on the steps in the centre, and a giraffe stands looking over the city of Rome, to the left.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Erasmus Quellinus II (1607–1678), Caesar’s Triumph (after part No. II and IX in the cycle painted by Andrea Mantegna) (date not known), oil on wood, 87 × 91 cm, Národní galerie v Praze, Prague, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

Andrea Mantegna painted a cycle showing scenes from the life of Julius Caesar. Peter Paul Rubens and his former pupil Erasmus Quellinus II painted Caesar’s Triumph after the second and ninth paintings in that cycle.

Among the prisoners paraded in that triumph was the infant son of King Juba of the Numidians, who Plutarch informs us later became a distinguished Greek historian.

Rome then held its first census since its Civil Wars, and discovered that its citizenry had fallen from 320,000 to 150,000 as a consequence.

Caesar was made consul for a fourth term, and led an expedition to Spain against other enemies, the sons of Pompey, who had been building an army there. In this, his last great battle, his men were hard pressed, but managed to kill over thirty thousand of their enemy. Although he celebrated another triumph afterwards, Romans recognised that this had been won not against their enemies, but the family of a once mighty Roman.

In spite of that, in an effort to avoid further civil war, the Romans appointed Caesar as dictator for life, effectively making him a tyrant. Caesar had grand designs, including a plan to launch an expedition against the Parthians, then complete a grand circuit of the Roman Empire, in the process cutting a canal through the isthmus at Corinth, in Greece, and diverting the River Tiber itself to enable large ships to sail into the heart of Rome. Nothing came of these, and the Corinthian Canal wasn’t opened until 1893.

His greatest and most lasting achievement, though, was the adjustment of the calendar, so that it better aligned the lunar and solar cycles in what is still known as the Julian Calendar, introduced on 1 January 45 BCE, and maintained until its improvement in the Gregorian calendar of 1582 CE.

Caesar’s passion for royal powers generated open and deadly hatred. The senate felt that his powers needed curtailment, and at one stage the atmosphere grew so tense that Caesar offered his throat to anyone who wished to kill him. The situation worsened during the festival of the Lupercalia, when two of the tribunes removed jewels which had been placed on all Caesar’s many statues, and imprisoned those who had hailed Caesar as a king. For that, the angry Caesar removed those tribunes from office.

The Romans came to favour Marcus Brutus as successor to Caesar. A series of portents were reported, including lights in the sky and birds of omen being seen in the Forum. One seer advised Caesar to be particularly wary of the Ides of March, when he would be in great peril. Decimus Brutus, who was so close to Caesar that he was designated his second heir in his will, joined a conspiracy with Marcus Brutus and Cassius to kill Julius Caesar on the Ides of March – 15 March 44 BCE.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), Portia Wounding her Thigh (1664), oil on canvas, 101 × 138 cm, Collezioni d’Arte e di Storia della Fondazione della Cassa di Risparmio, Bologna, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Elisabetta Sirani’s Portia Wounding her Thigh (1664) refers not to the Portia of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, but to Portia or Porcia Catonis, wife of Marcus Junius Brutus, who was to be one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.

Getting wind of the plot to murder Caesar, Portia asked Brutus what was wrong. He did not answer, fearing that she might reveal any secret under torture. She therefore inflicted wounds to her thigh using a barber’s knife to see if she could endure the pain. As she overcame the pain of her wounds, she declared to Brutus that she had found that her body could keep silence, and implored him to tell her. When he saw her wounds, Brutus confided all in her.