Bust of Gaius Caesar going home to Italy

A rare bust of Gaius Caesar, grandson, adopted son and heir of Augustus Caesar, is headed back home. It sold at a Bonhams London auction yesterday for £374,500 ($604,758) including buyer’s premium, more than double its pre-sale estimate, to an Italian buyer which means it will be going home for the first time in at least decades.

There’s no telling how long it’s been gone. Its first documented appearance was in art market in Los Angeles in the 1990s. We know it wasn’t recently excavated because there are Italian restorations from the 18th and 19th centuries and it’s mounted on a plinth from around the same time. It could very well have been illegally exported, mind you, like so many of its comrades, but there have been no attempts to block the sale, something the Italian government is not at all reluctant to do these days when they suspect a lot was removed from the country in contravention of cultural patrimony laws.

So there’s very little known history about the bust itself except what can be deduced from its features. Gaius is portrayed in idealized beauty — he seriously looks like a movie star — with long curly sideburns and a short beard just covering his chin.

It’s that facial hair which makes the piece so unusual. Portraits of Gaius Caesar have been classified into five types; this bearded look is the fifth and rarest. The facial hair is thought to be an iconographic allusion to Mars, the god of war, and the bust created in honor of Gaius’ military victory either Arabia in 1 A.D. or in Artagira, Armenia, in 3 A.D. The latter victory turned out to be a Pyrrhic one for Gaius himself since he was wounded in the battle and that wound would claim his life five months later when he was just 23 years old. (If Tacitus is right, Augustus’ formidable wife Livia saw to it that the wound became fatal so that Augustus would have to make her son Tiberius his heir.)

There’s been debate in the scholarship over whether Type Fives even are Gaius. Some historians believe they’re early portraits of Augustus Caesar when he was still Octavian and that the beard was worn in mourning for the death of Julius Caesar, his great-uncle and adopted father. It’s a difficult call to make because Gaius and his younger brother Lucius were both deliberately portrayed as looking like Augustus to provide a visual reinforcement that they were his heirs, destined to carry on his legacy of successful leadership. Bonhams ultimately sides with University of Southern California archaeologist John Pollini who argues in his 1987 book The Portraiture of Gaius and Lucius Caesar that the Type Five portraits are of Gaius, not Octavian.


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Comment by Joe Geranio
2013-10-24 11:51:46

I guess technically it could be a young Oct/AVG portrait with the beard, but I doubt it? It is probably a idealization of a young Augustus that wanted to show familial assimilation with Gaius due to him becoming heir to the principate, we also see this in early denarii of Octavian/Augustus with a laureated Augustus on the obverse of the coin with Gaius and Lucius on reverse. Another issue in both aureii and denarii show Gaius Caesar galloping a horse with again Octavian/Augustus on obverse. The familial assimilation is on the RIC (Roman Imperial Coinage) The provinces also followed suit numismatically.

Joe Geranio
Julio Claudian Iconographic Associaion

Coin Photos-

1. Augustus with Gaius and Lucius Reverse, courtesy of Joe Geranio

2. Augustus with just Gaius Caesar galloping horse on aureus.

note: Pollini is professor of Art History and also an archaeologist. I agree with Pollini.

Comment by livius drusus
2013-10-25 13:29:28

Thank you for weighing in from the numismatic perspective and for linking to the pictures. I think Pollini’s argument is sound as well, and this portrait of Gaius is very similar to the bust in Arles. It’s missing the chin scruff, but the curls on the sideburns are much the same.

Comment by Barbara
2013-10-25 11:48:51

What strange ‘repairs’ on the left cheek. The long rectangular piece almost looks like a bandaid.

Comment by livius drusus
2013-10-25 13:24:40

They really phoned that one in, didn’t they? There’s a reason people leave chips and gouges alone nowadays.

Comment by John D. Madden
2013-11-29 12:12:06

Has anyone raised the possibility that the bust may not be authentic? The long sideburns–admittedly extremely rare in 1c AD portraits–strike me as more characteristic of later 2c portraits. Nero’s bearded busts are not really an exception, since they probably attempted to visualize the family name, Ahenobarbus. Would a renaissance forger have been that keenly aware of the chronology of facial hair on Roman portraits?

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August 2022


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