Will the real Julius Caesar please stand up?

Scholars struggle to determine what this most famous Roman actually looked like.

To make this portrait, artist David Samuel Stern photographed a bust of Caesar, circa 1512, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Three photos were converted to red, green, and blue tonal ranges, printed on translucent vellum, cut into strips, woven by hand, and then backlit to create this final image. “Our collective mental picture of Caesar is almost certainly not what he really looked like,” Stern says.
WOVEN PORTRAIT: DAVID SAMUEL STERN. PHOTOGRAPHED AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK

In September 2007 one French archaeologist got lucky. He was diving in the murky waters of the Rhône River at Arles, in the south of France, in search of ancient remains on the riverbed. He emerged holding a finely carved, life-size marble head. As he lifted it up out of the water, in one of those classic discovery moments, the director of the team shouted, “Putain, mais c’est César—Damn, it’s Caesar.”

It was, in other words, a portrait of arguably the most famous Roman who ever lived: Julius Caesar, conqueror of Gaul, charismatic dictator, populist autocrat, and, finally, victim of assassination on the ides of March, 44 B.C. (an event immortalized by William Shakespeare, among many other writers and painters). He is one of the people from antiquity who—alongside Cleopatra, perhaps—later generations have most wanted to meet face-to-face. Tracking down the likeness of the real Caesar has proved an irresistible sport.

In the 15 years since it was pulled from the water, this head from the Rhône (below) has achieved celebrity status. It has been the subject of special art exhibitions and television programs, and it even ended up on a French postage stamp. 

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