The face of Julius Caesar? Come off it!
The answer is simple. You go through every book of Roman portraits and coins until you find some famous figure in Roman history who looks vaguely likely your man. It is laborious and time-consuming. But the principles are simple – it’s like a game of snap.
Why bother? Because almost every newspaper in the western world will be interested in your find if you say confidently that it is Cleopatra or Nero or Julius Caesar (and even more interested if you say that this is the earliest statue or the only one really taken from life – which is also a useful cover-up for the fact that your statue doesn’t look quite like all the others supposed to represent the famous figure).
However beautiful or important your find, no newspaper will be searching you out, if you have only found Marcus Cornelius Nonentito.
There’s a long tradition to this game. Heinrich Schliemann tried to convince the world that he had gazed upon the face of Agamemnon. Almost every local archaeological society in England was certain that the tiny little Roman villa they were digging up was actually the governor’s residence – and they labelled the plans accordingly, “Governor’s wife’s bedroom” and so on.
This sculpture is, I should say, a very nice piece of work – and looks remarkably good for something that has been at the bottom of the Rhone for a couple of thousand years. There is, I suppose, a remote possibility that it does represent Julius Caesar, but no particular reason at all to think that it does – still less to think that it was done from life. (How do you compare something less than a centimetre with a bust of the better part of a metre?)
The game of art-historical snap is a risky business, and honestly you could find hundreds of Romans who, with the eye of faith, look pretty much like this. Besides – despite all you get told about the style of the portrait pinning it down to a few years – this style of portraiture lasted for centuries at Rome. There is nothing at all to suggest that it came from 49-46 BC.
The desperate archaeologist in this case has, of course, found a nice reason for imagining how a made-from-life portrait of Julius Caesar might have ended up at the bottom of the Rhone. It was chucked there after Caesar had been assassinated and so had fallen from favour.
Has he forgotten that that was the very moment when Caesar was turned into a god?
Well, he might respond, the burghers of southern France took a dim view of such flummery. Ok, so why did they throw that nice statue of Neptune, apparently found in the same haul, into the river too?
I’m afraid it’s “start again” time on the explanations for this one.