I am writing this from Oxford, where I have come to give a couple of lectures (last night the Syme Lecture at Wolfson, and tonight a talk to the undergraduates at St Peter's). The Wolfson occasion was a chance to test-drive some of the ideas I have been working on, as part of my project on modern (ie Renaissance and later) Roman emperors, in front of a partly specialised audience -- some of whom were friends who would not hesitate to say that I was barking up the wrong tree if that is what they thought.
I was talking about various themes of misidentification and its consequences (not unlike, in underlying point, some of what I shall be discussing in Yale next week, but focussing on different case studies -- I'm wanting to try out a variety of my party pieces). And I ended with a particular Oxford story: that is Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson.
The story is a simple one. It tells of the young, exotically named, and stunningly good looking Zuleika who arrives among the dreaming spires to stay with her grandfather, who is the head of the semi-fictional Judas College. Not only does Zuleika herself fall in love for the first time; but all the male undergraduates fall in love with her. Literally all of them: and so badly in love that they end up killing themselves for her, every single one. At the end of the novel the unworldly dons seem hardly to have noticed that the students are all dead (even though the dining hall is strangely empty); meanwhile on the very last page, Zuleika is found making inquiries about how best to get to Cambridge . . . and it’s not too hard to guess what will happen there. It’s a satire not only on the dangers of women, but also on the madness of this masculine university world.
Some of the most engaging characters in the book are the busts of Roman emperors, that stand outside the Sheldonian -- originally placed there in seventeenth century, but thanks to erosion and defacement, they have actually been replaced twice. The current versions are the work of Michael Black in the early 1970s . . .
In the novel Beerbohm animates these emperors to make them key observers of the tragic-comic events of the novel. In fact, at the very start they show that they are all too well aware of the trouble in store. For although Zuleika barely gives them a glance as she makes her way to Judas College, the emperors themselves – as one old don notices – break out into a sweat as they watch her*: “Great beads of perspiration glistening on their brows”. “They at least,” Beerbohm continued, “foresaw the peril that was overhanging Oxford and they gave such warning as they could. Let that be remembered to their credit. Let that incline us to think more gently of them.”
But there is a twist. For there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that these figures were originally sculpted as emperors at all. Whatever Christopher Wren, as the designer, and his sculptors had in mind in the seventeenth century (perhaps a group of miscellaneous worthies, more likely a line up of ancient boundary markers or ‘herms’, which were made in roughly this form), it’s clear that these figures have only much more recently come to be called, and understood as, Roman emperors. In fact, so far as I have been able to discover, Beerbohm’s novel in 1911 is the very first time they get called emperors in print (if anyone knows of something earlier, do let me know).
For me, and the the book I'm writing, it's a great example of the porosity of the artistic category of "Roman emperor" -- here, as elsewhere, images that were never intended as such being appropriated by the Roman imperial "brand".