Enjoying the debauchery and death of Vitellius with Mary Beard

Is there a better way to enjoy a warm summer evening than listening to the world’s most famous classicist talk about the debauchery and death of a Roman Emperor?  Having convinced my friend Simon that there is absolutely not, we headed out to the annual Goldsmiths’ Lecture to hear Professor Mary Beard explore how images of Vitellius have been used in art from the Renaissance to the present day and how it can change our interpretation of what we see.

Although well-known to past generations for his gluttony, cruelty and unhealthy sexual predilections, Vitellius seems not to have been awful enough for modern audiences to pay him much attention.   Although, to be fair, he was only emperor for 8 months in 69AD (the year of the four emperors), so didn’t really have time to build up a track record of bad behaviour in the way some of his predecessors, such as Nero and Caligula did.

‘Ah, Nero.  Remember that time he tried to drown his mother by rigging the boat she was on to collapse?’ I hear you say.  ‘Ah, Caligula.  Didn’t he commit incest with his sisters and plan to make his horse a consul?’  Good times.

But back to Vitellius, who, although largely overlooked now, was very popular in Renaissance art.  The so-called ‘Grimani Vitellius’ was discovered in the 1520s and, based on the similarity to coinage showing the emperor, was believed (wrongly) to be a representation of Vitellius.

This likeness, Mary argued, was then widely adopted by artists including Titian and Rubens to add different layers of meaning to their paintings.  Although the question of whether the audience is intended to recognise Vitellius in the paintings remains open, Mary’s challenge was how featuring Vitellius (with his reputation for all the worst kind of excesses) might change or enhance any interpretation of the picture.

It is surely no coincidence that Thomas Couture features him in his painting ‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (now in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris), nor that it was painted the year before the French Revolution of 1848.  It is a sweeping picture that chimes with what Mary described as ‘the casual debauchery of the French bourgeoisie.’  (You can spot Vitellius to the left of the main couple.)

Nor can it be coincidence that the Paris Salon (the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris) set the death of Vitellius as its theme the year before King Louis Philippe was deposed by the revolution, leading to these pieces by Gustave Housez and Jules-Eugene Lenepveu respectively.  Depicting the death of a debauched ruler must have felt pretty edgy in those febrile times.

Sadly Professor Beard retires from academia this year, although she will continue to make a difference through a gift she has made to fund two Classics students from under-represented backgrounds to study at Cambridge.  I also hope that she will continue to write, appear on television and lecture in person.  Thanks for a great evening, Professor Beard!