‘Keeping up Appearances: Roman Emperors on Display’ Review

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Capture‘Keeping up Appearances: Roman Emperors on Display’

Dr Martijn Icks (QUB)

Thursday 3rd December 2015, 6.45 p.m. (followed by winter drinks)

The Bell Lecture Theatre, Physics Building, Queen’s University, Belfast

To an audience that had braved the elements and dodged the traffic, the Classical Association in Northern Ireland was proud to present Dr Martijn Icks and his talk ‘Keeping Up Appearances’: Roman Emperors on Display in the Bell Theatre at Queen’s University, Belfast on 3rd December 2015.

Starting with the holy invisibility of the Forbidden City of Ming China and the hyper-visibility of today’s leaders, Dr Icks took those in attendance on a journey through the public portrait of the Roman Emperors of the principate.

Through coins, statues, busts and monuments, the seemingly omnipresent emperors sought and were indeed demanded to be a living, honourable embodiment of the Roman Empire; those who failed in that embodiment were to be ridiculed, to be infames.

The affable, “all things to all men” Augustus; the too private Tiberius, opening himself to accusations of the worst levels of vice; the limping, stuttering Claudius hidden away by his family and then over-indulgent in blood sports; the embarrassing but dangerous spectacle that was Nero; the triumphant Titus and Trajan; the invisible Big Brother Domitian and the bookish Marcus Aurelius, ridiculed for not being seen to enjoy the games, instead attending to work.

Having forewarned that this subject was far larger than 50 mins would allow, Dr Icks finished up by teasing the listeners with a brief look at where the imperial portrait went from the embarrassing spectacles, conquering imperators, paranoid tyrants and “first among equals” of the principate – the aloof Lord and master chosen by the gods and then God and the increasingly invisible Byzantines, wrapped up in ceremony within their own version of the Forbidden City.

Clearly, this is a subject that has much more to be investigated.

Perhaps there will be a ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ Part 2 and 3? Over a few winter drinks afterwards, the audience certainly seemed to think so.

Dr Peter Crawford

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