NEW: An unnoticed portrait of Hadrian’s first heir, L. Aelius Caesar, in Rome’s Casino Aurora?

The Sala Aurora of the Casino Aurora, with frescoes by Guercino and Agostino Tassi (1621). The bust in question is in the niche at far left. Photo: David Neal Brennan

By ADBL editor Corey Brennan with Carole Raddato

Picture this. On a bright November 2019 morning, ancient history enthusiast Carole Raddato made her first visit to Rome’s Casino Aurora, to meet with HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Raddato was on the lookout for new items to add to her ambitious Following Hadrian travel and photography project, as well as to see the Casino Aurora’s famed Caravaggio ceiling painting ‘Giove, Nettuno e Plutone‘.

No sooner had Raddato entered the vestibule of the Casino Aurora that she spotted, 10 meters away in an oval niche above the principal door of the main sala, a fine bust of a bearded Roman.

Lucius Aelius Caesar”, she immediately thought.

The bust in question, long universally identified as “Marcus Aurelius”. Photo: Carole Raddato

When we entered the sala—the Aurora room, painted by Guercino and Agostino Tassi—I made a quick motion toward the bust, universally identified (at least since Theodor Schreiber’s 1880 Die antiken Bildwerke der Villa Ludovisi in Rom) as Marcus Aurelius. “It’s not Marcus Aurelius”, Raddato said. “I think it’s Lucius Aelius Caesar”.

And as it happens, she added, there were just a few other such sculptural portraits in the world—most notably, a full-length heroic statue in the Louvre and a head on a modern bust at the Uffizi—taking out her phone to show me the images of Aelius Caesar she had taken.

Two sculptural representations of Lucius Aelius Caesar thought certain: the head from a full-length heroic statue in the Louvre (Inv. MA 1167), and one placed on a modern bust in the Uffizi (Inv. 1914 no. 154). Photos: Carole Raddato.

To these eyes, the similarity between especially the Uffizi and Boncompagni Ludovisi busts was electrifying. Soon Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi had joined us in the Aurora Room to share in Carole Raddato’s discovery.

HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and Carole Raddato in the Casino Aurora on 6 November 2019, shortly after Raddato made her identification of the bust as that of L. Aelius Caesar. Photo: TC Brennan

So who is Aelius Caesar and why are his portraits so rare? The story—for which see my 2018 book, Sabina Augusta: An imperial journey—starts with the fact that the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE) and his wife Sabina had no children of their own. Still, the emperor was slow to decide on a successor. It was almost a full two decades of rule before Hadrian made this long-delayed decision. A serious illness he faced down in 135 CE apparently motivated him finally to find a candidate for formal adoption.

His choice? A striking noble named Lucius Ceionius Commodus, aged 35, one of the two ordinary consuls of the year 136 CE. The adoption took place sometime after 19 June of that year, and was celebrated with expensive games and cash gifts to the people. Ceionius Commodus was thereafter styled Lucius Aelius Caesar, a nomenclature that clearly marked him as heir to the throne. He was young, married, had a seven year old son, as well as two daughters. A dynasty was in the making.

Coin from Tmolus (Lydia) with obverse showing confronted busts of Hadrian at left, laureate and draped, and Aelius Caesar at right bare-headed and cuirassed, with slight drapery. Credit: Classical Numismatic Group Triton XV (3-4 Jan 2012) Lot 1393

There was a major snag. Aelius Caesar was in noticeably frail health, with symptoms that resemble those of tubercolosis. The newly-created Caesar managed to survive more than a year, and a challenging military assignment on the Danube, but he died in Rome on 1 January 138. He received a public funeral worthy of an emperor, and (later) burial in the new mausoleum that Hadrian had constructed in the Vatican area, today known as Castel Sant’ Angelo.

The (scanty and late) textual sources on Aelius Caesar all make the claim that Hadrian’s choice of the man to succeed him was surprising and unpopular. The general ancient spin is that Hadrian had a sexual interest in Aelius Caesar, and he in turn had uniquely powerful influence with Hadrian. Contemporary inscriptions however do show one interesting attribute, that Aelius Caesar took a prominent role in promoting the cult of Hadrian’s deceased favorite Antinoös throughout the empire. Indeed, there is some indication that Aelius Caesar may have been perceived at the time in the popular imagination as an updated version of the Bithynian youth.

Seventy years ago, the French scholar Jérôme Carcopino found the whole affair of Aelius Caesar’s adoption so inexplicable that he suggested he was in fact Hadrian’s illegitimate son. The one thing that does seem clear is that Hadrian in his succession plans was looking not just toward the newly-coined Lucius Aelius Caesar, but also toward his children, to establish a dynasty for the next two generations and beyond.

Bronze sestertius of L. Aelius Caesar, minted at Rome, 137 CE. Reverse shows Spes (personification of Hope) standing left, holding flower and lifting hem of dress. Credit: Classical Numismatic Group Electronic Auction 329 (25 June 2014) Lot 442

Which is precisely what happened. After the death on 1 January 138 of his first choice as heir, Hadrian next settled on the man who would be the future emperor Antoninus Pius. But there was a proviso. To be adopted, Antoninus in turn had to adopt Marcus Annius Verus, the son of his wife’s brother, and Lucius, the young son of Aelius Caesar. Hadrian died on 10 July 138, and Antoninus became emperor. On Antoninus’ own death in 161, the pair he had adopted became the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and Lucius Verus (161-169).

Of course, the story of Lucius Aelius Caesar practically begs for a “what if” scenario. His status as Hadrian’s successor-designate lasted at most eighteen and a half months. In that time he received lavish honors, including massive circulation of his image on coinage, minted both in Rome and in the provinces. Had he lived for another half year, he almost certainly would have been emperor on Hadrian’s demise. At any rate, his son did reach the honor in the next generation, at age 30.

Three views of the newly identified Aelius Caesar head, from the collection of HSH Principe Nicolò and HSH Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Photo: TC Brennan

Aelius Caesar’s strikingly short career as Hadrian’s adopted son and heir of course helps explain both the relative uniformity of his iconography and the rarity of his portrait sculpture in the round. Now, J. M. Høtje has examined datable inscriptions mentioning Aelius Caesar on the bases of statues now lost. Though these bases are few in number, they prove that at least some monuments to Hadrian’s first heir continued to be erected after his death. Yet the fact remains that Aelius Caesar simply wasn’t in the limelight long enough for his portraiture to see much development—which theoretically should make him easy to spot on the occasions when he does appear.

Identification of Aelius’ sculptural portraits ultimately rests on the image on his coins. For long, only the Louvre statue in Paris (Inv. MA 1167) and the Uffizi bust in Florence (Inv. 1914 no. 154) were universally thought certain representations, with two additional portraits (one in Petworth House, Sussex, and another in the Musei Vaticani) considered less faithful copies of an official prototype.

Aureus of Lucius Aelius Caesar, Rome mint, struck 137 CE. Reverse shows personification of Concordia. Credit: Classical Numismatic Group Electronic Auction 167 (27 June 2007) Lot 154

And “here consensus ends”, wrote J. M. Høtje in 1999. Recently, Marco Galli of La Sapienza has made a convincing case to add to Aelius Caesar’s corpus two portraits found at Herodes Atticus’ estate (mid second century CE) at Eva / Loukou Kynourias in the eastern Peloponnese. Taking an expansive view, Galli counts that in all 14 Aelius Caesar sculptures are now known, including those that he has newly analyzed. Yet by any estimate, for imperial portraits they are few in number.

Still from Marco Galli 2017 lecture (at 16:12) comparing recently-found Loukou head with that of Lucius Aelius Caesar bust in the Uffizi. Credit: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

To return to the Boncompagni Ludovisi bust at the Casino Aurora. I know of only one detailed treatment, that of Lucilla de Lachenal in B. Palma, L. de Lachenal and M. E. Micheli, Museo Nazionale Romano. Le sculture I 6: I marmi Ludovisi dispersi (1986) p. 259 no. VIII 18. Here de Lachenal terms it a “portrait head of Marcus Aurelius on a modern bust”, and describes the head as made of white marble with a yellowish patina. Its antiquity is not in question; the restored or modern portions are the “nose, chin, edge of the left ear, neck and body”. The bust with its stand (marked by an old inventory number “10”) measures 55 centimeters tall.

The provenance of this piece is unknown; one can simply note that by 1880 Theodor Schreiber (Die antiken Bildwerke der Villa Ludovisi p. 175 no. 163) saw it in its present location. However de Lachenal makes a tempting suggestion, one that would assign the bust to the original collection of the Villa’s founder, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632). An inventory of 1633 that followed the Cardinal’s death indeed mentions a bust of “Marcus Aurelius” on a marble peduccio, together with three other busts, placed within oval niches inside the Casino Aurora, in the Guercino / Tassi ‘Fama’ room directly above the Sala Aurora. This piece, suggests de Lachenal, along with the other busts, later may have been moved downstairs.

Bust of “Marcus Aurelius” in B. Palma, L. de Lachenal and M. E. Micheli, Museo Nazionale Romano. Le sculture I 6: I marmi Ludovisi dispersi (1986) no. VIII 18 p. 260

It so happens that in the Sala Aurora today there are five such niches, each displaying an imperial bust. “Marcus Aurelius” occupies central position on the southwest wall directly above a door placed on the principal axis, opposite the main entrance. It is flanked on the northwest by types of Caesar and Constantine, and on the southeast by those of Hadrian and Vespasian. De Lachenal further remarks that of these, the “Marcus Aurelius” alone seems perfectly proportioned to its niche.

For the identification with “Marcus Aurelius”, De Lachenal adduces a single parallel—a Marcus Aurelius type found in the Museo Nazionale Romano (inv. n. 726 = M. Wegner, Das römische Herrscherbild: Die Herrscherbildnisse in antoninischer Zeit [1939], p. 194 pl. 20), “datable to the first decade of his principate”. Subsequent discussions of the item (e.g., in E.-B. Krems, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft 29 [2002] 134) follow de Lachenal.

From Arachne, three views of portrait head of Marcus Aurelius, used by L. de Lachenal as comparanda for the Boncompagni Ludovisi bust, in Museo Nazionale Romano (inv. no. 726)

But simply the shape of the face of the MNR specimen seems quite distant from what we find in the Boncompagni Ludovisi bust, which resembles much more closely—as Carole Raddato immediately noticed—the Uffizi Aelius Caesar. It also must be emphasized that de Lachenal apparently is the only sculpture expert to have examined the bust in the Casino Aurora, which even the towering figure of Max Wegner had to report as inaccessible as late as 1980.

True, it would require much study against a long list of technical details to secure the identification of this Boncompagni Ludovisi bust as that of Lucius Aelius Caesar. Marco Galli in a 2017 video lecture at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens sets out many of the desiderata of an Aelius sculpture (see starting at 14:13), ranging from overall features (e.g., torsion of the neck, elongated shape of the face, high cheekbones, treatment of pupils, arrangement of eyebrows, long forehead, and especially elements of the voluminous hair and beard) to specific uses of the chisel and drill.

Still from Marco Galli 2017 lecture (at 27:24) showing two recently-found heads identified as those of L. Aelius Caesar at the villa of Herodes Atticus at Eva / Loukou (eastern Peloponnese). Credit: American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Plus analysis is complicated a bit by the modern-era restorations. For instance, a hallmark of Aelius Caesar sculptures, according to Galli, is “torsion of the head to the right”. The Boncompagni Ludovisi example twists slightly to the left—but one must remember that the neck is not original.

All that said, Carole Raddato’s suggestion that what we have in the Sala Aurora is an overlooked Lucius Aelius Caesar bust is a powerful one that deserves serious consideration. There is a lot more to be said about Raddato’s identification. And in the coming weeks we will say it here on this blog, as we provide new detailed photos of what is clearly an unusually important portrait sculpture, largely unknown to experts, as it long hid in plain sight.

The authors express their warm thanks to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for making this study and future investigations of this sculptural portrait possible. Thanks also to the American Academy in Rome and its Director, John Ochsendorf, for inviting Carole Raddato as a guest while Corey Brennan was Lucy Shoe Meritt Resident in Classical Studies & Archaeology.

Head of L. Aelius Caesar in the Sala Aurora, as identified by Carole Raddato. Photo: David Neal Brennan


  1. followinghadrian says:

    Reblogged this on FOLLOWING HADRIAN and commented:
    Did I make a great discovery in the Ludovisi collection of Roman antiquities?

    While in Rome at the beginning of November, Corey Brennan (of Rutgers Classics), who generously invited me to stay at the American Academy of Rome, brought me to the Casino of the Villa Ludovisi (also known as Villa Aurora) for a private tour of the property, established in the 16th century by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte and later bought by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. I was very excited to hear about the great work Corey had done in the Villa with the collaboration of Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi who resides there. I was also of course very exciting to get to see the only Caravaggio ceiling ever painted.

    Never would have I imagined that I was about to make the discovery (still to be confirmed by experts) of an unnoticed sculptural head of Hadrian’s intended successor Lucius Aelius Caesar. The bust had been universally identified as “Marcus Aurelius” since 1880 (or maybe even 1633).

    But immediately after entering the Villa, I noticed the bust and thought, “wow it’s Aelius Caesar!” Then Corey Brennan told me that the bust was supposed to be Marcus Aurelius, and I immediately replied “It’s not Marcus Aurelius”, “I think it’s Lucius Aelius Caesar”.

    However, this discovery now requires much study from experts to secure the identification of this Boncompagni Ludovisi bust as that of Lucius Aelius Caesar.

    Exciting times!

  2. Fascinating and skillfully recounted!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: