Arles, France — Dredged up from the murky depths of the Rhone River, beneath a heap of wrecked cars, rotting tires and more than 20 centuries of silt, the statue’s white marble visage was plain.
“My God, it’s Caesar!” Luc Long remembers shouting after his team of archaeologists and divers discovered the statue in 2007.
The Roman appears with little hair, a wrinkled forehead, a prominent Adam’s apple and features that, for Long, “seem carved in human flesh.” But Long did not realize at the time that he had discovered what he said was “the first portrait made of Caesar when he was alive.” The bust, which France’s Culture Ministry now dates from 46 B.C., is thought to be the only known surviving statue of Julius Caesar carved during his lifetime.
Historians say images of a contemporaneous Caesar are rare — they are generally idealized versions, produced after his assassination two years later, in 44 B.C. — so the sudden news of the bust’s emergence led some of them to question its authenticity.
Christian Goudineau, a French historian who lectures on Julius Caesar at the prestigious College de France in Paris, was caught off guard when Long told him of the discovery. “I was bewildered,” he recalled.
Some colleagues, he said, have suggested that the Caesar found in the Rhone does not resemble the Caesar usually shown, and that the statue might more likely portray a noble from Arles, a city founded by the Romans. After more than two years of restoration and identification, the bust now sits on a white platform in a museum, part of a collection of some 700 items found in the Rhone over the last 20 years that was inaugurated in October at the Musee Departmental de l’Arles Antiques. Le Monde described the exhibit, called “Caesar: The Rhone as Memory,” as “one of the most clever and beautiful exhibits of the last 30 years.”
For an experienced archaeologist and scuba diver like Long, who grew up in Arles, the Rhone is an unexpected treasure-trove.
The Rhone is “a gloomy world,” he said. “It offers no visibility, a strong current, a lot of pollution, a constant flow of boats and regular attacks from brown bullheads,” fish commonly called mud pouts. The filthy water has been known to cause a variety of infections and ailments, including ear inflammation.
But Long also believes that the Rhone has a secret power. “It preserves wood, limestone and marble better than any sea,” he said. The river also has “none of the abrasiveness of sea sand, and the current always runs in the same direction.”
In 1986, Long dived with a friend who took him down 9 meters, to a spot rich with artifacts. For 20 years, joined by a crew of 20 art history students and professional divers, he dived several times a day, recovering hundreds of Roman vases and amphorae. He thought there would be no other treasures to explore.
But in fall 2007 came the “miracle finding,” he said, the discovery of the bust and the Neptune.
Sintes, the museum director, is convinced that the Rhone will continue to offer up marvels. “If the next discovery is Cleopatra,” he said, smiling, “we will have to extend the museum.”