Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome
(British Museum, London, until 7 May 2017, Room 69a)
We all know what it means to deface something, but pause a moment and think about the word in greater detail: to de-face, to erase identity, to obliterate the memory of a person. It is one of the most profound punishments that history can inflict, for it either condemns a man to oblivion or associates him eternally with the shame of his downfall. This small but carefully curated show, focusing on coins and medals with some pieces of sculpture, looks at how defacement was used as a political punishment in Ancient Rome, and how it grew out of preexisting traditions of damnatio memoriae that have continued in various forms right up to the present day.
Men have been trying to wipe out the memories of other men since the beginning of civilisation. In the 14th century BC, an Egyptian in Thebes (now Luxor) had a small statue carved of himself in limestone, kneeling, supporting a stele in which his name and deeds are recorded. At some point, his name has been neatly chiselled away, leaving the rest of the stele intact. In Ancient Egypt, this was a far-reaching punishment, for having one’s name erased meant oblivion in both this life and the next. No one now knows who the man was or what crime he committed to have been served such a punishment. History is a little clearer about what happened seven centuries later, when Shamash-shum-ukin, King of Babylon, mounted an unsuccessful rebellion in 648 BC against Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria and also, incidentally, his own brother. Shamash-shum-ukin was defeated and executed and a sculpture of him – carrying a basket on his head as a sign of his great works as a builder – was literally defaced, the features chipped back into smoothness. Yet the sculpture wasn’t destroyed: I wonder whether, by displaying it in this disfigured state, Ashurbanipal hoped to send a warning to any other would-be rebels?
But damnatio memoriae only really took off under the Romans, although the exhibition points out that the use of the Latin phrase is a modern adoption. It began with Tiberius, who started weeding out some of his more ambitious officials. Ironically, the aim was no longer to obliterate their memories but to make their names eternally associated with shame and treachery. One of those who rose highest, and fell furthest, was Sejanus: he was still being remembered as a thwarted traitor 1,700 years later when his condemnation was one of the scenes chosen by the designer Gravelot to illustrate a history of Rome. But, pretty swiftly, it became clear that damnatio memoriae could even be enacted on the emperors themselves. If an emperor was designated an enemy of the state – opposed by the senate or army – his images would be destroyed, his name cancelled out and his acts annulled. Coins were mutilated, as far as possible without destroying their legality.
Unsurprisingly, the first to receive this dubious honour was Caligula, who was as mad as a bag of cats and thought he was a god. After this was disproven, when his own guards murdered him, his coins had his name struck out and were countermarked by the intitials TI[berius] C[laudius] A[ugustus] to show that they remained legal tender under the reign of his successor Claudius. Nero suffered a similar fate, for similar reasons. His features were erased on some coins, his name on others, and due to the political instability that followed his death – with four would-be emperors vying for the throne in a single year – his short-lived successors frequently just countermarked his coins with their own names. Here we see Nero’s coins countermarked by Galba, Otho and Vespasian – the latter being the emperor who eventually defeated his rivals and would rule for ten years.
However, Rome had a habit of attracting emperors who polarised opinion and Domitian, Vespasian’s own son, was the next to have his memory obliterated. The senate resented his tendencies towards authoritarianism and he was eventually murdered by some of his own courtiers, possibly with the connivance of his wife Domitia. If that’s true, then there’s a telling object on display here: a coin which originally showed Domitian and Domitia facing one another in profile. The emperor’s half of the coin has been levelled out, erasing him; Domitia remains unaffected, staring into nothingness. A hundred years later, more coins were having half their crowned heads removed: the emperor Caracalla had decided that, despite his father’s orders, he didn’t want to share the empire with his brother Geta. Geta was given a helping hand off this mortal coil in 211/12 AD and his profile was rubbed out on the imperial coinage, leaving his triumphant brother gazing on the smooth space where Geta had once been.
The exhibition makes the point that damnatio memoriae was most likely when emperors were in a hurry to be proclaimed divine. All emperors were deified after their deaths (and the show includes the gorgeous Blacas Cameo, showing the divine Augustus), but this wasn’t enough for some who, like Caligula, wanted to be living gods. Others were no less dangerous because they wanted to totally rewrite Roman religion. A case of the latter was Elagabalus, who only made it to the age of 18 before being assassinated. One of his coins is on display here – not defaced, incidentally, but showing him as the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal, whom he tried to promote above Jupiter. From this date, imperial power became ever more transitory and, in the first half of the 3rd century, a sequence of generals were acclaimed and deposed in record time by the various legions of the Empire. There are two interesting examples of coins minted by Maximinus Thrax, a short-lived Thracian (emperor 235-238), which were defaced in different ways: one shows the former ruler with scratches across his face, while the other obverse has been entirely smoothed out and replaced with ‘H’, the Greek numerous for ‘8’, recording the coin’s value. It was apparently permitted to completely erase a coin’s obverse at this date, as long as the reverse, with the name and emblem of its issuing city, was legible.
It’s quite a catalogue of monetary misfortunes. The final case moves away from coinage to look at other ways that damnatio memoriae could be enacted – and how a ruler’s memory could be condemned by those outside of Rome. For example, there’s a bust of Vespasian which has probably been recarved from a sculpture of Nero: you can see chisel marks on the back of the neck where the mason has chipped away Nero’s long curls, and his prominent ears have been trimmed down to size for Vespasian. What better way to erase the memory of the past with the fact of the present? There’s also a disembodied bronze head, representing either Nero or Claudius (I’m inclined to think the latter, but it’s not my field). This was discovered in the River Alde in Suffolk and was apparently struck off in the manner of a ritual beheading. The exhibition suggests that, if it is Claudius, it might have been a casualty of the Boudican revolt, when British warriors decapitated this symbol of imperial domination. A similar fate befell the Meroë Head, which isn’t in the show (it’s currently off on a world tour, but there’s a very good replica on view in the gallery): that, too, was cut off by a resentful populace and buried beneath the steps of their temple.
It’s worth having a closer look at a coin of Hadrian minted in Judaea in 132-135, at the date of the Second Jewish Revolt. Here you can see all too clearly how imperial imagery could be sabotaged: Hadrian’s head has been (incompletely) overstruck with the local emblem of a palm. And finally there’s an example of a more subtle disfigurement: a basanite head of Germanicus, from Egypt, originally sculpted in 14-20 AD but revisited with chisel in hand at some later date. This has, again, been treated as a symbol of Roman pagan power: the nose has been lopped off, while a cross has been carved into Germanicus’ forehead (you may have seen this in the exhibition Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs). What was the aim of this mutilation? The label suggests it might have been either an act of exorcism, or an attempt to christen the image and reclaim Germanicus for God. Fascinating either way.
Perhaps this sparks your interest as a historical theme. Perhaps you’re interested to see how the mighty fell from grace in less sophisticated times. But, again, pause for thought. The show’s information panels offer two more recent examples of damnatio memoriae. Nothing changes in human nature, it seems. First, the adaptation of banknotes in Iran, where the head-and-shoulders portrait of the Shah was overlaid with a geometrical design by the new Islamic Republic. A photograph shows a 50-rial note, the Shah’s shoulders clearly visible underneath the pattern. Here the act of obliteration was more important than its outcome. Similarly, when you look at the disembodied head of Claudius-Nero, don’t forget that Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq was ceremoniously beheaded before being pulled down, and that many of his posters had their eyes scratched out. There remains a deep desire to enact political disgrace visually on the remnants of an overthrown regime.
Thought-provoking and fascinating, this is only a small exhibition but it resurrects some intriguing stories from the past. It also offers salutary examples of how political arrogance all too frequently comes before a fall. That might come of comfort to some of us, in these unsettled times. It’s definitely worth seeing next time you’re at the Museum. For those who can’t make it, the curator, Dario Calomino, has also published a book on the subject.