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Impaled heads and destroyed memory at the British Museum

Deface, purify, obliterate, rip off, slash, delete, desecrate, erase, condemn, smooth over, destroy, mutilate. These are the different words used in the British Museums’ new display entitled ‘Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome’ to illustrate the actions taken by people against the images and names of those in power. Some of the words ring harsher than others. They do not seem so bad though when we compare them to the words used describe things done to the actual people they represented: trample on, execute, slaughter, assassinate, impale.

The exhibition on the idea of damnatio memoriae in the ancient world is small but effective. The term refers to the practice of defacing or removing images of a person in order to condemn their memory. I was interested in seeing this because I study the way that material objects were used by the Romans to depict and interact with history. The material aspect is important because the objects produced by an individual or a regime provide surfaces for reactions of rebellion against them. A variety of such surfaces and ways of interacting with them is exhibited here: from coins, which make up the bulk of the display, to papyri, inscriptions and one fragment from a vessel. The overall topic is interesting and has modern relevance, as is pointed out by one of the panels which has a graffitied photo of Saddam Hussein.

Damnatio memoriae is a well-studied concept. The term itself is actually modern and does not appear in any ancient texts, a point which is not addressed within the display but that we ought to remember. The interesting thing about all this is that the act damning someone’s memory is not the same as erasing it. Instances in our sources where we hear of the destruction of someone’s images meant that we remember them. These acts made them infamous, as every scratched coin and broken statue would have attracted attention, gossip and the interest of museum curators and visitors thousands of years later.


Claudius with his face slashed, the altar of Elagabalus crossed out, Domitian’s face erased and Nero’s neck stamped over.

Although I had read in the past about coins that had been deliberately damaged for different reasons and had seen isolated examples, in the exhibition we get to see the variety of things that could be done to them all side by side. The minuscule proportions of these objects encourages us to pause and look carefully to find the tiny details and to ponder the effort that it would have taken for someone to damage them in sometimes very precise ways. We have examples of slashing, crossing out and rubbing off. It really struck me that someone would sit there and carefully position a coin just so as to hit the SPQR right on Nero’s neck, or that someone would take the time and effort to rub off someone’s face after it had been stamped in metal. Not only does this require a particular kind of engagement with the object that’s different to the norm, it also would surely require more precision than it does to whack a statue, or even someone’s actual head.

While the coins are very small and their details are easy to miss if you don’t look carefully, the sculptures in the exhibition catch the eye more easily. There are three: an Egyptian bust of Germanicus which has had a cross carved into its forehead, its nose and ears broken and its throat slashed, a bronze head of Claudius or Nero from Suffolk which has been detached from a full size statue, and a Carthiginian marble head of Nero that was recarved into a Vespasian. The three heads all represent different kinds of interpretations and interactions someone could have with a statue, we move from the object being treated as an object, to another being treated like a human being. Those that did not like Nero (assuming that’s who the sculpture indeed originally represented), manipulated the properties of the stone to erase his visage and to turn him into Vespasian. Germanicus, on the other hand, was attacked like a human might be; the smoothness of the black stone interrupted by the harsh scratches across his neck.

head - germanicus.jpg

Germanicus with a cross on his forehead and a scratch on his neck

The most fascinating, however, was the bronze Claudius or Nero. This head was broken from its body and, as the label says, received ‘heavy blows at the back of the skull’. Those that did the deed wanted to hurt the statue as a human could be hurt. Upon being broken, the statue revealed its own artificiality; now there are sharp jagged edges at the neck’s end and a dark hollow space inside is exposed. Even though the label mentions the ‘heavy blows’ it received at the back, the way the head is positioned in its cabinet does not allow us to witness them. It is as though the sight would be too much for our eyes, as it would if it were a real human head. We can also see how the conflation of human and object has filtered through to the person who wrote the label which talks of a skull bearing these blows, though none exists beneath the bronze skin’s surface


Head of Claudius or Nero which has been broken off a bigger statue

The display leaves us wanting to see more: the back of that head that I just mentioned, the other side of each coin, and even more examples where an object took the force of someone’s disagreement. Some earlier examples from the Roman world would have been interesting to see, since a panel proclaims that the practice of destroying someone’s memory started in ancient Rome in the first century BC, but there is nothing Roman in the exhibition from earlier than the reign of Tiberius. The tiny space in the large museum only permits so much, so now we can just hope that one day a bigger exhibition on the topic, here or elsewhere, can follow.


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