Defacing the past: Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome

Roman coins

I took advantage of being in Bloomsbury to pop into the British Museum and view its latest Roman Empire exhibition: Defacing the Past: Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome (how’s that for an exhibition title? Kudos to whoever came up with it).

Anyone who knows me will also know that I am obsessed with the Romans and that endlessly fascinating era. We continue to learn so much from them, and to benefit from their legacy.

Likewise, I learned a great deal from this exhibition, some of which I am going to share in this post. I thoroughly recommend visiting the exhibition in person, though – not least to view its illuminating and comprehensive array of sculptures, coins, inscriptions and papyri, from countries including Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece.

What, then, is meant by the description “defacing the past”? In ancient Rome, an emperor who was opposed by the senate and army could be declared an enemy of the state and overthrown. Their image was destroyed or replaced by those of their successor, their name cancelled from public records and their acts annulled. The aim: to condemn the emperor’s memory and to legitimise the new power. This process is known as “damnatio memoriae” – a modern term not used in the ancient world.

It is the concept of damnatio memoriae that the exhibition explores, demonstrating how it became an established procedure (notably from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD). Caligula and Nero were the first emperors who were overthrown, due to their despotic reigns – and both had their images and names defaced.

The main targets of acts of defacement, whether on monuments, inscriptions or coins, were the emperor’s name and face. For example, the exhibition includes a bust of Germanicus which has a cross carved on the forehead, its nose ripped off, right ear mutilated and a series of cuts along its throat.

In exceptional circumstances, coins – a symbol of economic and political power – could be affected as a result of official sanctions or defaced by individuals as an act of personal discontent. I was interested to see some examples of defaced coins from Syracuse from about 287-278 BC, from which the name of the tyrant Hicetas was erased following his death and replaced by the name Syracuse.

It is important to note, however, that the Romans did not invent the custom of defacing images of power – it existed in the ancient Mediterranean world long before the Roman Empire. In Egypt, a person’s name was an integral part of their existence, even after death. Erasing their name affected their chances of survival in the afterlife. In the Near East, the destruction of hands and faces on public imagery paralleled the beheading of enemies and deprived them of their power.

As the exhibition makes clear, damnatio memoriae did not end with the Romans. Images of modern leaders regarded as dictators have been defaced after their downfall in a similar way to those of past kings and emperors regarded as tyrants – for example, on Libyan banknotes the image of Muammar Gaddafi was defaced following his downfall in 2011.

This excellent (and free-of-charge) exhibition closes on 7 May 2017 – do pay it a visit before then if you get chance. You will learn a lot from it, I promise.

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