BMCR 2005.04.10

Mutilation and Transformation, Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture

, Mutilation and transformation : damnatio memoriae and Roman imperial portraiture. Monumenta Graeca et Romana, v. 10. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 1 online resource (viii, 340 pages, [120] pages of plates) : illustrations.. ISBN 9781429427470. $249.00.

In his study of Roman imperial portraiture Varner (henceforth V.) investigates the destruction and recycling of images of Roman emperors and members of their family after their condemnation by what was called damnatio memoriae. V. includes a wide range of evidence and provides a particularly useful catalogue as well as numerous illustrations of high quality. That said, the presentation of the study is unfortunately rather sloppy.

The book proceeds directly to the argument. In chapter 1 (pp. 1-20) V. explains issues of damnatio memoriae in the Roman Empire. He points out the parallels between mutilation of portrait and mutilation of corpse, treats the reworking of images, and stresses the important role the phenomenon played in Roman society. Further, he highlights antecedents and similarities in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece and Sicily, as well as in Republican Rome, with extra sections on Marius and Sulla as well as on Antony and Cleopatra VII.

In this part, V. might have examined his sources somewhat more extensively. To specify examples, in the Near Eastern section V. resorts to the mutilation of an Akkadian royal portrait as an early example without considering the fact that the attack on the head apparently took place after the sack of Nineveh in 612 B.C. At that time, the image was more than a thousand years old, and the mutilation should be considered a late example.1 He uses evidence exclusively from Nineveh after 612 B.C. and from Persepolis, in the latter case neither specifying the time of the mutilation nor quoting his sources. This procedure projects a lopsided image, at best. As cause for the mutilation of political images V. resorts to animistic beliefs. One wonders how such beliefs can result in the destruction of a ruler’s images in the Near East but apparently have nothing to do with parallel phenomena in the rest of the Mediterranean world. Lastly, V. seems not to be aware that curses against the change or mutilation of objects are frequently inscribed on all sorts of things (e.g. boundary stones and foundation tablets2) throughout the Near East. Such an inscription on a royal statue need not surprise and should certainly not lead to the assumption of a particular “susceptibility of Near Eastern royal images to politically motivated mutilation” (p.12).

Chapter 2 (pp. 21-45), Caligula, Milonia Caesonia and Julia Drusilla, opens up with a few words on the life, reign, and death of the emperor Caligula, his wife Milonia Caesonia, and his daughter Julia Drusilla. In equally short fashion V. goes into the reasons why the succeeding ruler, Claudius, vetoed a formal damnatio memoriae of his late nephew but had a de facto ban on his memory instituted nevertheless. V. proceeds to investigate the physical appearance of Caligula as described in literary sources and represented in coins and sculpture, and includes a discussion of iconography. In the following section on the mutilation and destruction of the emperor’s images, he points out that evidence for disfigurement of sculpture is fairly rare, that coins bearing his image were defaced as well, and that the sensory organs of the image were the features most frequently attacked. V. also analyses reworked portraits of Caligula, most of which ended up representing his successor, Claudius. These he divides into two groups, classicizing and veristic images, and explains the difficulties a sculptor would face recutting the heads as well as the political implications of the two stylistic groups. This issue recurs throughout the book. Again, V. refers to the typology of Claudius’ likenesses and, if pertinent, uses this evidence to point out vestigial Caligulan elements such as the shape of the curls of the forehead. Reworked images of Caligula turned into Augustus, Tiberius, Titus, an unidentifiable soldier emperor — probably Claudius Gothicus — , and a deity.

In the next part of the book, V. addresses pieces of sculpture that were removed from view and thus, ironically, escaped destruction, recycling or reuse as spoils. He remarks upon the excellent state of preservation of some of these images, which suggests storage in a safe location, and on the poor state of others that were disposed of in a more violent fashion intended to denigrate the subject, e.g. by being thrown into the Tiber. As the latter is also a form of destroying an image, I think that a cross-reference in the section on mutilation and destruction would have been in order. In the following section V. lists examples of statues representing Caligula that remained on public display after his death, instances mostly in dynastic groups. Milonia Caesonia’s and Julia Drusilla’s images were, according to V., destroyed along with Caligula’s. In fact, none of their likenesses survives. In a brief conclusion to the chapter V. sums up his findings and notes that the treatment of Caligula’s portraits sets patterns which were to remain operative for the following three centuries.

In chapter 3, Nero and Poppaea (pp. 46-85), V. emphasizes the extent and severity of the mutilation of the dead emperor’s images, including not only sculpture but also coins and gems. He notes that Nero was the first princeps subjected to a proper damnatio memoriae by senatus consultum. Two of his likenesses seem to have been reworked as private individuals, a rarity among the transformed images of emperors. Others were recut to resemble Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Augustus, Claudius, Galba, Trajan, Antinous, Gallienus, and a Constantinian emperor. V. treats Nero’s colossus and its history after Nero’s suicide in a separate section. Further, he investigates the reinstitution of Nero’s images and their continuing circulation until the fifth century, with interesting spotlights on modern reception since the Renaissance. Poppaea’s parallel damnatio is also treated. Concluding the chapter, V. characterizes Nero’s damnatio as a turning point in the transformation of imperial portraits.

Chapter 4 (pp. 86-104) is devoted to other Julio-Claudians, treating persons connected with but not necessarily related to the Julio-Claudians as well as members of the dynasty. As opposed to his usual presentation V. divides the chapter into subsections on the specific persons, including their history, damnatio, and rehabilitation if applicable. Sculptural evidence for damnatio is rather scarce in these instances. Also, in several cases identification of the subject is far from certain. The objects of V.’s interest are Julia Maior, Agrippa Postumus, Julia Minor, Agrippina Maior, Nero and Drusus Caesar, Sejanus, Livilla, Valeria Messalina, Arippina Minor, Claudia Octavia, Claudia Antonia, Julia Livilla, Julia Drusilla, Lollia Paulina, Domitia Lepida, and Ptolemy of Mauretania. Chapter 5 (pp. 105-110) treats the year 69. V. adapts his approach to the circumstances of that year by dividing the chapter into subsections on Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. In each he offers a brief overview of the history, damnatio, and, where pertinent, the rehabilitation of the emperor. The chapter is markedly less detailed than its predecessors, thanks, in part, to the scarce material on these ephemeral emperors.

With Chapter 6 (pp. 111-135), devoted to Domitian’s damnatio, we return to the structure of chapters 2 and 3. Of particular interest are some little known reliefs in Castel Gandolfo and Anacapri that V. brings to our attention (pp. 113-14). The destruction of some cuirassed statue-torsos is also noteworthy, as statues’ bodies were normally retained when the head of the condemned emperor was removed and fitted with the head of his successor (p. 114). Obviously, hatred outweighed economy in these cases. Portraits of Domitian were recut to the likenesses of Trajan, Titus, a Constantinian emperor, Augustus, and an unidentifiable fourth century emperor. V. emphasizes that reworking images of condemned emperors by now had become a well-established practice.

Chapter 7 (pp. 136-155) treats Commodus and his reign. V. highlights a change in the exercise of damnatio. According to him, the recutting of images went largely out of practice, or if images are reworked, the recycling did not take place until many years later. Instances of reuse are a transformation of Commodus into Pupienus (probably) nearly 50 years after the initial ban of memory, and into Licinius (again, probably) more than a hundred years later. Instead of the economic reuse of condemned emperors (recycling), mutilation now became the standard response. V. emphasizes the difficulties in treating Commodus because of his rehabilitation in the reign of Didius Julianus and his deification under Septimius Severus only a few years after his murder. Nevertheless, some examples of mutilated images are extant and support V.’s arguments. Further, V. treats Commodus’ sister Lucilla and his wife Crispina. An account of Annia Fundiana Faustina, a cousin of Marcus Aurelius, concludes the chapter.

The Severans, subjects of chapter 8 (pp. 156-199), mark another change in the practice of damnatio. V. states that under their reigns bans on memory were enforced against a great many members of the imperial family or against rival emperors. The historical introduction to the chapter is separated into a general description of the era and an account of the rivals to Septimius Severus. In the following, V. investigates the damnationes of the contestants to the throne, Didius Julianus, Clodius Albinus, and Pescennius Niger. A section on Plautianus, father of Caracalla’s wife Plautilla and highly influential during Septimius Severus’ reign, follows this but is missing from the table of contents. Accounts of Plautilla and Geta, with individual subdivisions, follow. Somewhat briefer is the description of Caracalla’s damnatio. Macrinus and Diadumenianus are treated together, as are Elagabalus and his mother, Julia Soemias, and also Severus Alexander and his mother, Julia Mammaea. In this period, V. sees the acme of damnatio memoriae in terms of the dissemination and excessiveness of the phenomenon.

Chapters 9 and 10 are characterized by generally shorter accounts. In chapter 9 (pp. 200-213) V. investigates the later third century, A.D. 235-285. Maximinus Thrax, Maximus, and Caecilia Paulina open the chapter. In regard to Maximus’ wife Caecilia Paulina, V. states simply that no sculptural likenesses of her survive, so they must have been included in the destruction of her husband’s images. Further examples of this kind of negative evidence for the destruction of images (e.g. Carinus) follow in the course of this chapter. Pupienus and Balbinus come next, in turn followed by Gordian III, Philip the Arab, Philip Minor and Otacilia Severa. V. continues with Trajan Decius, Herrenius Etruscus, and Hostilian. Trebonius Gallus is next in line. Further emperors treated are Aemilian and his wife Cornelia Supera, a Soldier Emperor, perhaps to be identified with Valerian, the possibly invented North African ruler Celsus, Gallienus, his wife Salonina and his sons Valerian Minor, Saloninus and Marinianus, whose name is notably misspelled in the section’s title. Carinus, Carausius, and Allectus conclude the account. In his conclusion V. spotlights the political insecurity and the perpetual changes of power during this era and links them with the conspicuous lack of evidence regarding the destruction of imperial images.

The early fourth century is the subject of chapter 10 (pp. 214-224). The condemned and reinstated Maximian opens this part of the book, followed by Maxentius, whose images were transformed into likenesses of Constantine, such as the famous colossus from the Basilica Nova. Maxentius’ wife Galeria Valeria Maximilla and their son Romulus are next, the latter featuring in the section’s title without actually appearing in the text. After that V. goes on to Maximinus Daia. Subsequently he treats Diocletian’s wife Prisca, her daughter Galeria Valeria, and her son Candidianus. Crispus, eldest son of Constantine, and his stepmother Fausta conclude the chapter. V. identifies a revival of the practice of recycling as the most important feature of this era. Perhaps by way of explaining or justifying the timeframe of his study, V. goes on to pinpoint the general lack of conclusive evidence for the practice of damnatio memoriae starting with the rule of Constantine. He mentions a few notorious incidents such as the so-called Riot of the Statues under Theodosius’ reign. In a last paragraph V. finally addresses very briefly the functions of imperial images and damnatio memoriae in Roman society.

The extensive and clearly structured catalogue (pp. 225-288) comes in rather handy. V. lists the altered and mutilated likenesses discussed in the book. He provides museum information, size, material, provenance, pertinent publications, and short descriptions of the works. Also, the spelling is markedly better than in the previous chapters. V.’s system of presenting altered images in the chapter on the emperor the portrait originally resembled takes a little getting used to but is consistent with V.’s approach. Cross-referencing the figures might have been presented more clearly, especially as works do not always appear in the same sequence in the plates as they do in the catalogue, e.g. no. 1.1 is fig. 3, while no. 1.3 is fig. 2 a-b.

The select bibliography (pp. 289-305) is comprehensive and highly useful. The same applies to the index of museums and collections (pp. 307-316). The general index is well structured, wide-ranging, and facilitates the access to the book (pp. 317-333).

A list of illustrations (pp. 335-340) and 215 images complete the book. The numerous illustrations are of generally high quality, show most objects from different perspectives, and are very welcome indeed.

On the positive side, this guide to and compilation of imperial portraits subjected to damnatio memoriae is extremely useful. It compiles and updates preceding scholarship on the subject and presents it in an easily accessible manner.3 Further, V. uses literary sources frequently to highlight the events he investigates, thus providing a deeper insight into the processes involved. He also puts epigraphic, numismatic, and glyptic material to good use. In most cases, V. provides the Latin or Greek texts as well as translations, which is certainly helpful for students or the interested public.

On the downside, the lack of an introduction and a general conclusion is to be lamented. Thus, the reader remains in the dark as to the aim of V.’s study and his insights on a higher level than that of the piecemeal consideration of damnationes of individual emperors. For example, V. fails to put into perspective the general impact of damnatio on Roman society and the extraordinary factors in this particular society that made the ritualization of change rather than continuity possible — striking in a monarchy, where continuation of rule tends to be emphasized. Of course, this may not have been V.’s intention, which is impossible to judge because an introduction is lacking.

The numerous and creative misspellings are rather astonishing, hamper the reading, and set a bad example. Examples are numerous throughout the entire book — may it suffice to name the four different spellings of Hatchepsut on a single page (p. 13) or the cut-and-paste garbled sentences as in n. 15 pp. 22-23. Fortunately, this shoddy presentation rarely extends to the subject matter itself. There are exceptions, however. For example, in addition to the section on the precedents of damnatio treated above (particularly pp. 12-14), there is negligence in small details like the appearance of Romulus, son of Maxentius, in a section-title although he does not appear in the text (pp. 215-16). In the case of a head of Domitian found in a well (p. 60), V. fails to consider the fact that the portrait ended up in said well several centuries after the actual damnatio4 — a minor point, but one that changes the overall picture.

Apart from the abysmal execution in terms of spelling, punctuation, and cut-and-paste garbled sentences, the book is a useful addition to the art historical investigation of damnatio memoriae and a helpful point of reference.


1. For earlier cases cf. for example Shutruk-Nahunte’s notorious raid into Mesopotamia in 1158 B.C., during which the Elamite ruler had royal images mutilated and transported to his treasuries in Susa in great number. On many of the looted works of art the inscriptions were erased and replaced with epigraphs of Shutruk-Nahunte. Among the destroyed images were objects that had stood in their places for more than a thousand years. Important examples are the Naram-Sin Stele and the Codex Hammurabi, both now in the Louvre. Cf. e.g. Z. Bahrani, The Graven Image (Philadelphia 2003), a highly relevant work, which Varner seems to be unaware of.

2. Cf. e.g. I.J. Gelb, Earliest Land Tenure Systems in the Near East: Ancient Kudurrus (Chicago 1991). The existence of curse-inscriptions is to be expected; however, the actual stipulations of these can be case-specific, cf. Z. Bahrani, Assault and Abduction: the Fate of the Royal Image in the Ancient Near East, Art History 18 (1995), pp. 363-382: pp. 373-375.

3. Notably, e.g., T. Pékary, Das römische Kaiserbildnis in Staat, Kult und Gesellschaft (Berlin 1985). M. Bergmann, G. Daltrop, K. Fittschen, and P. Zanker, for example, have presented a wealth of studies on the subject, all of which are easily accessable in V.’s bibliography.

4. T. Hauschild, Munigua, Vorbericht über die Grabungen in Haus 1 und Haus 6, Kampagne 1982, Madrider Mitteilungen 25 (1984), pp. 158-180: p. 179.