Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture.

Author:Pollini, John
Position:Essay - Critical essay


Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture

Leiden: Brill, 2004. 340 pp.; 215 b/w ills. $287.00

In the last three decades, scholars and students of Roman art have become increasingly aware of the fact that a good number of imperial portraits were recut or otherwise altered in antiquity, usually because of the damnation of an individual's memory. Memoria damnata, which was generally politically motivated, and the resultant reworking of portraits have been dealt with in individual articles and as part of larger studies focusing on other aspects of portraiture or, more rarely, the destruction of images. (1) Varner's book, volume 10 in Brill's series Monumenta Graeca et Romana, is the first comprehensive work on these topics. Although his study does not include all mutilated or refashioned portraits of those who suffered some form of condemnation, it has more than sufficient images to provide a clear picture of the issues involved. His study concentrates on portraits essentially from the time of Augustus to Constantine's transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian one, although damnation did not end with the Constantinian period, as Varner acknowledges (pp. 223-24). An important and welcome addition to the scholarship on this subject, this study also provides a starting point for future discussion and reassessment of individual portrait images examined within.

Varner's book, a revised version of his 1993 Yale University doctoral dissertation, consists of ten chapters (pp. 1-224), nine separate catalogs of selected individual portraits (pp. 225-88), a selected bibliography (pp. 289-305), an index of museums and collections (pp. 307-16), and a general index (pp. 317-33). In his introductory chapter, he discusses in a broad historical context the nature of memoria damnata and its effects on the visual arts. The chapters that follow center on individual principes and members of their families. Although Varner is principally concerned with sculptural images (both in the round and in relief), he also deals with other media (such as cameos, gemstones, coins) in which images of the condemned have been intentionally damaged or altered in some way or, by contrast, not affected at all. In addition, he includes a discussion of cases in which the name and titles of the damned individual have been obliterated in inscriptions or on papyri, as well as left untouched.

The photographs are by and large of high quality, or at least as good as Varner was able to obtain from various photograph archives, supplemented by the author's own photographs. It would have been helpful had he repeated in the captions under each of his images the catalog number (when applicable), which would have greatly facilitated finding these images in his nine separate catalogs. In some cases Varner offers only one view of a sculptural portrait head, bust, or statue, even though additional views are often necessary to assess reworking, a judgment that can be very subjective. When many images and views are essential but too expensive to reproduce in plates, authors and publishers might consider providing a DVD that can accommodate the necessary illustrations. Varner's book would also have benefited from better editing. There are a number of inconsistencies in spelling, typographical errors, and problems with punctuation and grammar, as well as some misnomers. (2) Varner usually uses B.C. and A.D. for dating, but on occasion we also find "A.C." (as on pp. 8, 22). Despite these flaws, the book is generally well organized and written in a lucid fashion.

At the outset of his book Varner rightly points out (p. 2) that the commonly used term "damnatio memoriae," "the damnation of the memory [of someone or something]," is a Latin neologism created by modern scholarship. Other expressions for the same concept, however, did occur in antiquity, such as the preferable memoria damnata. Besides damnatio memoriae, there is abolitio memoriae, "the abolition of the memory [of someone or something]," another Latin neologism that refers to the total obliteration of an image. From the literary and epigraphic record we know of a great many bronze images of classical antiquity that were melted down, as well as marble statues that were reduced to lime or broken up into small pieces for use as rubble fill in later wall constructions. Varner tends to use abolitio memoriae (as on p. 2 and passim) to mean the not quite complete eradication of an image, so that some trace of the original, no matter how faint, remains. He cites as examples the "Triumph Relief" of Marcus Aurelius in the Museo Capitolino in Rome, in which there is still visible the hand of Commodus, who once stood next to his father in the chariot but was later condemned (fig. 142a-c), as well as a relief panel on the Arch of the Argentarii in Rome (figs. 158, 159), in which the figures of the later condemned Plautianus and his daughter Plautilla were chiseled away, leaving telltale signs of their former existence. These large and obvious "hollows" sent a message to contemporaries, because at the time it would have been common knowledge who had once been represented and subsequently damned. To my mind, therefore, these reworked reliefs fall in the category of damnatio memoriae rather than abolitio memoriae, since the faint traces of the former images would have spoken volumes, analogous to Cicero's noted saying (in Catilinam 1.8.37) "Cum tacent, clamant" (though silent, they clamor).

Although most of the images that Varner considers were products of politically motivated memoria damnata, he also speaks briefly (p. 6) about its opposite, consecratio, the official deification of a princeps or member of his family. Important, too, is the rehabilitation of memory, as in the case of Nero (pp. 81-83, 85) or Commodus (pp. 147-48), The latter was not only rehabilitated but also divinized by his successor, Septimius Severus, who claimed kinship with the Antonine house to which Commodus belonged in order to legitimize his own claims to the principate.

Particularly useful, under the subsection "Precedents and Parallels" in chapter 1 (pp. 12-20), is the nice sketch that Varner provides of the background for the damnation of memory, going back to not only the Roman Republic but also the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece, and the Hellenistic world. As he shows, the sensory organs (eyes, nose, mouth, and ears) were usually targets of special abuse or mutilation. Venting one's rage on an inanimate statue served as the next best thing to having the actual individual to attack. Some people made almost no distinction psychologically between the person and his or her effigy. The fictive image becomes, in effect, a stand-in for the object of hatred; as such, the image is also imbued with power. (3)

Although a political motivation could be ascribed to most of the abuse of images in the ancient world before the time of Constantine and the Christian empire, a notable early exception involves Akhenaten (or Amenhotep IV, 1350-1334 BCE), the pharaoh who imposed a monotheistic religious tyranny in Egypt during the Eighteenth Dynasty. Varner points out (pp. 13-14) that monuments honoring Akhenaten and sometimes his family "were systematically destroyed" or defaced. Yet the fact that a number of Akhenaten's images have survived unmutilated suggests that attacks on them were not as systematic as believed. Also, the damnation of Akhenaten's memory seems not to have been the work of his immediate successors but rather the result of sporadic vandalism. (4) Varner implies that images of the sun god Aten suffered the same destruction, but the archaeological evidence indicates otherwise, since in reliefs in which the image of Akhenaten was defaced, that of the Aten (the solar disk) was not damaged. (5) The Aten, whose divinity had been used and abused by Akhenaten, was a traditional god of ancient Egypt, a hypostasis, or manifestation, of the supreme god Amun-Re. (6) For this reason, the Aten continued to be worshiped among the other gods of Egypt after Akhenaten's demise.

Varner notes (p. 14) that some images were altered over time not because of damnation of the memory of the individuals represented but because they were no longer of interest. He observes, for example, that numerous images of Amenhotep III, whose memory was never officially damned, were later refashioned into those of Rameses II. Although Varner does not speculate on why Rameses II might have transformed Amenhotep's image into his own, I think we can safely conclude that the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386-1349 BCE) was of no consequence for the dynastic plans of the Nineteenth Dynasty ruler Rameses II (1279-1212 BCE). Economic considerations aside, it might be speculated that Amenhotep III's images were reused as a subtle way of damning his memory for being the father of the accursed Akhenaten. In any case, lack of current dynastic relevance is also a factor in explaining why a portrait of Augustus's much-loved adopted son Gaius in the Sala dei Busti in the Vatican (pp. 69-70, fig. 85a-b) was recut some years after his death into an image of the young Nero, who became princeps in 54. (7)

Dynastic ideology might also explain why a portrait of Queen Tiye, the mother of Akhenaten, came to be reused centuries later for an image of the Hellenistic queen Arsinoe II (316-270 BCE). Varner postulates (p. 14) that Tiye's portrait may have been reused for Arsinoe because the Hellenistic queen may have resembled Tiye, whose image would therefore have been relatively easy to convert. However, it is difficult to see how resemblance can have been a factor, since Tiye had Negroid features, while Arsinoe was a purebred Macedonian. Moreover, centuries after Tiye's death, with Egypt under Ptolemaic management, there would have been no reason to honor or even preserve Tiye's memory. Perhaps by then, no one even knew who...

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