Q& A and quiz

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Paul Tu­till, York Eu­gene Byrne, au­thor and journalist

A The haz­ards faced by any an­cient

Ro­man mon­u­ment were le­gion and the statue of an em­peror or prom­i­nent Ro­man ci­ti­zen could be van­dalised by an angry mob for any number of rea­sons.

A statue’s head could even be re­moved and re­placed with an­other. Many Ro­man stat­ues were made with de­tach­able heads; if the per­son it rep­re­sented be­came un­pop­u­lar or even just for­got­ten, or if some new mag­nate took a fancy to your statue’s body, it was more likely to be re-headed than de­stroyed.

Stat­ues were ex­pen­sive, so it made sense to have in­ter­change­able heads. It’s safe to as­sume sculp­tors had some of their work­force chip­ping out generic bod­ies in to­gas or mil­i­tary gear while the skilled crafts­men were mak­ing the in­di­vid­ual heads.

Some em­per­ors and mem­bers of the Ro­man elite were even sub­ject to a process later dubbed damna­tio memo­riae, whereby they were con­sid­ered so un­wor­thy that they were meant to be lit­er­ally erased from his­tory. Their names were ex­punged from the records, coins bear­ing their names were changed, and their stat­ues re­worked. The soldier Lu­cius Aelius Se­janus, who tried to over­throw Tiberius, was one ex­am­ple.

Other stat­ues were changed to re­flect dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties. Julius Cae­sar, we’re told, had the head on a statue of Alexan­der the Great re­placed with his own. From an artis­tic view­point this was an in­cred­i­bly crass act of hubris­tic van­dal­ism, but it re­flected a po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity.

Even if a com­plete statue can sur­vive all this, there were still ri­ots and in­vaders for cen­turies to come. All things con­sid­ered, it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter to ask why so many Ro­man stat­ues have sur­vived with their heads in­tact!

ILLUSTRATION BY GLEN MCBETH

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