Q& A and quiz
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!