DEFACING THE PAST Jan 17 2017 Books

Spink is pleased to announce the publication ofDefacing the Past. Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome, in collaboration with the British Museum. The book is written by Dario Calomino, project curator in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, to accompany his current exhibition in Gallery 69a (on view until 7th May 2017 and free). 


The display features a selection of objects on which the names and images of ancient rulers, especially Roman emperors, were defaced in antiquity (photo 1). It aims to show how public imagery, which has always been used to advertise and further political power across the centuries, could be attacked and subverted to contest that power and to undermine its memory when it was no longer in place. This practice is attested in many ancient societies, from Egypt to the Near East and the Greek world, and is often regarded as 'damnatio memoriae', a Latin expression that was probably invented in the 16th century to describe the condemnation of the memory of individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State. Under the Roman Empire, not only emperors but also high-ranking generals and officials who had lost the support of the Senate and the army were proclaimed 'enemies of the State' and had their memory condemned. Their names were erased from public records and their images were either mutilated or removed and replaced by those of their successors. For example, a marble head of Vespasian from Carthage was re-carved from one that originally portrayed Nero, before his fall and condemnation (photo 2). The exhibition also shows how this phenomenon encompassed all the medias through which the Imperial imagery and ideology were conveyed, from sculptures to public inscriptions, and from papyri to coins. Evidence of the defacement was often displayed rather than concealed, to keep alive the memory of the public humiliation of the condemned. The central case of the display hosts a marble dedication to the emperor Septimius Severus and his sons, Caracalla and Geta, on which the traces of the erasure of Geta's name after his assassination and public condemnation are still clearly visible. The name of Geta was banished from all official documents in which it had been previously mentioned and was systematically deleted on the majority of them, as attested by the two Egyptian papyri borrowed from the British Library on which his name was crossed out with black ink to abolish his memory. 


The book discusses a much broader range of examples than those displayed in the exhibition, from Italy and from across the provinces of the Roman Empire. They range, for example, from a marble bust of Nero in the Cagliari Museum (Sardinia) which was mutilated and inscribed with the Latin word VICTO ('to the defeated') to mock the emperor after his downfall, to a bronze grain measure currently in the Chesters Museum, on which the name of Domitian was erased; and from a wall-graffito discovered in a fire brigades guardhouse in Rome, from which the images of emperor Severus Alexander and his mother Julia Mamaea were mutilated after their death, to somesestertiiof Maximinus Thrax tooled after his assassination to show his head infixed on a pole (recalling that it was actually paraded to Rome to show evidence of his overthrow). The major focus of the book is the analysis of numismatic materials. The sample of defaced coins displayed in the exhibition is large and varied (photo 4), but among all categories of objects that suffered this fate, coins are by far less affected than statues, inscriptions and papyri. There are two possible reasons. The first is that coins were mass-produced in the Greek-Roman world and especially under the Roman Empire, so it was practically impossible to even think of defacing, or erasing or withdrawing all the coins struck in the name of a damned emperor. The second is that ancient coins, like modern ones, were official currency issued by the State (that nowadays we would call 'legal tender'), so any attempt to alter them was an illegal act undermining the condition whereby they were accepted and exchanged in transactions.


Yet, coins feature some of the most spectacular examples of defacement, in antiquity as well as in modern times (photo 5). During the Roman Empire, coins were defaced mostly between the 1st and the 3rd centuries AD and especially in the imperial provinces, where hundreds of cities used to strike bronze coins for the local circulation: they featured the portrait of the emperor on the obverse, but even if this was effaced, the name of the issuing city and the type that represented its identity on the reverse were spared. Examples range from Caligula and Nero, the first emperors who were overthrown and murdered in the 1st century AD, to the 'tyrants' Domitian and Commodus in the 2nd century, andto Geta and the 'soldier emperors' acclaimed by the army in the 3rd century AD. Sometimes the image of a damned emperor was defaced only on coins on which he was portrayed face-to-face with another member of the imperial family who had not been condemned, the latter being spared (photos 6-7). In other circumstances, the obverse featuring the image of a disgraced emperor was completely erased; yet afterwards the coin stayed in circulation even without any seal of the imperial authority, as suggested by the fact that a value mark (a Greek numeral indicating its worth inasses) could be stamped on the flat side to reinstate its validity (photo 8). Lastly, coins, as well as other objects, could be defaced for political or even religions reasons which did not result from 'damnatio memoriae'. The book (as well as the exhibition) shows examples of defacement of imperial images by the enemies of Rome within and beyond the Empire's boundaries. For example, imperial coins (mostlydenarii) of Vespasian, Trajan and Hadrian were overstruck with Jewish types during the second Jewish Revolt against Rome in AD 132-135 (photo 9): old money was recycled to issue brand new one, and at the same time the liberation of Jerusalem from Roman oppression was advertised by obliterating the most powerful symbols of Rome, the emperor's face.