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Sculptural transformations: destruction and reuse in Roman London

Despite much build-up to the new Star Wars film, one of the lesser-known news stories of 2015 described the transformation of a statue of Lenin, standing in a square in Odessa, into one of Darth Vader. This metamorphosis was necessary to comply with a law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament in April 2015 that banned communist propaganda. Streets were renamed and monuments removed, though even before the law was passed some statues of Lenin had been torn down or mutilated, possibly in protest against Russian influence at a time of heightened political tension.

This brought to my mind the iconoclasm of the ancient world: images and statues have held symbolic power for millennia, and inspire emotional, sometimes violent, responses. Under the Empire, statues of ‘bad’ Roman emperors suffered condemnation of their memory, now known as damnatio memoriae. While some statues, making best use of their expensive marble fabric, were re-cut as portraits of successors or revered predecessors, others were simply torn down or images in reliefs defaced. Cassius Dio tells us that an angry mob wished to tear Commodus’ body limb from limb ‘as in fact they did with his statues’, and Pliny recounts in his Panegyric to Trajan the public joy at hacking at sculptures of his predecessors, inflicting pain on them and spilling their blood as if they were human.

In London and the south east of England, political iconoclasm can be seen in at least two marble busts of outstanding quality. A portrait probably of Pertinax, emperor for a short time in early 193 AD, was found mutilated, decapitated and with shoulders cut off, in a cellar at Lullingstone villa. The damage is probably associated with the turbulent years near the end of the 2nd century when Pertinax, then governor of Britain before he became emperor, succeeded in defeating one revolt only to face another, only just escaping with his life. After this he imposed strict discipline. Mutinous soldiers looting his villa took revenge on the image of their hated commander.

Bronze head from a statue of Hadrian, found in the River Thames in London, by FollowingHadrian. CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Bronze head from a statue of Hadrian, found in the River Thames in London, by FollowingHadrian. CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The second, a portrait of Geta, who was murdered and his memory expunged at the hands of his brother Caracalla, was also extensively mutilated with shoulders amputated, ears cut off, nose damaged and decapitated in antiquity. Said to be recovered from the River Thames, the symbolic dumping in the river after destruction would be a fitting enactment of damnatio memoriae.

A three-sided box, with a reclining figure on the lid in the manner of a funerary ash chest, was deliberately broken up, burned, and cast into a well under the crypt of Southwark Cathedral, suffering probably for religious reasons. Too small for human remains, it may have contained the vires of a priest of Attis after his ceremonial castration; bronze clamps to aid in such a procedure were found in the Thames and are now in the British Museum. Eastern cults like those of Cybele and Attis, her consort, seem to have suffered iconoclastic attacks elsewhere in the Empire, such as at Sarsina in northern Italy where marble statues of Serapis and Cybele were found broken into hundreds of pieces.

Not all destruction was motivated by political or religious hatred, and other explanations are more likely for the deposition of the magnificent bronze head of Hadrian in the River Thames. Though the archaeological record is poor at chronicling intent, this may have been thrown in as an offering to the river, one of a long sequence of offerings to water from early prehistory into medieval times. As in the story of the Head of Bran, one of the tales in the Welsh collection the Mabinogian, its deposition may have been intended to bring luck.

We know also that much other statuary was reused in more utilitarian fashion. Sculptures, which had for later generations lost their original meaning, could be a valuable building material, especially in the south east of England which lacks significant sources of local freestone. The watch towers or bastions added to the London city walls in the late Roman period stood firm on foundations packed with old bits of funerary monument: according to A.H.Burkitt, a ‘complete quarry of stones’, totaling 40 cart loads, was recovered from excavations at the site of the second bastion, just north of the Tower of London, in the mid-19th century. Reused blocks from an arch and screen of gods in London, carved with fine reliefs of gods, goddesses, and personifications of the moon and seasons, were discovered in the 1970s in the late Roman riverside wall.

In a world where valuable bronze was melted down and stone fed to the lime kiln for building material, it is paradoxically through intended destruction that we have much of what is now left. Returning to the Ukraine and Darth Vader, rather than destroy it, the artist Alexander Milov simply covered the statue of Lenin, which still exists underneath, so that it can be recovered and future generations can experience this part of the nation’s history. And while similar responses echo through the centuries, the addition of a wi-fi hotspot in Darth Vader’s helmet is perhaps a new development.

Headline image: “Later walls built on the foundations of the original Roman wall and a 13th century tower”. Outside the Museum of London by Mike Peel. CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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