David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum
In his Twelve Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius describes how the emperor Augustus’ eyes ‘shone with a sort of divine radiance’ and that it gave him profound pleasure ‘if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun.’
The Meroë Head, the only bronze portrait of Augustus to have survived with its original inlaid eyes, perfectly captures the enigmatic gaze of the Roman emperor. Depending on how the light falls, the expression of the head can vary from haughty disdain to melancholic introspection. The whites of the eyes are further emphasised by the dark green sheen of the emperor’s skin and hair. This is a result of the oxidation process that has covered the original bronze surface with a deep marine green patina. This otherworldly quality is fitting for a man who was deified as a god upon his death.
The Meroë Head is one of the great treasures of the British Museum, selected as one of the objects featured in the the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 objects in 2010. However, it was but one of many portraits of Augustus, which were mechanically copied and sent to the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire as a form of imperial propaganda. Today, very few bronze statues from the Roman world survive; most were melted down due to the value of their metal. The story behind how the Meroë Head avoided such a fate is a fascinating one and told in the new display in Room 3, The Meroë Head: Africa defies Rome.
The head was first unearthed in December 1910, during an excavation led by Professor John Garstang (1876–1956) of Liverpool University, on the site of the ancient city of Meroë in what is now modern-day Sudan. Meroë was the capital of Kush, a powerful African kingdom that from 1070 BC onwards rivalled Egypt for control of the region. Like their neighbours they built vast pyramid complexes, which can still be visited today. What made this find so unexpected was that Meroë was located close to the sixth cataract of the Nile, hundreds of miles from the Roman border in Egypt. What could the head of a Roman emperor be doing here?
Clues lie in the writings of the Greek historian Strabo who reported that in AD 25, a Meroïte army led by King Teriteqas and the one-eyed queen Amanirenas attacked the Roman garrisons at Syene, Elephantina and Philae, ‘enslaved the inhabitants’ and ‘threw down the statues of Caesar’. Caesar here refers to the Roman title for emperor and it was thought that the Meroë Head may have once belonged to one of the statues plundered during these raids, before it was decapitated.
Garstang and his fellow archaeologists found the head buried in the doorway to a building, which was located outside of the main city. The building was decorated with frescoes showing the king and queen enthroned, while a line of bound, kneeling slaves are presented to them. Some of these slaves have the distinctive helmets and tunics of Roman soldiers. It was therefore thought that the building may have been a victory monument, or a temple. In burying the head, the Meroïtes ensured that everyone who entered the building would trample this image of the emperor Augustus beneath their feet, thereby ritually perpetuating the Meroïte victory over the Romans. Ironically, it was this act of desecration that ultimately preserved Augustus’ portrait for future generations to appreciate.
Although we might regard such acts of iconoclasm as the preserve of the ancient world, in fact the decapitation of statues has occurred with surprising regularity over the past 30 years. Targets range from the London Guildhall’s marble Margaret Thatcher, decapitated using a metal rope by protestor Paul Kelleher in 2002, to a statue of Lillestrøm SK football club’s star striker Tom Lund, whose bronze head was stolen by rival fans in 2013. The beheading of statues even features as a plot line in The Simpsons The Telltale Head ((season 1 episode 8, first aired in February 1990), in which Bart chops off the head of the statue of Jebediah Springfield, the eponymous founder of the Simpsons’ home town.
Contemporary acts of statue decapitation have the advantage over the Meroïtes in having mass media to spread their message. In April 2003, the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad became one of the defining symbols of the Iraq War. Initially, a former Iraqi champion power-lifter attacked the huge statue with a sledgehammer, but was only able to break off a few chunks of concrete. American troops then intervened, toppling the statue with the aid of rope and a tank. Once on the ground the head of Saddam was beaten with shoes and eventually wrenched from the statue’s body. The toppling was presented as a spontaneous event symbolising the fall of Saddam’s regime by the newly liberated Iraqis. However, it was in fact carefully planned by the US military and broadcast on news bulletins worldwide.
The demolition of the Firdos statue by American troops may itself be a symbolic act of revenge, for the regime’s placement of a portrait of US President George W. Bush on the floor of the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. All visitors to the hotel, particularly Western politicians and businessmen who used to stay there, were forced ritually to trample the face of the leader of the biggest power in the West – just as the Meroïtes did with the face of Augustus outside their victory shrine 2,000 years earlier. Unlike the Meroë Head or the head of Jebediah Springfield, however, the Firdos Head of Saddam has not yet resurfaced. But who knows, perhaps it lies hidden somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered and become a museum piece in the future.
The Asahi Shimbun Displays The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome is in Room 3 from 11 December 2014 to 15 February 2015, admission free.