TTwo thousand years ago, the ancient Romans had imaginative solutions to the problem of what to do with statues of rulers they had come to deplore. Some they gleefully rocked and tossed into the nearest river, in the manner of Edward Colston. But others that they have carefully reworked. It didn’t take much to pull out a chisel and redraw the face of the old tyrant into that of the beloved new leader.
If the money was really tight you could just put a new name on an old statue because hundreds of miles away hardly anyone knew what these guys really looked like. As Alex von Tunzelmann skillfully captures in his recent book, Fallen Idols, statues are still work in progress: overturned, moved, reworked, re-erected and reinterpreted. There was never a time when they weren’t challenged.
Centuries later, images of Roman emperors are still part of the backdrop of power. There is hardly a stately home or modern museum in the West that does not have its alignment of busts of the first “12 Caesars”, from Julius Caesar (assassinated in 44 BC) to Domitian (assassinated in 96 AD). They are sometimes authentic old portraits, but more often they are somewhat exaggerated replicas created in the 17th or 18th centuries. Most of us, myself included, walk past them, as if they were just the predictable backdrop to the power politics of the past, designed to give some idea of the “Caesars” appeal to every new man in the making. They are not much more than expensive wallpaper.
Sometimes they are just that. In fact, some of the earliest surviving European wallpapers feature heads of Roman emperors. But it doesn’t take much thought to see the problem here: these are hardly figures to admire. They went down in history as an unsavory, almost universally derided group, and of the famous 12 first, Julius Caesar to Domitian, there was only one (the down-to-earth Vespasian who rode on throne in 69 AD) for whom there was no suggestion that he had been murdered or forced to commit suicide.
So what were they doing centuries later plastered over the palaces of the dynasts? And does this have anything to teach us in our own “culture wars”? Does this help us to think a little more about the images of power and the mighty? for?
My favorite example is the decoration of the so-called King’s Staircase at Hampton Court Palace – painted in the early 18th century, decades after the heyday of Tudor Palace, by Antonio Verrio. An exercise in “extreme baroque”, it is now generally ignored, even deplored by visitors: “garish color, bad drawing and insane composition”, as one unimpressed critic of the 19th century called it. But it is, in fact, far from “insane”. It’s a clever illustration of a niche satirical sketch written by Emperor Julian in the 4th century AD about his predecessors.
In this squib, Julian imagines that a group of these early rulers, now long dead, wished to dine with the Roman gods, but the gods weren’t so sure – and after much back-and-forth, and a good bit of character assassination, withdrew the invitation. What we see in the painting is a colorful lineup of emperors, including a rather haughty Julius Caesar and a dissolute Nero. They haven’t been told yet that they are going not dine with the gods at the empty table that is balanced in the clouds above their heads. But they will be soon.
What the devil is this scene doing on the grand staircase leading up to the king’s apartments? What was the king – or his visitors, or his servants – to do with this parade of classic rulers, almost all of whom fell somewhere on the spectrum between wicked and foolish? There have been many modern attempts to explain it. Was there a religious message coded here, in the conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants? Or were most people in the 18th century as uncertain as we are about the history behind the painting? (Julian’s skit was a little better known at the time, but, honestly, not much.)
None of these ideas quite sidestep the problem of the glaring mismatch between the ancient figures on such a major exhibition and the 18th-century monarch’s public relations. And significantly, this is a mismatch found elsewhere in Hampton Court.
A set of paintings much more admired in the palace are The Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna, painted in the 15th century and brought to England in the large collection of works of art by Charles I of Mantua, Italy, in the early 1900s. Seventeenth century. This is a glorious series of images, recreating the sumptuous Roman processions organized to celebrate the military victories of Julius Caesar. In the final canvas, we see a rather thin Caesar himself, carried away in his chariot of triumph. You didn’t need to know much about Caesar’s career to know the next big event was his own assassination. Oliver Cromwell, I guess, got it. These paintings were among the few portable works of King art that Cromwell did not sell.
This royal palace, in other words, was decorated with images that did not just use the past to strengthen the power of the modern monarchy, but set up all kinds of questions and debates about the nature of autocracy. and how it was to be judged; and he exposed to the monarch himself, in the heart of his palace, the awkward undersides of the reign of one man, and its sometimes unpleasant end.
There is also a message for us here, thinking of the statues in our own public spaces. Certainly, many of them were erected to celebrate those we no longer wish to celebrate. And I doubt there is anyone who thinks there are some who are not better upset. But we are missing some of the essentials if we believe that the only long-term function of these works of art is festive, whatever the motives for their implantation. Statues now have an important job to do in helping us face the past, focus our justified anger, or at least ambivalence, on some of those we have been taught to consider “heroes”, and in ourselves. prompting us to wonder how much “better” than them we really are, or should be.
To put it another way, when I look at this bronze statue of Charles I on horseback that now stands just off Trafalgar Square in London, I don’t see him as a hero to be venerated or a martyr to be venerated; neither do I feel the slightest twinge in the heart of the “divine right of kings,” or any of the other dreadful ideas he championed. I see it as a useful reminder of the costs we sometimes have to pay to progress (in this case, its execution), and as a claim that we’ve really done better since then. As far as I know he has yet to be marked for the chop a second time.
Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Women & Power: A Manifesto
The Guardian’s Mary Beard and Charlotte Higgins will discuss the enduring appeal of Greek myths at a Guardian Live online event on November 3. Book your tickets here