Dario Calomino, Project Curator of Roman Provincial Coins at The British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals, explains how desecration of coins and memorials was used to condemn tyrants and usurpers ahead of new display, Defacing the Past: Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome.
When did the damnatio memoriae of coins and inscriptions begin and is there an era when it was particularly prevalent?
The habit of erasing the names of disgraced rulers and political leaders from inscriptions, as well as of defacing or destroying their images, existed in Ancient Egypt and the Near East, as well as in the Greek world. In ancient Rome it became well-established especially between the 2nd century BC and the 3rd century AD. Coins were only rarely defaced. Even though they were still exchanged and used for payments after the defacement, people were probably afraid that any alteration of the official currency might undermine its validity, so coins were affected only in exceptional circumstances.
Who was doing it and to what extent was it used as a way of communicating changes in government across the empire?
We do not know who was in charge of implementing actions of defacement decreed by the official authority because ancient authors do not provide sufficient information for us to find out. The Roman Senate usually proclaimed the condemnation of an emperor, although this was mainly triggered by the new emperor acclaimed to replace him or by an usurper, often supported by the army. Imperial officials, possibly guards, the urban police, and maybe soldiers outside Rome, may have been entitled to perform these actions. Conversely, authors do report that sometimes the crowd spontaneously poured in the streets to topple the statues of overthrown emperors. The erasure of the inscriptions and the removal of the images of the deposed ruler was probably the most explicit way in which the memory of an emperor’s acts and of his rule was abolished.
Are there any particular rulers whose changing fortunes are best exemplified by the damnatio memoriae of their images?
All the emperors who were overthrown and had their memory condemned experienced a sudden twist of their fortune, from glory and, sometimes, even worship as gods, to humiliation and disgrace. However, the best example from this point of view is probably not an emperor but an emperor-to-be. The story of Sejanus, head of the Imperial guards under Tiberius (AD 14-37), is certainly the most popular one. He held his office for over 15 years and accumulated so much power that he was said to be more influential than the emperor himself. When Tiberius retired to private life on the island of Capri, Sejanus became the actual holder of power in Rome. Then he suddenly fell from grace when everybody believed that he was going to succeed Tiberius, who had him arrested and executed. All his images were destroyed, so that no evidence of his actual features remains.
Was there a spiritual, as well as secular, dimension to the defacement, or any particular beliefs or rituals associated with it?
Imperial images could be defaced for reasons other than damnatio memoriae. There is a special section in the display dedicated to this phenomenon. Images of emperors who were still alive and ruling the empire were defaced by peoples subject to the Roman domination to contest its power. Sometimes the opposition to the empire also had religious implications. During the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome in AD 132-135, Roman coins were overstruck with Jewish coin types, so that the face of the emperor was obliterated by symbols and slogans of the Jewish revolt. The exhibition also features a unique example of a Roman coin of the emperor Caracalla on which the initials of Christ and the word PAX (peace) were engraved on either side of the imperial bust to advertise the Christian faith. The display also includes a magnificent stone bust of Germanicus, which was carved with a cross on its forehead for the same purpose, as if the symbol of Christ could purify a pagan idol.
Are there any examples of defacement not relating to the name and image of a person?
Coins offer some very rare examples of images being defaced on the reverse rather than on the obverse, where the imperial portrait was. For example, some coins struck in Emesa in Syria (modern Homs), which are displayed in the exhibition, had the image of the altar of the local sun-god Elagabal defaced with an X. We do not know who did this and for what reason. This may have been a way in which opposition to this cult was expressed. But sometimes coins were also mutilated for ritual purposes; they were offered as a gift to a divinity in a sanctuary, and in order to do this they were previously de-monetised, i.e. marked and mutilated to signify that they were no longer official currency, but tokens of devotion.
Was damnatio memoriae ever used before a ruler had fallen as a means of criticising their rule? It’s tempting to imagine defaced coins being released into circulation by aggrieved citizens…
This happened especially when damnatio was passed on the current emperor by the Senate in Rome while he was with the army in the provinces, or by usurpers in the provinces who revolted against the current emperor in Rome. The defacement of imperial images and the erasure of the imperial name were used to delegitimize emperors who were still alive, such as Nero (AD 54-68), who was declared a public enemy while still in Rome and the armies in Gaul and Spain were in revolt, and as Maximinus Thrax (AD 235-238), whose damnatio was passed in Rome while he was fighting the German tribes on the Rhine border.
Defacing the Past: Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome can be seen at the British Museum until 7 May 2017, admission is free. For more on life in the Ancient World, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.