Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Russell, M. and Manley, H. 2013 ‘Finding Nero: shining a new light on Romano-British sculpture’, Internet Archaeology 32. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.32.5
This article discusses the use of 3D laser scanning as an objective means to record and identify damaged Roman portraits in stone, in this case three mutilated images recovered from Romano British contexts that can now be identified as being of the fifth emperor of Rome, Nero (AD 54–68). The potential significance of such sculptured pieces has frequently been overlooked and the portraits themselves have, to date, made little or no contribution to the understanding of Roman art, the nature of imperial identity, the dissemination of artwork throughout the Roman world, the worship of the head of state in the provinces, or the development of Britain following conquest and assimilation by Rome. This report represents the first stage of a wider project set up to create a 3D digital database of Roman portraiture and the subsequent dissemination of datasets in an educational and interactive format.
With the exception of two bronze heads (of Claudius/Nero and Hadrian), currently on display in the British Museum (Toynbee 1964, 46-51), few Roman imperial portraits have been positively identified from Britain (Stewart 2003, 174). Such an absence of material may initially appear surprising, for Britain was, to all intents and purposes, a fully functioning part of the Roman Empire for some four centuries, the apparent paucity of sculptured forms here standing in marked contrast to other western Roman provinces such as Gaul or Spain.
What possible explanation can there be for the perceived lack of emperor portraits in the province of Britannia, and should any significance be attached to such an absence? Perhaps, assuming that Britain’s 1st- and 2nd-century population remained largely unaffected by Roman culture (e.g. Russell and Laycock 2010, 43-61), the provincial administration simply lacked the desire or resources to display Romanitas (or ‘Roman-ness’) in extravagant or public ways. On the other hand, given that the 2nd-century Roman biographer Suetonius noted that ‘numerous statues and busts’ of Titus, the tenth emperor (AD 79-81), could in his day be seen across Britain (Suetonius Titus 41), it is possible that sculptured forms did in fact originally exist throughout the province but have simply not survived. Statues and portraits in bronze, for example, would have been particularly susceptible to later melting down and recycling while anything of made of marble could have gone straight to the lime kilns once its original importance had faded (Stewart 2003, 175).
There is, however, an alternative proposition: that imperial portraits did originally exist across the province of Britain and have survived, albeit in damaged, mutilated or fragmentary condition. Such pieces, if misidentified, misunderstood or simply buried deep within museum archives, would potentially remain largely unnoticed, effectively making little or no contribution to either the understanding of Roman art or to any debate surrounding the nature and archaeology of Britannia.
The Pilot Survey
In 2010, the authors undertook a small series of three-dimensional (3D) scans of Roman stone portraits from a variety of contexts across southern Britain (Figure 1). This was, in part, a pilot study conducted in order to ascertain whether it would be possible, through the analysis of sculptured fragments preserved within British museums and their subsequent comparison with images held within internationally important stonework repositories, to build up a digital database of Roman portrait typology. Such a database would, it was hoped, significantly aid the resolution, identification and interpretation of Roman sculptured images recovered from the north-western provinces, however fragmentary their condition. This comparison would, in turn, help clarify the incomplete British dataset and ascertain whether the island did indeed possess a range of sculptured imperial portraits similar to that recorded from elsewhere within the empire.
Figure 1: 3D laser scanning a marble bust of the Emperor Vespasian at the British Museum as part of the compilation of a 3D digital database of Roman portraiture (Authors’ photo, courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum)
The preliminary scanning survey generated a set of 3D images of Roman sculpture, recorded without either photographic distortion or the vagaries of light and shade (which in 2D photographs can sometimes significantly alter the overall appearance of portraits). Recording throughout the pilot project was conducted using a Konica Minolta VI900 laser scanner that measured three-dimensional points onto the surface of each sculpture. Portraits were positioned on a turntable and rotated until a complete series of overlapping scan ‘point clouds’ were collected. Individual scans were registered together and were then rendered to create a mesh in order to represent the surface of each image.
The first three heads chosen for the pilot study were selected as all appeared to be of broadly similar date, hairstyles suggesting manufacture within the Julio-Claudian principate (Augustus–Nero: 27 BC–AD 68). None of the portraits had ever been positively identified, all being in a relatively poor state of preservation and with only one possessing any form of secure archaeological provenance. As a consequence of their limited context and survival, none of the portraits chosen for the pilot survey had, to date, contributed in any significant way to the understanding or interpretation of Roman Britain.
Portrait 1 – London
The first head to be examined as part of the pilot project (Figure 2), made from white Italian marble, was originally found in 1906 during a period of urban development in Great Eastern Street, London (Toynbee 1964, 50). Unfortunately, nothing appears to have been recorded at the time with regard to the exact circumstances of the discovery or of any potentially associated artefacts, and so its archaeological context remains unknown (Francis Grew pers. comm.).
Figure 2: The Great Eastern Street head, London (Authors’ photo courtesy of the Museum of London)
Great Eastern Street in Islington, lies just over 2km to the north of Roman Londinium, in an area where there has been very little detailed archaeological investigation or, indeed, any comparable Roman finds (Francis Grew pers. comm.). The object was acquired by Guildhall Museum shortly after its discovery and was eventually transferred to the ownership of the Museum of London when the Guildhall and the London Museums merged in 1976. It is not currently on display.
The life-size head, measuring 18.2cm high from the base of the chin to the upper edge of the hair, and 14.8cm in width (ear to ear), is extremely battered (Figure 3), having become detached from the lower neck and shoulders in antiquity. The outline of the face is broad with a rather fleshy chin. The entire left and lower half of the face has been worn smooth, possibly as a result of exposure to the elements, something that could have occurred if the piece had been reused as building material.
Figure 3: 3D scan of the Great Eastern Street head (Bournemouth University).
Most of the deeply set right eye and the inner part of the left survive, as do the ears and the approximate position of the nose. A series of slight indentations across the central and lower left-hand side of the face, especially towards the central area of the nose, suggest that facial damage may not have been entirely natural, and that the weathering to the nose, eyes, mouth and brow may originally have been facilitated by deliberate and sustained battering with a small hammer or chisel. A small group of circular indentations around the area of the right ear and upper neck may indicate further mutilation conducted at the time of decapitation or deposition.
The coiffure, a tiered effect of long, individual locks, survives well, especially across the right side of the forehead where the hair is lifted up into a discrete crest. The fringe, across the right side of the face, appears to have comprised strands of hair arranged in parallel curls curving right to left. This arrangement reverses direction above the right eye. The hair on the nape of the neck is long and combed forwards, towards the ears. Traces of extended sideburns can be seen curling over the surviving right ear. There are slight indications of facial hair, lightly incised as individual swirls, detectable across the right side of the jaw and below the chin.The identification for the Great Eastern Street head is derived from a number of factors, the most telling of which is the hairstyle, clearly distinguishable within the 3D scan, referred to by the Roman biographer Suetonius as coma in gradus formata (literally ‘shaped into terraces’) when so eloquently describing the crested coiffure of Nero in the latter years of his reign (Suetonius Nero 51). That this head was originally of the fifth emperor cannot be in doubt for, aside from the distinctive hairstyle, found in no other sculptured portrait of the period, the overall facial proportions combined with the nature of the deep-set eyes and brow match known portraits of this particular princeps (Figure 4).
The changing sequence of Nero’s portraiture from the time of his formal adoption by Claudius in AD 50 to his suicide in AD 68 has been well documented (e.g. Hiesinger 1975; Kleiner 1992, 135-9; Varner 2000, 126-30; 2004, 47-9), with at least four major portrait types having been identified (Kleiner 1992, 136-8; Varner 2004, 48), corresponding with the years AD 50-1 (his formal adoption by the Emperor Claudius), 54 (accession), 59 and 64 (established to commemorate the fifth and tenth anniversaries of his rise to power). The Great Eastern Street head, with its prominent, crested coiffure, resembling a crown or tiara (Varner 2000, 128), clearly belongs to one of the latter two portrait types, although damage sustained to the face makes it difficult to identify precisely which. The lightly incised beard and relatively ‘less fleshy’ nature of the cheeks, when combined with the nature of the fringe, thick curls combed from right to left in parallel strands, changing direction above the right eye, seems to indicate that the piece falls into the third major type dating from AD 59 (Varner 2004, 49), although variants are also known from the fourth and final type introduced in AD 64 (Kleiner 1992, 138-9; Varner 2004, 49).
Figure 5: Portrait of Nero from his third major portrait phase of AD 59-64, found on Palatine Hill in Rome (© Museo Nazionale delle Terme, Rome)
Parallels for the London Nero may be found in a better preserved sculpture from the third major portrait group, originally from the Palatine Hill in Rome and now in the collections of the Museo Nazionale delle Terme (Kleiner 1992, 138; Varner 2004, 48; reproduced here as Figure 5), and an example taken from the final phase of portraiture now held by Worcester Art Museum in the USA (Varner 2000, 17; 2004, 49; reproduced here as Figure 6).
Figure 6: Portrait and profile of Nero from his fourth major portrait phase of AD 64-8 (© Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts)
Portrait 2 – Hinckley
The Hinckley head (Figure 7), currently on display in the Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester, is, like the example recorded from Great Eastern Street, London, also in a very poor condition. Discovered in January 1930, within ‘a heap of rubbish’ at the boundary of Hinckley Grammar School playing field (Pickering 1934, 185) the artefact, made from oolitic limestone, is of uncertain origin. The portrait itself has suffered considerably in antiquity; the head has been broken across the neck, the bust being found as a separate piece.
Figure 7: The Hinckley head (Authors’ photo, courtesy of Leicester Museum)
Limited archaeological examination of the rubbish deposit from which it allegedly derived indicated that some, at least, of the brick and tile recovered here came from the ‘demolition of some old cottages’ (Pickering 1934, 186). A precise description of this material assemblage is unfortunately lacking, although Pickering observed that the heap also contained ‘a fragment of Roman jar and a piece of wall plaster’, suggesting that some, at least, of the structural remains found ultimately derived from a Roman source.
Figure 8: 3D scan of the Hinckley head, excluding the shoulders and base (Bournemouth University).
The life-size head measures 16.2cm in width and is 20.2cm high (excluding the neck). The portrait is of a young, adolescent male (Figure 8) with deep-set eyes and mouth. Unfortunately the nose, eyes and mouth have all been extensively mutilated, although enough survives to indicate the major physiognomic features. The coiffure, which survives extremely well, is distinctly Julio-Claudian with thick, well-defined, comma-shaped locks cascading down the neck and behind the ears. Sideburns are faintly visible on the 3D scan, especially on the slightly better preserved right side of the face, flicking out over both ears towards the eyes. The fringe, although damaged, suggests the presence of elongated curling locks and a triangular central parting.
The flat-base of the bust has a single dowel hole which, together with the projecting, vertically planned shoulders, suggests that the piece may originally have been fitted either as a herm to a plinth or squared column (Toynbee 1964, 48; Huskinson 1994, 13) or more directly to the base of an alcove (Pickering 1934, 185). The combination of material used for the portrait (oolitic limestone) and the overall style of the piece, almost certainly indicate that the head was produced within Britain, rather than representing an expensive foreign import.
The surface of the head is very badly weathered, with significant further damage notable to the face, a variety of discrete, roughly circular indentations visible on the scan across the cheeks, nose, eyes, brow, temples and forehead. These marks are clearly not related to the fossiliferous content of the limestone, being concentrated solely across the frontal area of the portrait. The indentations, which vary in size between 7.2mm and 18.7mm in diameter and up to 5.1mm deep, appear to have been the result of repeated strikes to the face with a small hammer, chisel or blunted pick, at least 62 separate impact fractures being detectable in the scan. Given that the focus for the strikes appears to have been the nose, eyes and mouth, which have been very badly mutilated in the process, rather than simply an attempt to ‘roughen’ the piece up for alternative building use (in which case the impacts would have continued across all areas of the head), it would appear likely that the damage was the result of a deliberate attempt at disfigurement directed primarily at the sensory organs. Similar ‘frenzied’ attacks by assailants intent on obliterating identity have been noted in the imperial portraiture of those Roman leaders consigned to post-mortem memory sanctions (damnatio memoriae), such as Nero, Domitian and Geta (Varner 2004, 49-50, 113-14, 276-8).
Toynbee thought the Hinckley portrait was either of an emperor or an emperor’s relative, adding that it was probably Britannicus, Claudius’ biological heir, as the face ‘is younger than that of Nero as we know it from his earliest coins struck in 54 when he was seventeen’ (Toynbee 1964, 48). Since the 1960s, however, additional, albeit frequently partial, portraits of the Emperor Nero have been recovered archaeologically which, when combined with imagery recorded from coinage, indicate that there were four major portrait types created for the fifth emperor, each celebrating an important event in his 14-year reign and the years immediately preceding it.
The earliest portrait type celebrates Nero’s formal adoption, in AD 50 when he was thirteen, by his uncle, the Emperor Claudius, while the second marks his later teenage years following his accession to the imperial throne in AD 54. Three of the best-known examples in stone of the young teenage prince are today curated by the Musée du Louvre, Paris (Giroire and Roger 2007, 80-1), the Detroit Institute of Arts (Hiesinger 1975, figs 30-1) and the Museo Nazionale di Antichità in Parma (Hiesinger 1975, 115-17; reproduced here as Figure 13). All three portray a toga-wearing youth with carefully combed, central-parted coiffure and lengthy curling sideburns, smooth, regular face, small rounded chin, almond-shaped eyes, aquiline nose and crisply defined lips (Kleiner 1992, 136; Varner 2004, 48).
Portraits of Nero produced at the time of his rise to power in AD 54 (Figure 9), depict an individual who, despite sporting the same centrally parted hairstyle of his youth, has slightly more mature, muscular facial features with more clearly defined cheekbones, nose and chin (Kleiner 1992, 138; Varner 2004, 48). A good example of the ‘Accession type’, produced around AD 55, is today curated by the Museo Nazionale in Cagliari, Sardinia (Kleiner 1992, 136-8; Varner 2004, 48; reproduced here as Figure 10).
Figure 10: Portrait of Nero from his second major portrait phase of AD 54-9 (© Museo Nazionale, Cagliari)
Although damage to the face of the Hinckley head precludes a definitive correlation with likenesses of Nero derived from his first and second major portrait types (AD 50-9), in all cases, the British piece compares well, especially with regard to the position and shape of the eyes, chin and ears and the nature of the coiffure. Given the slightly more muscular nature of the cheeks and chin, it is perhaps more likely that the portrait belongs to the period immediately following Nero’s accession in AD 54.
Portrait 3 – Fishbourne
The life-size head of a young man from the later 1st-century Roman palace of Fishbourne in West Sussex (Figure 11) is the only one of the three portraits under study here to possess a degree of archaeological context. The piece, made of white Italian marble, was found in 1964, in layer 6, Trench 181, (Gordon Hayden pers. comm.; Rob Symmons and Karen Newman pers. comm.), a sample transect cut across the north wing of the palace. Layer 6 is described, in the excavation site notebook, as the homogeneous fill of a north–south aligned robber trench, cut along the line of the wall originally separating room N9 from N10. No mention is made in the notebook of associated dating evidence, other than building rubble.
Figure 11: The Fishbourne head (Authors’ photo, courtesy of the Sussex Archaeological Society)
Given the recorded provenance of the portrait fragment, apparently from the fill of a late 3rd-century AD robber trench (Cunliffe 1971b, 155; Cunliffe and Fulford 1982, 24), it is quite possible that the object represents something that had been broken up and discarded at the time of the palace’s destruction by fire and subsequent demolition (Cunliffe 1971a, 205; 1998, 141-6). The problem is, of course, that we have no way of knowing whether the Fishbourne portrait had been intact at the time of demolition, only to be vandalised and then discarded by the stone robbers, or whether it had in fact already been in the foundations of the palace, as had a number of architectural fragments belonging to an earlier proto-palace phase (Cunliffe 1971a, 126), only to be re-disturbed in the later 3rd-century during the ransacking of the burnt-out walls. Given the probable mid-1st century date of the piece (see below), the latter interpretation, that of discarded rubble resulting from the demolition phase of the proto-palace (prior to the construction of the main palace), seems, on the face of it, to be the most likely.
Since its discovery, the head has been curated by the Sussex Archaeological Society and had been on permanent display in the Museum of Fishbourne palace.
The fragment of face measures 5.8cm in width, from the inner edge of the right ear to the centre of the nose, and is 6.0cm high, from the base of the chin to the damaged tip of the nose (Figure 12). An overall height from the base of the chin to the top of the hair is estimated to be approximately 14.3cm. Only part of the face, comprising the right ear, right cheek, the lower right eyelid, lower nose, mouth, part of the chin and small areas of the neck, right temple and hair, survives today.
Figure 12: 3D scan of the Fishbourne head (Bournemouth University).
The head was removed from the body with some force, probably with an axe or other bladed tool, substantial blows to the face further fragmenting the image with severe damage noticeable across nose and chin. A single blow, angled at 45 degrees to the left side of the face, fractured the chin, a further heavy impact detaching the forehead and front of the face. This attack upon the face has created a somewhat distorted image, Toynbee observing that the surviving full portrait view is ‘decidedly attractive’, while from the side, ‘the projecting lips and thick, rather snub nose’ is ‘unprepossessing’ (Toynbee 1971, 156). There is a discoloured area across the surviving right cheek and the surface is pitted, indicating either damage sustained at the time of statue dismemberment or, more likely, during the final destruction of Fishbourne palace by fire in the later 3rd-century AD.
Facial features, especially the right eye and mouth, are crisply defined with a small and well-rounded chin. The unformed features, rounded cheeks and general lack of facial muscle tone, shows that the individual portrayed was in early youth (Toynbee 1971, 156), possibly aged between ten and thirteen (Henig 1996, 83). The coiffure is well defined and combed slightly away from the face in thick comma-shaped locks, a single sideburn delicately curling over the right ear. No evidence of the fringe survives. A small triangular ‘excrescence’ of marble extends out behind the right ear (Toynbee 1971, 156). This does not appear to relate to the original hairstyle and may instead have formed part of an ornate element of head attire, perhaps a laurel wreath or crown, such as the corona civica, an oak leaf crown the wearing of which, by the mid-1st century AD, had become an imperial prerogative (Hiesinger 1975, 115).
The top half of the head is flattened, gradually slanting down from the forehead towards the nape of the neck. This flat surface is slightly dimpled, with two roughly parallel bands of lozenge-shaped holes measuring 4-5mm in width and around 7mm deep. A larger hole penetrates the central area, the discoloured edges of which suggest rusting of an iron dowel or clamp. Given the sloping nature of the upper head, dimples, dowel-hole and the triangular marble ‘excrescence’, it seems possible that the top of the head had originally been carved as a separate piece to be fitted later. This could in turn imply that the youth had originally belonged to a larger (possibly family) portrait group, with the steadying hand of an elder potentially ‘resting on his head’ (Cunliffe 1971c, 206).
Alternatively, the young man may, as already indicated, have originally been sporting a laurel wreath or crown, or possibly even a separate helmet or metallic headdress (Cunliffe 1971c, 206). Toynbee (1971, 156), however, doubted that a metal helmet or other form of head attire would have been worn in this instance, as Roman children of the early empire tended to be shown bare-headed. On the other hand, it possible that the ‘sliced’ appearance of the head reflects nothing more than a shortage of available marble at the time of manufacture (Soffe and Henig 1999, 9), the dimpled incisions being added so that a more malleable material, such as a plaster or stucco, could more effectively adhere to the stone (Padgett 2001, 22).
Toynbee noted that the artistic treatment of the Fishbourne head was suggestive of a young man from the Julio-Claudian family, though she could not see why the owner of the palace or proto-palace would have adorned it with the portrait of a child unless that child ‘were his own offspring’ (Toynbee 1971, 156). This particular view has developed further in more recent years to the point that it has been stated that the portrait represents a son of King Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, a Romanised Briton known from an inscription found in Chichester (Collingwood and Wright 1965, 26-7; Russell 2006, 35-8), or even, perhaps, of King Togidubnus himself as a child (Henig 2002, 51). This is an undeniably attractive hypothesis, given the observation that King Togidubnus may conceivably have commissioned the earliest phase of civilian architecture at Fishbourne, the proto-palace. If it were Togidubnus or a member of his family, the importance of the portrait would increase dramatically, given the paucity of ethnic Britons portrayed in stone during the Roman period.
It is worth reiterating, however, that Toynbee’s initial view that the figure possibly represented a young member of the Julio-Claudian house may, actually, not be that wide of the mark, for there would indeed be every reason why the palace or proto-palace owner would want the portrait of a another person’s child if, say for example, that child was an important member of the imperial family.
Figure 13: Portrait of Nero from his first major portrait phase of AD 50/51-54, found in the basilica at Velleia, Italy (© Museo Nazionale di Antichità, Parma)
As has already been noted, in the discussion of the Hinckley head, three of the best-known examples in stone of the young teenage Nero can today be found in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (provenance unknown: Giroire and Roger 2007, 80-1), the Detroit Institute of Arts (from Asia Minor: Hiesinger 1975, figs 30-1) and the Museo Nazionale di Antichità in Parma (originally part of a family group housed in the basilica at Velleia, Italy: Hiesinger 1975, 115-17; reproduced here as Figure 13). All three examples portray a toga-wearing youth with carefully combed, central-parted coiffure and lengthy curling sideburns, smooth, regular face, small rounded chin, almond-shaped eyes, aquiline nose and crisply defined lips (Kleiner 1992, 136; Varner 2004, 48). These were probably all created in acknowledgement of Nero becoming heir apparent (in place of Claudius’ biological son Britannicus) and were intended to be swiftly disseminated throughout the empire.
The new 3D scan of the smashed portrait from Fishbourne clearly shows the rounded cheeks and the full curving lips that feature so strongly mirror those of the toga-wearing Nero on display in Parma and Paris, as do the slightly protruding ears, curving locks of hair and almond-shaped eyes. As with the Hinckley head, a close match for the Fishbourne portrait may therefore be found within the earliest portrait types of Nero, in this instance one created at, or shortly after, formal adoption by Claudius in AD 50 while still only thirteen (Figure 14).
Discussion: Finding Nero
Nero was the fifth emperor to rule Rome and the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty to hold power. It was under Nero, the adopted heir and successor to Claudius, that imperial policy in Britain began to formalise and it is not surprising, therefore, that his portrait should appear prominently within the province. Admittedly, neither the London nor the Hinckley heads were recovered from what could be described as reliable contexts, but that does not make them wholly inadmissible as archaeological evidence. Their nature, the Hinckley head in particular being manufactured from local oolitic limestone, and battered form makes it unlikely that either represents a recent import, such as the kind of statuary purchased by 18th- or 19th-century participants in the Grand Tour (Coltman 2009), for neither piece is so well preserved as to have warranted costly transportation back to Britain and neither appears to have been associated with a country seat or great collecting estate. In short, their Romano-British credentials would appear to be secure.
Although the exact archaeological context of the Great Eastern Street head is unknown, it may be possible to infer that it derived from a life-sized marble portrait of the fifth emperor standing somewhere within the city precincts of Londinium, just south of its recorded find spot. As the image appears to be of Nero in his third main phase of portraiture (AD 59-64), it is just conceivable that the piece was in existence at the time of the great Boudiccan Revolt of AD 60/61, the native uprising that obliterated the fledgling Roman towns of Colchester (Camulodunum), London (Londinium) and St Albans (Verulamium). If so, then decapitation, mutilation and subsequent deposition of the head a short distance from contemporary Roman settlement could be explained as an example of insurgency trophy taking: a likeness of the hated emperor to be mocked, defiled and then deposited as a ritual offering to native British gods.
It is, however, perhaps more likely, given the potential date range for manufacture of the London head when combined with the time taken to transport it to distant Britain, that the portrait entered the island at some point after the suppression of the Boudiccan revolt in AD 61. As such, it could have formed part of a statue group created in order to commemorate the rebuilding of London and to emphasise and underline the resurgence of Roman power following suppression of native resistance.
In such a scenario, an explanation for both the battered state of the London head and its deposition some way from known contemporary Roman activity may be found in the events that followed Nero’s death in AD 68. The fifth emperor had, prior to his suicide, been declared a hostis by the senate; an evildoer whose life and deeds required purging from collective memory of the Roman people. Over time, his image was replaced, defaced or simply overthrown in a process known today as damnatio memoriae, the effective ‘cancellation of a bad emperor’s identity and accomplishments’ (Varner 2004, 2). The hiding, eradication or recarving of imperial likenesses during such memory sanctions was an effective way of ensuring that not only did a particular emperor no longer exist, but that they had never existed.
A contemporary account of the feelings released in this process of vandalism is provided by Pliny the Younger who notes, following the downfall of the Emperor Domitian in AD 96, that:
‘his countless statues of gold were offered up, in a heap of rubble, as fitting sacrifice to the public delight. It was a joy to smash the arrogant face to pieces in the dust, to threaten them with the sword and savagely attack them with axes, as if blood and pain would follow on from every single blow’ (Panegyric in praise of Trajan, 52.4)
Evidence of such memory sanctions can be found in most of the surviving portraits of Nero, Mediterranean likenesses having been deliberately defaced or mutilated (Varner 2000, 11-19; 2004, 49-50). In some instances the primary objective of such attacks appears to have been decapitation, erasing identity while simultaneously generating a ‘different sort of cult object’ that could then be deposited elsewhere (Croxford 2003, 88). Once removed, a number of heads of Nero appear to have been buried or thrown into rivers or other bodies of water; the desire to remove and bury a particular portrait apparently overriding any economic consideration or recycling value that the piece may have possessed (Varner 2004, 72; 2005, 73).
As a portrait created in the latter half of Nero’s reign, the London head could plausibly have fallen victim to the apparently empire-wide wave of post-AD 68 anti-Neronian feeling. In such a scenario, the likeness could have been forcibly dislocated from its body, the face being deliberately and repeatedly battered in the process, before discard some distance from any form of habitation: effectively casting the likeness of the disgraced princeps out and away from polite Romano-British society.
The Hinckley head of Nero at or shortly after his accession in AD 54, is perhaps more difficult to interpret, given that its find spot appears isolated from the sort of elite 1st-century AD settlement that would potentially have commissioned such a portrait in the first place. Toynbee thought that, as a freestanding bust carved from British limestone, the piece could plausibly represent a privately owned image paid for ‘by an officer … stationed on Watling Street’ (Toynbee 1964, 48-9). That the artefact was probably a herm originally fitted to a plinth or column or set within a niche or alcove, may strengthen the theory that it was indeed a private commission and was not an artefact designed for public consumption.
Whether the Hinckley bust had originally been on show within a military installation, religious building or civilian residence, cannot be satisfactorily determined. It is interesting to note, however, that the likeness was found close to the line of Watling Street where, it has been suggested, the Roman army inflicted a final defeat upon the Boudiccan insurgents in AD 61 (e.g. Webster 1993). Could the head represent an example of loot or British trophy-taking deposited or lost during the final moments of the revolt? Possibly, although it is perhaps more likely that its mutilation, as evident in the frenzied attempts to obliterate facial identity, and subsequent discard, had, as with the Great Eastern head from London, more to do with the process of memory sanctions (damnatio memoriae) that followed the demise of the fifth emperor.
It is within this context that the head of the ‘Fishbourne boy’ can also be placed. As already noted, it is possible that the destruction and burial of the portrait occurred when the palace was being robbed, following its fiery demise in the later 3rd-century AD. Given, however, that the image seems to represent a mid-1st century AD likeness of Nero (from his earliest portrait type), it is perhaps more likely that the piece formed an architectural detail from an earlier phase of building, rather than a 3rd-century survival, being broken up and reused during the huge redevelopment of the site in the later 1st century. In this, the head would have been treated in much the same way as the Corinthian capitals of the proto-palace, discovered smashed and dumped in the post-packing of the later palace gardens (Strong 1971, 11-14). It should be noted, in this respect, that the sculpture had apparently been decapitated with significant attempts being made to strike and damage the face. Again, this is exactly the sort of attack one would expect during the outpouring of anger associated with damnatio memoriae: assailants attempting to ‘hurt’ the portrait by directing violence towards the sensory organs of the face, especially the nose and eyes, in order to render the image unrecognisable.
Unlike the other portraits under consideration here, the Fishbourne boy was discovered within an area unaffected by the violence that swept southern Britain during the Boudiccan revolt and is, therefore, perhaps unlikely to have been targeted during the events of AD 60-1. The deposition of smashed portrait fragments into the foundations of Fishbourne palace, a later 1st-century building that effectively swept away all trace of the Neronian proto-palace phase, could, in this context, have originally been seen as an entirely appropriate fate for the discredited fifth emperor, echoing the changes to imperial-sponsored architecture occurring elsewhere across the empire under the Flavian regime of Vespasian (AD 69-79), Titus (AD 79-81) and Domitian (AD 81-96).
The formal identification of the fifth emperor Nero from three fragmentary portraits recovered from British contexts demonstrates that the province of Britannia was not totally devoid of imperial stone imagery, at least in the 1st century AD.
Portraits of the Roman emperor were works of art that swiftly transmitted the official likeness in a uniform manner to all provinces and major centres of population. The image of the princeps was spread primarily throughout the empire via coins, although official portraits in stone are likely to have been established in key public and official locales, ensuring that the physical presence of the head of state was both a familiar and essential element of provincial life. Here, as cult images, portraits could provide the focus of obedience and devotion to the State. For the native population, especially members of the indigenous elite, very public worship of the emperor underlined fidelity to Rome, a key condition in the process of acceptance and naturalisation.
The newly identified portraits of Nero recovered from London, Hinckley and Fishbourne highlight the relative need of elements within the native and local administration of Britain to be seen as being ‘Roman’, even if the greater population may have remained largely unaffected by Mediterranean cultural contact, and further emphasises the position of the emperor, the first citizen of Rome, at the heart of all things.
The pilot study has served to highlight the importance of 3D laser scanning to produce an objective record of badly damaged portraiture that can be analysed and compared with positively identified portraits throughout the empire and beyond. In addition, the pilot survey has, we hope, helped to focus attention upon the need to re-examine museum-held artefacts carefully, whatever their condition, preservation or state of knowledge concerning original context and associations. At last, these three important, yet largely neglected, sculptures are able to contribute in a meaningful way to the archaeological debate concerning Britannia, the representation of the emperor and the treatment of the imperial image in the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire.
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