Damned and emulated imperial memories: The marble portrait of Constantine, Rome. Reconfiguration, re

Reusing and recycling pre-existent material for creating new works have always been a common practice among human activities for several reasons. Roman architect and writer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio stated, in his well-known treatise on architecture titled De Architectura, “haec autem ita fieri debent, ut habeatur ratio firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis”, which means that all the works that have to be done need to aim for ‘firmitas’ (strenght), ‘utilitas’ (functionality), and lastly ‘venustas’ (beauty). In this theoretical framework, we need to look at the Roman custom of recycling material as a practical way of considering art and architecture, and as an expression of the pragmatic perspective towards the creation of portraits and buildings. Vitruvius is telling us that Romans used to subordinate the aesthetics to the utilitas. When dealing with the practice of reuse in Roman marble portraits, we need firstly to take into account the basic notion of damnatio memoriae, aemulatio, and translatio memoriae.

In this essay I will argue how the configuration of Constantine’s portrait, among all the other imperial portraitures, is structured on the ideas of translatio and aemulatio (i.e. on the political ideology of Constantine himself), rather than on the usual economic and logistic reasons.

In the Roman world, “some images were altered simply because the person represented no longer mattered […] or because members of the imperial family (who) had suffered political damnation. Such a fate has often been referred to by the Latin neologism damnatio memoriae” (Pollini). The practice of deliberate damaging the image of ‘bad’ emperors deals with the Roman conception of memory: when ‘ruining’ the image of a damned emperor, Romans meant to remember the emperor not to get his wrong leadership repeated.

The highest honor was to have a portrait, because it would have lasted in history and inspired people. By contrast, therefore, the highest dishonor was to have the portrait unmade (damaged or eliminated). Those ‘damned’ images were often reused and recut to set up the imperial image of the successor usually - and in most cases - not to waste material (economic reason) or time (practical reason). Scholar Pollini also argues that, for instance, in the case of the equestrian statue of Nerva (fig. 1) whose image was set up from his damned predecessor Domitian, the sculptor also took advantage of the similarity in hairstyles of Domitian and Nerva. After Domitian’s death, the Senate damned his memory, and therefore the neo-emperor, Nerva, wanted to quickly replace all Domitian’s portraits with his face. Both practical and economic reasons seem to be behind the reconfiguration of Nerva’s portraiture. Since Nerva was already old when he became emperor, he would not have ruled for much longer, and so his portraiture needed to be set up in short time. Sculptors had to find a way out to quickly design Nerva’s portraiture, and reusing Domitian’s was likely to be the easiest and most practical manner to do so. However, there might have also been an ideological reason for this reuse. Indeed, if on the one hand the image of Nerva was quickly and easily set up, on the other hand, the awkward result of the physiognomic transformation, as scholar Vout also argues, did not really provide an aesthetic value (fig. 2). “The face really does not fit. In stark contrast to the animation of the rest of the rider, whose head would have initially been twisted to the left and have looked down, and indeed to the horse, whose mouth is open as though neighing, the addition appears unnatural in its angle, more obviously man-made and less life-like” (Vout). Caroline Vout does not seem however to take into account the Roman perspective regarding the creation of an imperial portrait, instead she merely looks at Nerva’s portrait as a mashup that would look strange and unpleasant to both modern and ancient viewers. “The weight of ideology should not trump aesthetics. Aesthetics is ideology” (Vout). Vitruvius, instead, has already taught us in his De Architectura that Romans were more concerned about the functionality of a work rather than about its aesthetics. We might therefore argue that there was a much deeper reason for the reconfiguration of Nerva’s statue from Diocletian’s. Firstly, creating a sort of ‘awkward mashup’ to quickly design Nerva’s portraiture was the only way to make it possible, beauty and visual appeal would have been overcome without questioning. Indeed, until Constantine, the priority in Roman portraiture is always the recognizability. Rather, the visual appeal of an image belongs to the Hellenistic world as a way to idealize and not to portray. Portraiture requires recognizability by definition, especially when it comes to imperial images. Nerva needed to be identified as the better successor to the damned Domitian, whose memory was very damaged by the practical and economic exploitation of his imperial images right after his death. The average Roman, looking at Nerva’s portraits, would have seen the recuts and noticed the replacement of Diocletian’s image with the face of Nerva, the better emperor that succeeded the damned predecessor. Vout argues that the recycled images of Nerva would have emphasized disposability from the outset (Vout). Nonetheless, Nerva’s images, precisely because recycled and precisely because of the way they are recut, would have been perceived by the contemporaries as a way to exorcise Diocletian’s memory, rather than a way to underrate the figure of Nerva himself. Also, by reconfiguring and exorcising Diocletian’s figure, the strong contrast between Nerva’s and Diocletian’s characters would have been even more emphasized. Since the equestrian statue belongs to the Shrine of the Augustales in Misenum (fig. 3), Titus and Vespasian’s statues (fig. 4) were the perfect ‘company’ to Nerva’s statue to create a sort of group-portraits of good emperors who made Rome great. In this context, the very absence of Diocletian would have really been the main statement of the ‘awkward’ Nerva’s portrait. The recut is so evident that it would not have been done accidentally or simply for economic/practical/timing reasons, especially since it would have been much easier to just cut the whole head of Diocletian off and to model a new one for Nerva. “Recutting a preexisting portrait was considerably more difficult than carving a like-ness ex novo” (Varner). The clear absence of Diocletian, instead, is a real statement against the figure and memory of Diocletian himself; his memory is much more damned within the imperial scenario of the Augustales that sees the statues of Titus, Vespasian, and Nerva as Roman imperial lineage display (and therefore lacking Diocletian’s image). Caroline Vout in her essay seems not to consider the whole ideological framework behind this case study, but in fact she tries to use a modern interpretation towards the Roman recycled portraiture explained by solely practical reasons.

Instead, it would be much more interesting and useful for a critical understanding to notice how there would have been a variety of reasons for emperors to reconfigure their public image from pre-existing images. In this realm, we should also take into consideration the very absence of certain portraits as an act of crude violence towards the memory of those damned. Damnatio memoriae, besides being an act of deliberate damage, was a practice that paradoxically created a strong memory of the damned individual in the Roman history. The removal and storage of statues carry a strong meaning: “Absences arguably speak loudest” (Vout): it is not by chance, indeed, that the statues of Geta (brother of Caracalla and son of Septimus Severus and Julia Domna) were destroyed or warehoused after Geta’s death and damnation. For Romans treated silence as representation (Hedrick), they might have treated abolitio memoriae differently from damnatio memoriae. While Diocletian’s portraits were displaced, Geta’s were totally eliminated, even on coinage (fig. 5). The Arch of the Argentarii (fig. 6) represents a major instance of how abolitio memoriae would have been used by Caracalla as a mean to establish his power as emperor able even to cancel the memory of his damned murdered brother from Roman history. However, the very absence of Geta’s images on the Arch of the Argentarii is in fact a reminder of Geta’s persona (Vout). In other words, Geta became absence.

In the case studies that we have just analyzed, the portraiture of a damned not only is reused but sometimes even removed, representing an act of disgust and will to eradicate the figure of the bad emperor from the collective memory.

While Caracalla was able to eliminate his brother’s portraiture, Constantine gained a new record in the practice of portrait reconfiguration. Not only did Constantine reset the idea of Roman portraiture by giving recognizability up (Smith), but he also reconfigured his public image in such a way that even 21st century’s viewers start thinking of the Roman recycling of imperial portraits from a new perspective. In its “reused historiated reliefs” (Kinney), the arch of Constantine, (fig. 7), built by the Roman state to honor Constantine, stands out because of the exemplary works of reconfiguration of much earlier portraits. “Old reliefs from monuments of honored and deified emperors were reused on the arch with the heads of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius either reworked into or replaced by images of Constantine […]. These old imperial reliefs were obviously not altered in relation to a memoria damnata; rather, they were specifically chosen to represent Constantine as the new Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. This example of recutting constitutes, in a sense, a form of translatio memoriae, a transformative and at the same time positive renovation and reformulation of memory” (Pollini). The idea behind the reconfiguration and reuse of material during Constantine shifted from the usual ‘exorcism’ and memory damnation of the bad emperors to the reminder of the good old emperors whose memory was transferred into the image of Constantine. When looking the Arch of Constantine, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius are not more Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius since Constantine’s image was set on all of them. Constantine’s portraiture configuration represents the first example in Roman portraiture of selective recutting of portraits for ideological reasons that aim for a positive emulation (Pollini). The Senate, by making the arch this way, clearly referred to the hope for Constantine ruling by traditions following the examples of the fathers of the Roman Empire.

Constantine, in the late empire, for the configuration of his public image, made use of both the translatio/emulatio memoriae and the usual damnatio memoriae as well. Constantine, since he came to power after years of civil war and lastly after defeating Maxentius, was considered as the emperor who brought back peace and order in Rome. Art historians Smith and Fejfer argue the great impact Constantine’s rule had on the styling of the imperial image in such a way to create a youthful idealized focused on a return to Alexander the Great-look. Constantine’s portraiture reference to past emperors was easily ‘constructed’ from the fact that already the Senate honored him by linking his figure to the ones of great emperors on the Arch of Constantine.

Aemulatio enabled Constantine to reinforce the relation between his persona as emperor and, among the others, the one of emperor Hadrian. The Basilica Nova (Basilica of Maxentius) (fig. 8) erected by Maxentius in 308 AD, completed and rededicated by Constantine in 312, initially displayed a colossal marble portrait of Maxentius recut from a much earlier of Hadrian. Constantine made a new entrance on the lateral side of the Basilica and recut the very colossal marble portrait of Hadrian/Maxentius. In so doing, Constantine made use of both damnatio and aemulato/translatio memoriae: he clearly aimed to replace Maxentius, damn his memory, reuse his Basilica, and most importantly recut his colossal marble portrait too.

Constantine’s colossal portrait (fig. 9) highlights both the ideological interest in looking like Alexander the Great and emperor Hadrian, and the will to damn even more Maxentius’s memory by reconfiguring his image such evidently. We saw how important it was for Romans to gain the honor of a portrait. Even more important though was the honor of a colossal marble portrait such as the one found in the Basilica Nova; in this context, Constantine was able to make Maxentius become an absence in the basilica he himself had erected, similarly to what Nerva did by recutting Diocletian’s equestrian statue. However, in the case of Constantine the cut is not ‘awkward’ but in fact it is smartly designed to create an aesthetic pleasant look much closer to the idealized Hellenistic statues than to the Roman portraits. Especially the upward gaze is a clear reference to the usual Alexander-the-Great’s look (Smith) (fig. 10) as well as the hairstyle with the typical comma shape on the forehead, which is a feature already Augustus adopted for his imperial portraiture (fig. 11); “the coiffure over both the left and right temples has been extensively readapted with separately worked pieces of marble” (Varner). From the original Hadrian’s portrait, we still have the peculiar ears: Hadrian had very uncommon earlobe shape with a sulcus, a skin sign caused by coronary artery disease from which Hadrian died (BMJ) (fig. 12). This detail on Constantine’s portrait remains visible especially on the right ear, which is significant enough to claim how Constantine, as well as Maxentius, earlier strongly wanted to look back to Hadrian. Indeed, by recutting their imperial image from Hadrian’s, both Constantine and Maxentius unavoidably linked themselves in terms of good leadership and imperial values to Hadrian’s rule: in other words, both of them emulated and translated Hadrian’s memory into their own imperial portraiture. The contemporaries would have firstly noticed the absence of Maxentius in Constantine’s portrait and then seen the references to the Alexandrian idealization, which includes the complete shaven look along with the gaze and hairstyle, and the clear connection to the imperial portrait of Hadrian.

The reconfiguration of Constantine’s portrait, therefore, brings up a variety of meanings and reasons that are not simply connected to the practical and economic aspects. Rather, this innovative reconfiguration implies a much stronger, deeper, and even complex reading of both the details and the whole portrait. Constantine was able to match the practice of ‘recycling’ material with the subtle ideology that his colossal portrait carries on. Political engagement constitutes the peculiar construction of the portraiture of Constantine, whose rule was unique as first sole emperor of Rome. Because of his uniqueness, it was necessary for his public figure to be unique as well, and based on his complex ideology and firm will of showing interest in the Roman mores.

We have seen how the Roman practice of recutting and reusing material in portraiture changed according to the need of each imperial portrait configuration. It is arguable then that Constantine stepped towards a more complete reconfiguration of the imperial portraiture, both in terms of practical reuse/recycle and ideological/political meanings, able to combine the usual practice of damnatio memoriae and an innovative way of emulating good past emperors.

Works Cited

BMJ, “Any Questions?”, British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition) 290, 6476 (1985): 1205.

Fejfer, J. (2008) Roman Portraits in Context. De Gruyter.

Hedrick, Charles. History and Silence: purge and rehabilitation of memory in late antiquity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Kinney, Dale. "Spolia, damnatio and renovatio memoriae". Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. 42(1997): 117-148.

Pollini, John. "Recutting Roman portraits: problems in interpretation and the new technology in finding possible solutions". Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 44 (2010): 23-44.

Smith, Roland. "Roman Portraits: honours, empresses and late emperors". Journal of Roman Studies 75 (1985): 209-221.

Varner, Eric. "Reconfiguring Roman portraits: theories and practices". Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 55 (2010): 45-56.

Vitruvius. De Architectura, 1,2. 15BC.

Vout, Caroline. "The art of ‘damnatio memoriae’". In S. Benoist and A. Daguet-Gagey (eds), Un discours en images de la condemnation de mémoire. (2008) 153-172. Centre Régional Universitaire Lorrain d’Histoire.

Fig. 1 Bronze Equestrian Statue of Nerva, portrait recut from Domitian. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy. Erected in AD 95, from Shrine of the Augustales, Misenum

Fig. 2 Bronze Equestrian Statue of Nerva, portrait recut from Domitian. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy. Erected in AD 95, from Shrine of the Augustales, Misenum

Fig. 3 Shrine of the Augustales, Misenum

Fig. 4 Titus and Vespasian, AD 96 ca., from Shrine of the Augustales, Misenum

Fig. 5 Severan Tondo, AD 199 ca, portrait of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and damnatio memoria of Geta

Fig. 6 Arch of the Argentarii, reliefs with details of the elimination of Geta’s image. Rome, AD 204 ca.

Fig. 7 Arch of Constantine, AD 315. Rome.

Fig. 8 Basilica of Maxentius, AD 308. Rome.

Fig. 9 Colossal Marble Portrait of Constantine, from Basilica Nova, now in Palazzo Conservatori, AD 315 ca.

Fig. 10 Alexander the Great, from Pella, ca. 200-150 B.C

Fig. 11 Augustus portrait, Prima Porta Type, Vatican Museum Rome, AD 15, from Villa of Livia

Fig. 12 Marble Portrait of Hadrian, from Santa Bibiana, AD 120 ca.

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