HISTORY / POLITICS

The Meroë Head of Augustus: statue decapitation as political propaganda

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.

British Museum blog

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. Roman, 27?25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1) The Meroë Head. Roman, 27?25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

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…

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