4. Conclusions: Sanctioning Memory or Changing Identity?

The two positive 3D laser scan identifications of Nero within the sculptural collections of Petworth and Wilton are important because they provide further evidence for the official, state-sanctioned image of the fifth princeps, providing us with a better idea of how he originally wished to be seen by his people. The example recorded from Petworth provides further evidence for the earliest of Nero's portrait types, the so-called adoption image (made from AD50), for which good examples may be found in the Museums of Parma and Paris, while that from the Wilton collection provides the only certain example of a transitional portrait type that appears to have existed between the accession images (of AD54-59) and the quinquennial type (of AD59-64).

The articulation of Julio-Claudian identity as an essential tool of the state is apparent in the proliferation of imperial portraiture throughout the provinces during the first half of the 1st century AD. The image of the princeps was spread primarily via coinage, although official portraits in bronze or stone were established within towns, temples and other key public locations, ensuring that the physical presence of the emperor was embedded within and close to all major centres of population. Although the original context of the Petworth and Wilton heads will probably never be known, both being casualties of antiquarian collecting mania, we can at least note, as both derived almost certainly from Italy, that they provide further important evidence from the political heart of the Roman Empire as to the nature of the state-sanctioned image of the princeps.

Nero was the first emperor of Rome to be officially declared a hostis, or evil element, by the Senate during the closing moments of his reign meaning that, had he been caught alive, he would surely have been stripped and beaten to death with rods (Varner 2004, 47). In committing suicide, Nero deprived the Senate of an opportunity to publicly punish and humiliate him, although the destruction and mutilation of his portraiture, as a post-mortem punishment, was later actively encouraged during the reigns of both Galba and Vespasian (Varner 2004, 47).

The modern term damnatio memoriae can be summarised as a memory sanction designed to completely cancel out 'a bad emperor's identity and accomplishments from the collective consciousness' of the Roman people (Varner 2004, 2): an apparently empire-wide posthumous eradication of an individual's existence through the post-mortem abuse of official portraiture. Portrait abuse could, on the other hand, also be used in order to 'perpetuate the negative memory of the overthrown emperor', the vandalised statue, if kept in place, not only demonstrating to an audience that the regime had been effectively overthrown, but also as a not-so-subtle way of placing the new order, and new emperor, in a contrasting positive light (Fejfer 2008, 377).

Most of the surviving portraits of the Emperor Nero that we have today have been deliberately vandalised, mutilated or defaced in some way. From the island of Cos, in the eastern Mediterranean, an accession-type Nero portrait, originally standing in the agora, was attacked with a chisel, creating a T-shaped pattern of battering across the eyes, nose and mouth (Varner 2004, 49). Having been thus defaced, the image may well have remained on public display as a constant and visible symbol of Nero's posthumous denigration. A similar T-shaped pattern of assault, carried out with either a hammer, chisel or blunted pick, has severely damaged the face of a post-accession portrait of the fifth emperor found on the Italian mainland (now on display in the Museo Nazionale Cagliari, Sardinia: Hiesinger 1975, 118; Varner 2004, 237) and an accession-type head discovered at Hinckley in England (now on display in Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester: Russell and Manley 2013a, 3.2). Quinquennial or decennial statues of Nero, from the theatre at Vicenza, northern Italy (Varner 2004, 49-50) and London, England (Russell and Manley 2013a, 3.1), have had their facial features removed altogether, leaving only traces of Nero's distinctive crested coiffure.

Unfortunately, neither the Petworth nor Wilton heads provide further, unequivocal detail as to the nature of the memory sanctions that followed Nero's demise in AD68. It is possible, as already noted, that the nature of portrait fragmentation could relate to the severe type of sanctions that resulted in the destruction and mutilation of images from Syracuse, Vienne and London (Varner 2004, 237-8; Russell and Manley 2013a, 3.1), but, in the absence of a detailed record of their condition at the time of discovery, damage could just as easily have derived from a programme of 17th or 18th-century restoration.

Ultimately, the identification of two fragmentary and rather overlooked sculptural pieces, nearly three centuries after their initial discovery, shows that important finds still await identification within the great classical antiquarian collections of Europe's stately homes, and that, despite concerns over context and relative degree of restoration, significant conclusions may still be made.

The new identifications further raise a number of issues concerning the modern perception of ancient statuary. Should we, for example, treat the statues on display in stately homes or other private collections, as mere objects designed purely to beautify their surroundings, in the manner of the Grand Tour dilettantes, or should we consider their archaeological/art history significance in a more objective light, stripping away later additions and restorations in order to display and define more clearly only genuine areas of ancient survival? Interestingly, it was the art restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi who, as long ago as 1768, warned against the creation of inaccurate marble facsimiles, cautioning both collectors and restorers about the importance of clearly demonstrating the distinction between original and modern replacement (Fejfer 1997, 2-3). Sadly it would appear that, in the intervening two and a half centuries, his advice has not always been heeded.