4. 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).


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