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Image et droit

Naïma Ghermani
Caroline Michel D'Annoville

Du refus à la regulation des images

Mimesis and the necessity of destruction

Animism and evil in Damnatio Memoriae portraits

Marina Prusac


In Antiquity, Roman portraits were not considered as physical material only. There was an abstract faculty to them, which can be called presence. When unpopular individuals were subjected to eternal oblivion, damnatio memoriae, their portraits were demolished. It is argued that the portraits of disgraced individuals had to be destroyed not only because of what they represented visually, but also because of their presence. A term minted by Plato, mimesis, is used on the production of portraits and their presence, and leads to a new hypothesis regarding why damnatio memoriae portraits had to be destroyed. In the discussion on mimesis in relation to portraits, anthropological perspectives on animism are highly relevant.

Entrées d'index

Texte intégral


  • 1 Kerényi 1962, p. 30.
  • 2 Buber 1953, p. 19.
  • 3 For statues and presence in Roman times, see Elsner 2012, p. 370; Perry 2015; Prusac 2011, p. 23-2 (...)

1The aggression towards images, divine and human, Karl Kerényi explained, sprang in the Greek past out of a reverence for the anthropomorphic form of divine simulacra.1 Kerényi referred to Martin Buber, who argued that all anthropomorphism is connected to the human need of something concrete in the encounter with the divine.2 According to this line of thought, the divine must be represented in something concrete in order to be understood by humans. The most accessible form is that of man, which would also be the most recognizable form of a kind of divine presence.3 Simplified, it can be put like this : When man had learned to make human-like images of gods, in which a kind of power or “force” was believed to be embedded, it soon became common also to make images of deified rulers, and later on, of ordinary beings, such as portraits.

  • 4 For a discussion on the presence of imperial sculpture in Rome and the art and agency of Alfred Ge (...)
  • 5 See e. g. Stewart 2006; Prusac 2011, p. 23-27.
  • 6 See e. g. Perry 2015, p. 663.

2This presence would exist not only in the sculptures of deities, but also in images of human beings. In the Roman portraits, presence was seen as a kind of prolongation, reflection or mirage of the personhood or persona of the depicted.4 This abstract faculty is usually referred to as prototype, archetype, or animus in the ancient sources, which are all terms that are rather untranslatable.5 For the sake of convenience, presence is used throughout this text. The fact that portrait statues of the emperor could offer adherents asylum exemplifies the belief in the presence of the emperor through his image.6

  • 7 It is not the purpose of the present text to give a theoretical overview of animism as mimesis; th (...)
  • 8 Willerslev 2007, p. 2-5.
  • 9 Willerslev 2007, p. 2.

3The idea of a relationship between image and presence was according to Kerényi something which existed before Plato wrote about mimesis in the fourth century BC. Below, I will discuss why mimesis, here understood as “imitation”, is important to our understanding of the art of portrait making in Antiquity. In modern times, mimesis has been discussed by many theorists, in particular in connection with literary theory.7 Mimesis has also been used as an explanatory model in anthropological discussions on animism.8 I have paid most attention to the latter. Hence, animism is here understood as “the set of beliefs […] whereby non-human animals (and even non-animals such as inanimate objects and spirits [my italics]) are endowed with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual qualities paralleling those of human persons.”9

4There was continuously, throughout the Greek and Roman world, a philosophical problem related to the difference between the natural and the physical realm. It would have been difficult, and completely irrelevant, to ordinary people to define the dim blurring line between the real and the constructed mythological world. Such as separation would be of little importance to ordinary people and probably considered as cloudy sophistry, if ever thought of. What happened in terms of religion on an institutional level as compared to the everyday traditions of the people must be seen as different substructures in society. The everyday traditions, which considered natural places and images as sacred, would be more apt at adding animistic qualities to images and portraits. When for example the shepherd was out in the woods, the sanctity of natural shrines connected with water sources or certain trees would seem real and unquestioned. To the modern student and scholar, with a linear time perspective it seems, however, necessary to separate the real from the constructed world, in order to understand the ancients.

  • 10 In addition to the information which can be found in the ancient, written sources, the aggression (...)
  • 11 Stichel 1982, p. 5-6; Stewart 2003, p. 283-284.

5The ancient belief that natural “forces” were embedded in the nature elucidates the idea that there was a kind of presence in the physical form of objects. The belief in a presence in imperial portraits in Antiquity is important to our understanding of the fearful aggression which some people sometimes directed (and still direct) towards images. The present paper firstly presents a brief outline of emperors subjected to damnatio memoriae and of the aggressive actions towards portraits as a possible stabilizing factor in societies in upheaval. Secondly, questions are posed as to whether mimesis and animism were more important facets to the Roman understanding of images than what is usually acknowledged. The various reactions towards images of individuals in Antiquity can be seen as expressions of collective emotions, which sometimes resulted in aggressive actions and destruction.10 On the one hand, there was hate, on the other, fear.11 When images were destroyed as a consequence of damnatio memoriae, the objectives were fully achieved.

Damnatio memoriae

  • 12 Flower 2006, p. 43. Early examples are the tyrant Hipparchus in Athens was killed in 514 BC by the (...)
  • 13 Flower 2006, p. xix. Huet 2004, p. 238 argues that the term occurs from the 1689. Flower 2006 has (...)
  • 14 See Varner 2004, p. 1-155, also for references to other sources.

6The Roman Republican examples of damnatio memoriae sprang out of the dynamic political culture of the Greek city-state, which was the context of Plato and Aristotle.12 As an expression, damnatio memoriae may seem as a Roman invention, being a Latin term, but it was actually coined in the early twentieth century, with regard to the destruction of images and memory sanctions in Antiquity.13 Sanctions, as in collective reactions towards an individual and his (or her) images. A damnatio memoriae enacted by the senate was originally carried out by the masses. It was turned into a kind of accepted or even legitimized execution of the memories of the shamed individual. Such aggressive actions were sometimes necessary in order to uphold society, as in times of transition of power. But political opposition could sometimes also lead to feigned reasons for attacking a rival and his (or her) image. When the idea that emperors were divine took shape in the first century AD, images of them were demolished once the represented individual fell in disgrace.14 On the one hand, according to the practice, the images of the individual who was removed from society had to be destroyed, since total deletion from history was necessary in order for society to forget. On the other hand, aggressive actions towards portraits could also be desired only by a minor part of the population, because they wanted to obtain or remain in power. The present text is mainly addressing the examples of damnatio memoriae which were ordered by the senate. The examples are included in the present text because they give an impression of how widespread damnatio memoriae was.

  • 15 For honorific portrait statues, see e. g. Fejfer 2008.

7Being deleted from the collective memory was the most severe punishment in a society which highly esteemed remembrance and nurtured ancestral cults. When damnatio memoriae became a widespread habit, it was not only important to destroy the images of the disgraced individuals, but also the presence of the represented through the image. Memory was closely connected to the presence of the individual, something which was expressed for example in the rituals after a funeral. The dead, and his or her presence, was memorized through repetitive celebrations of rituals in the year following the burial. There was a large amount of honorific portrait statues on display in the urban landscapes of ancient towns, which ensured that the memory of the represented remained alive. Only prominent individuals could expect to be publicly portrayed. Being portrayed was a great honour for the individual and his or, more rarely her, family.15 Those who had portrait statues erected were remembered and revered. Luck, however, could turn with the tides of political changes and formerly popular individuals could experience to find themselves loathed by society.

  • 16 Varner 2004, p. 1.
  • 17 Flower 2006, p. 49. Remembrance seems to have happened on a private level.
  • 18 Flower 2006, p. 42-46. For Marc Antony, see Babcock 1962.

8In the Roman Republic, the senate could condemn individuals to hostes, enemies of the state, and everything which reminded of their personae was then removed. Their names were deleted from inscriptions, in the fasti (official lists), and wax masks were destroyed.16 Books were burned, property was confiscated and honorific statues were demolished. There is little material evidence of damnatio memoriae from the Republican period, since the destruction was thorough.17 There are no portraits left of famous leaders such as Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Catilina and Marc Antony, whose prominence imply that there must have been honorific statues portraying them on display before they became subjects to damnatio memoriae.18

Damnatio memoriae emperors

  • 19 Varner 2004, p. 21-45.

9Of the Roman portraits which show traces from damnatio memoriae, those of the emperor Caligula are among the first that can be identified.19 After Caligula, the most prominent emperors who received a damnatio memoriae were Nero (AD 54-68), Domitian (AD 81-96), Commodus (AD 180-192) and Elagabalus (AD 218-222). With all of these emperors, except for Elagabalus, their dynasties also ended.

  • 20 See e.g. Varner 2004, p. 46.
  • 21 Prusac 2011, p. 134-135. Vespasian followed Nero on the throne, after a short interval with Galba (...)

10Nero was the first emperor to be officially condemned by the senate. The first years of his reign went well.20 But midways, Nero became immensely unpopular among the senate and the military. Eventually, he committed suicide, as the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was given a decent funeral, but his memory was condemned by the senate. Most of his portrait statues were damaged, and several of them were recut into the image of his successor Vespasian (AD 69-79).21 The number of portraits of Nero must have been large during his reign, since he ruled for several years. Considering how few portraits of him which have survived, the aggression towards them must have been fervent.

  • 22 See e.g. Varner 2004, p. 111-112.

11A story reminding of that of Nero goes for Domitian (AD 81-96), the younger surviving son of Vespasian. Domitian started out as a clever administrator and qualified general, but ended up in a severe conflict with the senate. As the conflict developed, he became more and more autocratic in his behaviour, as becomes especially clear in that he demanded to be addressed as dominus et deus.22 As a consequence, he was assassinated, and most of his portrait statues were demolished. Pliny the Younger gives a voice to the collective fury against his portraits:

  • 23 Pline the Younger 1976, 52.4-5; Varner 2004, p. 113.

[…] [Domitian’s] countless golden statues, in a heap of rubble and ruin, were offered as fitting sacrifice to the public joy. It was a delight to smash those arrogant faces to pieces in the dust, to threaten them with the sword, and savagely attack them with axes, as if blood and pain would follow every single blow. No one controlled their joy and long awaited happiness, when vengeance was taken in beholding his likenesses hacked into mutilated limbs and pieces, and above all, in seeing his savage and hideous portraits hurled into the flames and burned up, in order that they might be transformed from things of such terror and menace into something useful and pleasing.23

12The Julio-Claudian dynasty (29 BC- AD 68) had ended with Nero as a hated emperor and the Flavian dynasty (AD 69-96) had reinstalled power. Domitian, the last Flavian, had to be rejected as an enemy of the state by the senate because of his vain excesses, or else it would have been difficult to ensure loyalty to the throne and the new emperor, Nerva (AD 96-98).

  • 24 Huet 2004, p. 237-238.
  • 25 SHA Comm. 19.1.

13Among the most profiled emperors to receive a damnatio memoriae, after Nero and Domitian, was Commodus (AD 180-192), the last of the Antonines (AD 138-192).24 Commodus early on in his reign demonstrated instable and megalomaniac features and assimilated himself with the semi-god Hercules. Ultimately, Commodus was killed and declared hostis of the state. Consequently, images of Commodus were destroyed, and he was removed from the public record.25 With Commodus, the Antonine dynasty ended, and was succeeded by the Severan dynasty (AD 193-235). Again, we have an example of a dynasty which had to be overthrown, in order to reintroduce stability in Rome

  • 26 Prusac 2011, p. 42 for further references. See in particular, Blanck 1969, p. 111; Kleiner 1992, p (...)

14With Caracalla (sole emperor AD 211-217), the son of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), the practice of damnatio memoriae became so common that it almost lost its significance. The brutal treatment of portraits – and of the presence of the depicted individuals, we could add – reached a peak with the Severans. Before his own death, Caracalla had condemned several family members to damnatio memoriae.26 Noteworthy, Caracalla himself, despite his infamous ruthlessness, did not receive a damnatio memoriae. For that, he was probably too popular among the military.

  • 27 OCD 1999, 221-222 Aurelius Antoninus.
  • 28 For the damnatio memoriae of Macrinus, see Pintaudi 1987; Sijpeseijn 1974.
  • 29 For the end of Elagabalus’ life, see SHA Elagabalus 17.

15Elagabalus was a young male from Syria, who was under the influence of the strong women of his family. Before Elagabalus entered Rome in AD 219 and immediately introduced the cult of the sun-god Elagabalus (hence his name), he had been holding a priesthood of that cult in his hometown Emesa.27 He was only sixteen years old when he became emperor, and was used as a figurehead by his mother Julia Soaemias and grandmother Julia Maesa in a rebellion against Macrinus (AD 217-218).28 The Romans were appalled at the idea of having an exotic sun-deity as the supreme god of the Empire, especially one whose ceremonies were celebrated with orgies and excess. In AD 222 Elagabalus was brutally killed and condemned as hostis, his body was dragged through the city and the portrait sculptures of him were thorn down.29 Only a few images of Elagabalus have survived. Yet, despite Elagabal’s damnatio memoriae, the Severan dynasty did not end until AD 235, with the death of Alexander Severus (AD 222-235).

  • 30 Varner 2004, p. 200-213. We cannot attribute or identify the imperial portraits from this period w (...)

16The end of the Severan dynasty must be seen against the backdrop of the historical situation, which was the mid-third century and the time period when the Roman Empire changed from the high empire to the period of the soldier emperors, or the military anarchy. In this period, there was a cataract of usurpers who subjected their predecessors to damnatio memoriae.30

Plato, presence and mimesis

17In order to understand the presence of human beings in the portrait statues, it might be helpful to look at Plato’s concept of mimesis. Although Plato mainly wrote about poets and poetry in connection with mimesis, his texts include some aspects which are important to other arts, such as iconography and sculpture. Mimesis is usually translated into “imitation” or “representation”, yet any modern term would be a simplification. What is important in terms of the visual arts is the mimesis as in the artist’s attempt at producing something which is ideal. The question dealt with here is the relationship between imitation in terms of perfection as an art form and pure narration. In the arts, a perfect pars pro toto is the ideal. A portrait can be viewed as a pars pro toto, as a part of a statue and of the persona of the sitter. The part which is represented has to be of a good character:

  • 31 Plato 1994, 3. 12.

Is it, then, only the poets that we must supervise and compel to embody in their poems the semblance of the good character or else not write poetry among us, or must we keep watch over the other craftsmen, and forbid them to represent the evil disposition [my italics], the licentious, the illiberal, the graceless, either in the likeness of living creatures or in buildings or in any other product of their art [my italics] […].31

18When Plato wrote “watch over the other craftsmen, and forbid them to represent the evil disposition […] in any product of their art”, the damnatio memoriae portraits come to mind. They were not made as “evil” images, however, but they were turned into such after an emperor was condemned to damnatio memoriae, in the interpretations of the viewers. Portraits, as “mimetic images”, were closely tied to their sitters, and when these fell from grace, it was necessary to delete their presence.

Aristotle and the mimesis of various media

19Like Plato, Aristotle stressed the significance of poetry productiveness as the main example of mimesis, but he also referred to the mimesis of other media. He continued Plato’s explanation of the presence of things in the Poetics, and there are also a few references to images. Aristotle, in his explanation of the mimesis of Plato wrote that mimesis is the artist’s attempt at producing something which is “alive”.

  • 32 Aristotle 1995, 1. 13-23.

Now, epic and tragic poetry, as well as comedy, dithyramb, and most music for aulos and lyre, are all, taken as a whole, kinds of mimesis. But they differ from one another in three respects: namely, by producing mimesis in different media, of different objects, or in different modes. Just as people (some by formal skills, others by a knack) use colours and shapes to render mimetic images of many things [my italics], while others again use the voice, so too all the poetic arts mentioned produces mimesis in rhythm, language, and melody, whether separately or in combinations.32

20In this excerpt Aristotle included people who “use colours and shapes to render mimetic images of many things”. Here we can mention images of human beings. It is, however, not so much the images themselves which were Aristotle’s main preoccupation, but the action which made the images. In mimesis as in the act of production, Aristotle included the production of the visual arts:

  • 33 Aristotle 1995, 2, 1 and 6-9.

Since mimetic artists represent people in action […] As too with painters: Polygnotus depicted superior people, Pauson inferior, and Dionysios those like ourselves. Clearly, each of these kinds of mimesis already mentioned will manifest these distinctions, and will differ by representing different objects in the given sense.33

21It is interesting, in the attempt at understanding the presence of images, that Aristotle was distinguished between “superior” and “inferior” people and “those like ourselves”. In the terms of Plato, above, it is the mimetic artist who produces the shapes of these images. The degree of gracefulness would be in the presence of the images, which differs. The portraits of the individuals who had been condemned were no longer graceful, but disgraceful.

22Since our aim is to understand the aggression that were felt against certain images in Antiquity, the distinction between superior and inferior images is noteworthy. For example, an image which firstly represented a “superior” individual, such as a ruler, could later be considered “inferior” and subject of collective hatred. Perhaps a lead to the understanding of what we could here call the “reception” of the mimesis of the images is to be found in the next excerpt, where Aristotle referred to people looking at images:

  • 34 Aristotle 1995, 4, 15-19.

[…] people like looking at images, because through contemplating them it comes about that they understand and infer what each element means, for instance “this person is so-and-so”. For, if one happens not to have seen the subject before, the image will not give the pleasure [my italics] qua mimesis but because of its execution or colour, or for some other such reason.34

  • 35 Flower 2006, p. 5.

23Thus, when people look at images, their understanding of the represented individual is a judgement. Aristotle claimed that the image of a person whom has not been seen before, “will not give the pleasure qua mimesis”. According to Aristotle, there is an absence of mimesis in the image of a stranger, or for example an estranged individual. In a portrait statue which has to be destroyed because of damnatio memoriae, there might be perceived an absence of mimesis, likewise to as in the image of a stranger.35 If so, the portrait statue has to be viewed in a new way, because the judgment of the depicted has changed for the negative. As such, the two – mimesis and presence – must be seen in relation to each other. They both have to do with an ancient, abstract perception of images. In the last passage of Aristotle quoted here, there is a reference to the very idea that images can even act in a brutal way through their presence:

  • 36 Aristotle 1995, 8.43-47.

Because even among chance events we find most awesome those which seem to have happened by design (as when Mitys’ statue at Argos killed the murderer of Mitys, by falling on him as he looked at it : such things seem not to occur randomly [my italics]).36

  • 37 Prusac 2011, p. 23-28.

24In this passage, the statue of Mitys is not referred to as the only example where a statue is acting in a brutal way. Aristotle added that “such things seem not to occur randomly”. Judging from the many references to animus in the ancient sources, and the many damnatio memoriae portraits, the idea that portrait statues could act was in itself indeed not random.37

Plotinus, “soul”, body and object

  • 38 Plotinus 1957, 4.2.1 “Soul” used in a pagan context, such as here, must not be confused with the C (...)

25Plotinus, influenced by Plato, explained in his Enneads, that the “soul” “Itself devoid of mass, it is present to all mass”.38 Later in the text, he wrote about the relationship between the “soul” of the archetypal world, which should be understood as the “ideal” world:

  • 39 Plotinus 1957, 4.3.13.

In that archetypal world every form of soul is near to the image (the thing in the world of copy) to which its individual constitution inclines it; there is therefore no need of a sender or leader acting at the right moment to bring it at the right moment whether into body or into a definitely appropriate body: of its own motion it descends at the precisely true time and enters where it must. To every soul its own hour; when that strikes it descends and enters the body suitable to it as at the cry of a herald; thus all is set stirring and advancing as by a magician’s power or by some mighty traction; it is much as, in any living thing, the Soul itself effects the fulfilment of the natural career, stirring and bringing forth, in due season, every element – beard, horn, and all the successive stages of tendency and of output – or, as it leads a tree through its normal course within set periods.39

26This excerpt deals with the relationship between the body and the “soul”, which was Plotinus’s main occupation in the Enneads. He explained that the “soul” is sent by an almighty power and to the human body to which it is best suited. From there, there is a prolongation from the body to the image, that is, to an object, as seen in another passage:

  • 40 Plotinus 1957, 4.5.8.

If, then, something that is a living whole perceives not its own content but things like to its content, it must perceive them under the conditions of that living whole; this means that, in so far as it has perception, the objects appear not as its content but as related to its content [my italics]. And the objects are thus perceived as related because the mind itself has related them in order to make them amenable to its handling […].40

27When Plotinus stated that “the objects appear not as its content but as related to its content”, it could be interpreted as in that the presence of a portrait statue is related to the sitter’s persona.

  • 41 H. J. Blumenthal has written about “vehicles” of the soul in another sense of the word than in the (...)

28This relationship between human body, “soul” and object is difficult for us to grasp, but some aspects of this idea had a resonance in ordinary life in Greek and Roman societies. If we understand the “object” as the human body or the persona and the «soul» as the presence, the portrait statue could be a kind of vehicle for the sum of it, the combination of persona and presence.41 The belief in an abstract capacity of images, and the connection between the persona and the presence, makes sense in societies where there was a reminiscence of animistic beliefs. It was therefore necessary, in order to consolidate society, to delete the images of individuals subjected to damnatio memoriae.

Animism and Roman portraits

  • 42 To elaborate this further, in connection with anthropomorphic images, or here, portraits, it would (...)
  • 43 See e.g. Kerényi 1962, p. 64.
  • 44 Willerslev 2007, p. 9.
  • 45 Insoll 2011, p. 1005; Willerslev 2007, p. 10 claims that “mimesis is a form of representation, and (...)

29Let’s return to the beginning of the present text, and Kerényi’s explanation that the aggression towards images in the Greek past sprang out of a reverence for the anthropomorphic form of divine images.42 One could ask if this would still be relevant in Antiquity, after the formation of the Graeco-Roman cosmology. It is important to keep in mind that the Graeco-Roman cosmology was institutionalized and tightly connected to government. At the same time, there was a myriad of popular beliefs, which for example considered natural places and images as sacred, and named nymphs and pastoral deities after them, as mentioned above.43 I am here using Plato’s mimesis as an explanatory model for the everyday traditions, in order to explain enduring ideas of animism in antiquity, although ordinary people would of course not use the philosophical terms or even be aware of them. For this enterprise, it is helpful to look at anthropological reasoning of the nature of animism. One anthropological explanation argues that animism originated in a “primitive compulsion to imitate”.44 Imitations can be mirrors or representations of human beings in for example portraits. According to this line of thought, portraits mirror the personhood or personae of the depicted individual, or what we here call presence. Some scholars go as far as suggesting that “personification” could be synonymous to animism.45

  • 46 Frazer 2009 [1922].
  • 47 Ibid.; Willerslev 2007, p. 10.

30In the explanation of James Georg Frazer in The Golden Bough, mimesis is considered as the very “act of copying.” 46 Despite Frazer’s in many ways outdated opus, he remains interesting to discussions on animism because of what he calls the “Law of similarity.”47 In Frazer’s account, the one who produces images which are similar to an original is called a “magician”. This can be compared to Plotin’s “magician”, by whose power “all is set stirring and advancing”. For the sake of our purpose, “magician” could be translated with “artist”, as in the artist who produced portraits in Antiquity. In what Frazer called “imitative” and “mimetic” magic, a conscious agent who imitates is implied. The artist/magician who made portraits in Roman times must have been conscious about the abstract idea of a kind of animism in portraits. Frazer used an example which can be translated as damnatio memoriae, and may serve as a clarifying comment to my attempt at combining animism and portraiture:

  • 48 Frazer 2009 [1922], p. 28.

Perhaps the most familiar application of the principle that like produces like is the attempt which has been made by many peoples in many ages to injure or destroy an enemy by injuring or destroying an image of him, in the belief that, just as the image suffers, so does the man, and that when it perishes he must die. A few instances out of many may be given to prove at once the wide diffusion of the practice over the world and its remarkable persistence through the ages. For thousands of years ago it was known to the sorcerers of ancient India, Babylon, and Egypt, as well as Greece and Rome […].48


31The hypothesis presented in this article argues that portraits of individuals subject to damnatio memoriae had to be destroyed not only because of who they represented visually, but also because they included the presence of the depicted. The presence of the depicted’s persona or personhood has been compared to the mimesis of Plato, and has also aspects of what the anthropologists call animism. The idea of an animistic relationship between image and presence is assumed to go back to primordial times and the production of anthropomorphic simulacra, as explained by Kerényi (above). At the beginning of this text, I am asking if that which we refer to as animism was a more important facet to the understanding of images in Antiquity than what is usually acknowledged. Since animism can be explained as “representations” of originals, I am inclined to argue that yes, animism was an important facet to the understanding of images in Antiquity. That animism can be regarded as a synonym to the presence believed to have existed in ancient portraits and other images, can be induced from the fact that anthropologists have regarded animism in relation to the mimesis of Plato. Animism in the Roman Empire is understood as a religious substructure of popular belief which survived on the basis of oral tradition and praxis in parallel with the institutionalized religion. An ideal representation of an individual would be as similar to the model as possible (fashion trends of course influenced the result, and that would have to be taken into consideration).

32Plato’s mimesis is understood as an intellectual, and elitistic, expression of the same idea as the animism of popular belief. We cannot distinguish popular belief entirely from institutionalized religion, since most people adhered to both and did not necessarily see them separately. For example was a dead and deified emperor believed to be a deity at an imperial, public level, but at a more popular, unofficial level, the image of a deified emperor represented at the same time a divine “power”. For example, one could seek asylum by an imperial statue, which included a part of the emperor’s, or the imperial presence. The presence also explains why it was necessary to destroy images of unpopular individuals. It was not sufficient that the represented individual was dead, if he (or she) still was present through his (her) images. Thus, the images had to be destroyed. The portraits did not possess an evil presence when they were created, but as they mirrored the model, they would contain the same qualities as him (her), also when they changed. If the model were condemned to damnatio memoriae, his (her) character would live on in the images depicting the condemned, if the images were not destroyed. The names of the condemned were erased, and show clearly that damnatio memoriae in general was about the erasing of memory. However, the additional aspects of mimesis and animism in portraits and images, makes it probable that the destruction of images may have had a more actively popular support than other aspects of damnatio memoriae, since such ideas were rooted in the people’s own sphere of beliefs, and not only in the official.

33The portrait is a pars pro toto of the sitter’s persona or personhood. When the represented individual is dead, the “power” of him (her) remains in the image, likewise to in the Roman ancestor cult. When the depicted is dead and subject to damnatio memoriae, it is important also to kill and destroy his (her) presence in the portraits. They represented someone who was hated and had to be forgotten, but they also embodied an abstract, animistic, presence which had become evil, and thus had to be destroyed.


Primary sources

Aristotle 1995 = Aristotle, Poetics, transl. S. Halliwell, London-Cambridge, Mass., Loeb Classical Library, 1995.

SHA 1921 = Scriptores Historiae Augustae, transl. D. Magie, London-Cambridge, Mass., Loeb Classical Library, 1921.

Plato 1994 = Plato, The Republic, transl. P. Shorey, London-Cambridge, Mass., Loeb Classical Library, 1994.

Pliny the Younger 1976 = Pliny the Younger, Panegyricus. Letters and Panegyricus, transl. B. Radice, London-Cambridge, Mass., Loeb Classical Library, 1976.

Plotinus 1957 = Plotinus, The Enneads, transl. S. MacKenna, London, Faber, 1957. 

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Babcock 1962 = C.L. Babcock, Dio and Plutarch on the damnatio of Antony, in Classical Philology, 57, 1, 1962, p. 30-32. 

Belting 1996 = H. Belting, Likeness and presence. A history of the Image before the Era of Art, Chicago-London, 1996. 

Bergmann – Zanker 1981 = M. Bergmann, P. Zanker, Damnatio memoriae. Umgearbeitete Nero- und Domitiansporträts, in JDAI, 96, 1981, p. 317-412.

Blanck 1969 = H. Blanck, Wiederverwendung alter Statuen als Ehrendenkmäler bei Griechen und Römern, Rome, 1969.

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1 Kerényi 1962, p. 30.

2 Buber 1953, p. 19.

3 For statues and presence in Roman times, see Elsner 2012, p. 370; Perry 2015; Prusac 2011, p. 23-27; Stewart 2006.

4 For a discussion on the presence of imperial sculpture in Rome and the art and agency of Alfred Gell, see Stewart 2006; Gell 1998.

5 See e. g. Stewart 2006; Prusac 2011, p. 23-27.

6 See e. g. Perry 2015, p. 663.

7 It is not the purpose of the present text to give a theoretical overview of animism as mimesis; that has been done by others. See Willerslev 2007, p. 9-13; Insoll 2011.

8 Willerslev 2007, p. 2-5.

9 Willerslev 2007, p. 2.

10 In addition to the information which can be found in the ancient, written sources, the aggression towards images can perhaps be explained by way of emotion theory. In the early twentieth century, at the time when Freud developed psychotherapy, the Annales school coined expressions such as l’histoire des mentalités and la sensibilité, which spurred the interest in shared emotions in a society. See Febvre 194; Matt 2011 p. 118. Present-day emotion theorists often explain collective emotions as politically manipulated. As such, collective emotions can be seen as a consequence of government and “emotional regimes”. In the “emotional communities” of ancient Rome, some individuals fell in disgrace, and the images of them were destroyed. Images projected a kind of psychological effect on their viewers, which made them act. For psychological experiences of images, see Freedberg 1989, passim. Hans Belting writes that “From the earliest times, the role of images has been apparent from the symbolic actions performed for them by their advocates, as well as against them by their opponents”, see Belting 1996, p. 1. For “emotional regimes”, see Reddy 1997; 2001. For emotional communities, see Rosenwein 2002.

11 Stichel 1982, p. 5-6; Stewart 2003, p. 283-284.

12 Flower 2006, p. 43. Early examples are the tyrant Hipparchus in Athens was killed in 514 BC by the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and the tyrant’s images were destroyed. There is also the example of the statue of an athlete on Thasos, who was whipped because the athlete had not performed as desired in a contest; see Sande 1993, 75; Pekàry 1985, p. 134. The competitions were politically motivated, and loosing affected more people than the actual athlete.

13 Flower 2006, p. xix. Huet 2004, p. 238 argues that the term occurs from the 1689. Flower 2006 has explored the importance of remembrance in Roman society, and its darker side, oblivion, and the last decades have seen a considerable increase of interest in so-called damnatio memoriae-portraits. Varner 2004, Bergmann, – Zanker 1981 and Jucker 1981 have published important contributions to the study of why some portraits were attacked and damaged. On the basis of such studies, it becomes clear that the majority of the damnatio memoriae-portraits of the first and second centuries represented unpopular Imperial individuals. For earlier examples, see Kiilerich 2014; Sauer 2014.

14 See Varner 2004, p. 1-155, also for references to other sources.

15 For honorific portrait statues, see e. g. Fejfer 2008.

16 Varner 2004, p. 1.

17 Flower 2006, p. 49. Remembrance seems to have happened on a private level.

18 Flower 2006, p. 42-46. For Marc Antony, see Babcock 1962.

19 Varner 2004, p. 21-45.

20 See e.g. Varner 2004, p. 46.

21 Prusac 2011, p. 134-135. Vespasian followed Nero on the throne, after a short interval with Galba (AD 68-69), Otho (AD 69) and Vitellius (AD 69), who also had their memories condemned. With his predecessors disgraced, it was important to Vespasian to reinstall loyalty to the throne, and he started out by giving back to the people the large areas of Rome, which had been swallowed by Nero’s gigantic palace, Domus Aurea. What happened is a prime example of a story of a new emperor who had to reject the preceding dynasty in order to calm the populus romanus. In order to create peace and tranquility, damnatio memoriae was used as a stabilizing factor in a society in upheaval. Vespasian could only control the dissatisfied population by presenting to them a new dynasty, the Flavian, and try to make them forget the old.

22 See e.g. Varner 2004, p. 111-112.

23 Pline the Younger 1976, 52.4-5; Varner 2004, p. 113.

24 Huet 2004, p. 237-238.

25 SHA Comm. 19.1.

26 Prusac 2011, p. 42 for further references. See in particular, Blanck 1969, p. 111; Kleiner 1992, p. 336. One of the best examples of the rage he extorted on their images is on the Arco dei Argentarii near the Forum Boarium in Rome, where he removed his brother Geta, his wife Plautilla and father-in-law, Plautianus. Although attempts were made at concealing the space which was left after the removal of Geta – the carving of a new arm for Caracalla’s mother Julia Domna in the empty space – the removal of the figures cannot have passed unnoted. The necks of Plautilla and Plautianus seem to have had the heads cut off with an axe, as if the individuals themselves were beheaded. Their names were also removed from the dedicatory inscription on the arch. Likewise, in the Palazzo Sacchetti relief, the heads of Geta, Plautianus, a pretorian prefect and a senator were brutally removed. Perhaps most famously, Geta was also removed from the Severan tondo, which originally showed the parents, Septimius Severus and Julia Domna, together with the two brothers. Together with their memory, their ‘spirit’ was meant to pass away, but their memory survived. Caracalla not only wanted his brother Geta to be disremembered, he also wanted his origin and mere existence to be deleted, in other words, his presence. Caracalla wanted the memory of the removed figures to be forgotten, but the traces from their removal have perhaps instead made them still the more famous.

27 OCD 1999, 221-222 Aurelius Antoninus.

28 For the damnatio memoriae of Macrinus, see Pintaudi 1987; Sijpeseijn 1974.

29 For the end of Elagabalus’ life, see SHA Elagabalus 17.

30 Varner 2004, p. 200-213. We cannot attribute or identify the imperial portraits from this period with certainty, although there has been established a relative chronology based on comparative coin images. The usurpers’ short reigns offered the artists little time to carve portraits, and the majority of those portraits which were made were recut from earlier emperors, irrespective of whether the depicted had been declared hostis of the people by the senate or not. The imperial portraits which were made were immediately recut into the next emperor once the original sitter was disposed of. There were probably mainly economic reasons for the reuse, see Prusac 2011, p. 47-50. The same is the case for the late third to the fourth century portraits, when times, however, became more tranquil around the throne. Now the very fundaments of the Roman Empire was reorganised after the third century’s turbulence. A new political-religious system was established. Due to the new political, religious and economic situation, the understanding of portraits changed. With Christianity, the reception of images took a new turn. The mimesis of Plato, which had reflected the understanding of images in ancient society, was exchanged with the new belief system.

31 Plato 1994, 3. 12.

32 Aristotle 1995, 1. 13-23.

33 Aristotle 1995, 2, 1 and 6-9.

34 Aristotle 1995, 4, 15-19.

35 Flower 2006, p. 5.

36 Aristotle 1995, 8.43-47.

37 Prusac 2011, p. 23-28.

38 Plotinus 1957, 4.2.1 “Soul” used in a pagan context, such as here, must not be confused with the Christian soul, which is another concept.

39 Plotinus 1957, 4.3.13.

40 Plotinus 1957, 4.5.8.

41 H. J. Blumenthal has written about “vehicles” of the soul in another sense of the word than in the present text. He is basing his discussion on the ancient texts of Simplicius, as a commentary to Aristotle’s De anima. See Blumenthal 1993, p. 91-112. See also his discussion on “soul vehicles” in Simplicius, p. 173-188.

42 To elaborate this further, in connection with anthropomorphic images, or here, portraits, it would have been interesting to consider the animism of primordial times, not only in Greece, but also in Italic and Etruscan areas. Unfortunatly, the relevant literature is scarce. For Etruscan areas, see Warden 2015, p. 2.

43 See e.g. Kerényi 1962, p. 64.

44 Willerslev 2007, p. 9.

45 Insoll 2011, p. 1005; Willerslev 2007, p. 10 claims that “mimesis is a form of representation, and expression that involved copying”.

46 Frazer 2009 [1922].

47 Ibid.; Willerslev 2007, p. 10.

48 Frazer 2009 [1922], p. 28.


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