It’s a few weeks ago now that I visited the Glyptotek in Copenhagen for the first time and but I’ve only now found time to write the first of my promised blog posts about some of the things I saw there.
One of the highlights of the visit was coming face to face with the famous bust of Pompey (or Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to give him his full name), one of Rome’s leading generals in the declining years of the Republic and the arch enemy of Julius Caesar. I later found out (through Twitter) that without knowing it I’d chosen a very appropriate day to see the bust because it was the anniversary of the Battle of Pharsalos (in 48 BC, in Thessaly, Greece) when Caesar definitively defeated Pompey and he fled to Egypt where he was murdered by an Egyptian faction seeking to curry favour with Caesar. That led to Caesar becoming sole ruler of Rome only to end up being brutally murdered himself a few years later by group of senatorial conspirators seeking to defend the Republic. Caesar received his fatal wounds at a meeting of the Senate in the theatre that Pompey had built. Ironically, so the sources tell us, he died beneath a statue of Pompey, perhaps the very one that served as the model for the bust in the Glyptotek.
Photos of the bust are widely reproduced and I’ve seen them countless times over the years in textbooks and lectures; I once had a job where there was a full-sized copy of the bust on the shelf in my office. There was then some peculiar satisfaction in seeing it up close for real. The most striking thing about seeing the sculpture in the museum was the way that it is displayed together with twelve other busts of men and women said to have been found in the so-called Tomb of the Licinii, an aristocratic Roman family.
The tomb (if it really existed – see below!) was in use for many generations and the family decorated the tomb with representations of themselves and their illustrious ancestors. Pompey was one of the most famous of these. Seen in isolation, as it is typically shown in books, it is easy to forget the context in which the bust was originally displayed. Assuming the bust has been identified correctly (again, see below!) it is interesting to think about how ancestry was so important to noble Roman dynasties living under the Empire and how sculpture was used to advertise dynastic links. It is particularly striking to think of how this family could draw such pride from their familial links to Pompey, a man who once been the figurehead for Republican resistance to tyranny, when they lived at a time when the system of one-man-rule had become firmly established in Rome. On grounds of carving technique the bust has been dated to between 30-50 AD, so a good century or so after Pompey died and sometime in the reign of the emperors Tiberius, Caligula or Claudius.
The thing that’s prompted me to choose this item as the first of my Glyptotek blog posts, however, is not simply that it made an impression but because the week after seeing it I was sitting in the meeting room of my department at Aarhus University, scanning the bookshelves when I caught sight of a book with the title “The Licinian Tomb: Fact or Fiction”.* It seemed that perhaps all was not as it seemed with the Licinian Tomb. Intrigued, I took the book down and began to browse….
The bust ended up in Denmark in the late 19th century when it was acquired, together with the other twelve, for the Danish collector Carl Jacobsen by a German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig, who was based in Rome. Seven sarcophagi from the tomb ended up at the same time in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Carl Jacobsen’s father had founded the Carlsberg brewery and Jacobsen’s collection forms the heart of the collection of the museum that still bears the name of the beer. It turns out, however, that a cloud of doubt hangs over whether the busts all came from the tomb at all. There is no concrete documentation to prove where the sculpture came from and Helbig is known to have not always acted scrupulously in acquiring objects for collectors. The puzzle of the sculptures’ origins was the mystery that a group of Danish scholars set out to explore in the book I had in my hands.
I only had time to browse the book and have now added it to my ever-growing and increasingly unachievable list of things I’d like to read properly but the authors seemed to conclude that there is nothing to securely tie the sculptures to the tomb after all. There’s a good review of the book in the online journal Bryn Mawr Classical Review in which the reviewer argues that the evidence is such that it the matter cannot be settled decisively but that there’s still every possibility that the sculpture’s reported findspot is genuine after all. The controversy will no doubt continue and may never be resolved.
I did manage to read a short section on the bust of Pompey, which caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, it turns out- surprisingly since it is hard to find a book or website that talks about Pompey without a picture of the sculpture as an illustration – that the grounds for identifying it as him are rather more flimsy that I would have thought. There are basically three reasons: (i) it bears a striking resemblance to his portrait on coins, (ii) the fringe of the sculpture is brushed back in a manner that resembles portraits of Alexander the Great; Plutarch, who wrote in the late first century AD and had seen statues of Pompey, tells us that Pompey wore his hair like Alexander. Pompey’s nickname, Magnus, “the Great”, was also taken in emulation of his hero and (iii) the known familial connection with the Licinii. Point three, of course, cannot be taken as conclusive since we don’t know for sure where the bust came from; and as for point two I’ve always thought that the fringe of the Pompey bust looks distinctly unimpressive compared to the lion’s mane effect of Alexander’s portraits (see the picture below). As for point one I’m no numismatist and I don’t know the coin portraits of Pompey but I’m not sure I’m completely convinced that matching rather crude relief images in profile on the backs of coins to much more detailed sculpture in the round can ever be a fool proof way of identifying statues. Still, since no expert has ever challenged the identification let us accept that it really is Pompey.
Something that I found even more striking in the book chapter was a truly bizarre assessment of the sculpture by Helbig that it quoted in full. It is impossible to imagine anyone writing something like this today:
Normally good portraits supplement the idea we have formed of famous persons from the historical tradition. For the memory of Pompey it would certainly have been preferable that his portrait had remained unknown, because it confirms and completes in an evident way the unfavourable judgement of him pronounced by modern critics. Even the condemnation thrown upon him by Mommsen seems too mild before this head.
The broad but low forehead indicates a mediocre intelligence. His weakness in character is not only revealed by the softness of the face, but also in the small eyes which look out in an insecure and, in fact, nearly embarrassed way. It is easy to understand from this look that Pompey, in civil life, was very shy and blushed when he was faced with a crowd. The skin of his forehead raised together with the eyelids and crossed by three deep furrows is especially significant. May people move the skin of the forehead in this way, when they think, If this movement is fixated in marble we may suppose that this, in the face of Pompey, was something usual, and deduct that he pondered and reflected a lot and therefore had difficulty reaching a decision…the head presents a true philistine, not particularly good, and not particularly bad, of mediocre intelligence, weak character and whose most conspicuous quality is vanity.
Helbig was clearly not a man who held any store by the King Duncan’s famous maxim in Macbeth: “There’s no art to find the man’s construction in the face”. For Helbig Pompey’s face was an open book in which it was easy to read weakness of character, stupidity, insecurity, embarrassment, indecision, a lack of culture, and vanity! And this single image of Pompey was enough to count against all the literary evidence we have of Pompey’s vast achievements – tremendous military victories, ridding the eastern Mediterranean of pirates, giving Caesar a good run for his money. Just imagine a defendant in a criminal trial faced with a juror like Helbig!
But even if our real faces were as reliable a guide to our character as Helbig believed it is even stranger that he talks as if he had actually seen Pompey’s face and not merely a stone likeness of it. Nowadays scholars of sculpture are well attuned to the nuanced choices that Roman patrons faced in deciding what their statues should look like. They could draw on a history of Greek portraiture stretching back half a millennium and which included styles ranging from Classical idealism to psychological realism to baroque emotional intensity.
Even the, to our eyes, grotesquely realistic portraits, which were popular among the Romans from around the middle of the second century BC represents a choice to accentuate particular qualities of the individual. The art historical name for this style is ‘veristic’ after the Latin word ‘verus’ which means ‘true’ (think of the English words ‘verity’ or ‘verily’). Yet we have no way of knowing just how true to life such portraits really were. We might think that these sculptures must show their patrons as they really looked simply because they are so unflattering, and it certainly is possible that there was an aspect of vanity to the style with Roman patrons wanting their statues to be accurate likenesses, but at the same time we can never rule out that the features we assume to have been taken from life, even if we find them ugly, might not have been deliberate distortions introduced by patrons or artists to create a desired effect.
Deeply wrinkled brows, unshapely noses and squinting eyes served to advertise age, experience and a rugged militarism, thereby emphasising that the men portrayed in this way had accrued a certain authority, influence and gravitas. Pompey’s bust with its podgy cheeks, squinting eyes and bulbous nose has more than a few hints of the veristic style about it. So, strange as it might seem to us, the features that Helbig so despised in Pompey’s portrait might have been deliberately insisted on by Pompey to convey a particular effect.
Nowadays nobody would try to use the statue as evidence for Pompey’s character. Rather we would take it as evidence for how Pompey wished to be portrayed, think about the choices he could have made and discuss why he wanted to look like this. From a historical point of view these are surely far more interesting questions.
As I stood before the bust in the gallery of the Glytpotek I will admit, however, that, just for a moment, I did allow myself to indulge the fantasy that I really was standing face-to-face, not with a lump of cold marble but with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus himself. Unlike when Helbig had held the bust over a century ago Pompey stared vacantly back at me, giving not the slightest twitch of expression to hint at what kind of man he really was.
* Kragelund, P., Moltesen, M., & Østergaard, J. S. (2003). The Licinian tomb: fact or fiction? (No. 5). Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek