Face to face – with Pompey

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.

The bust of Pompey the Great in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

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 bust of Pompey in among the others found in the Licinian Tomb

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.

Portrait of Alexander the Great. Said to be the inspiration for Pompey’s hairstyle

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.

A prime example of verism in Roman portraiture

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

Google Maps and “The Suffragette Statue”. Or Why the Way we Map Monuments is Important

The statue - unveiled at last.
The Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Artist Gillian Wearing. Source: Wikipedia.

The place where monuments are set up matters. In the fifth century BC the Athenians set up the famous statues of the so-called tyrant-killers – men who’d actually murdered the brother of a local autocratic ruler and thereby played a role in ushering in their celebrated democracy – in the middle of their agora, the city’s main public square. Next month Stephen Hawking’s ashes will be interred in Westminster Abbey near the graves of Newton and Darwin in order to acknowledge his place among the great names of British science. And that much-mocked bust of Ronaldo that did the rounds on social media last year was set up at Madeira’s airport to greet visitors and remind them that the island was the footballer’s birthplace. Monuments take a large part of their meaning from their spatial setting. At the same time monuments can reshape the meaning of their setting in a kind of conversation.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been writing an article exploring the relationship between statues and their public setting both in the ancient world and in modern culture. To illustrate some of the key issues I’ve discuss the statues of Parliament Square in London. In the process I came across some features about the way in which certain statues are labeled on Google Maps, which I found interesting and which I think have important implications. In particular these observations concern the recently unveiled statue of Millicent Fawcett, the first woman to be granted a statue on the square or “the suffragette” as Google called her.

Screenshot 2018-05-27 13.46.29
Parliament Square on Google Maps zoomed in far enough to show “The Suffragette Statue”
Screenshot 2018-05-27 13.46.29 copy
Close up of the image above large enough to be able to read the caption “The Suffragette Statue”

The unveiling of the new statue just over a month ago on 24th April this year was celebrated nationally and attended by a number of high profile politicians including the PM and the Mayor of London. But the monument has not been without its detractors. A rival group of campaigners has argued – and is still arguing – that Emmeline Pankhurst would be a more fitting recipient of the honour of being the first woman to get a statue in the square. Pankhurst already has a statue in London and not so far from Parliament Square at the southwest end of the Palace of Westminster. It was set up in 1930 and moved to its present location in 1958. I wanted to use this controversy to discuss the way that location matters. Pankhurst’s advocates don’t just care that she has a statue. They care about where she has a statue. Parliament Square with its bronze likenesses of Churchill, Lloyd George, Disraeli, Gandhi, Mandela and six other exclusively male statesmen is seen as the more prestigious, the more symbolically charged location.

The Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst Memorial. Source Wikipedia.

To make my point more precisely I thought I’d check with Google Maps just how long a walk it is between Parliament Square and the Pankhurst memorial (about 500 m) and that’s when I became interested in the way that the website subtly ranks the importance of the various statues on the square. Most of the statues aren’t shown at all – only those of Churchill, Peel, Palmerston, Gandhi and the new statue of Fawcett are marked. However, while the men were all given names, Fawcett’s monument, as already mentioned was labeled “the suffragette statue”. The implication was that this wasn’t a statue of any particular campaigner for votes for women but rather a generic representation of an anonymous suffragette. There was also something striking about the order in which the statues appeared as I zoomed in and out of the map. Zoomed right out the only statue that was marked was that of Churchill. Zooming in slightly further Peel, Gandhi and Palmerston appeared but it was only when I zoomed right in that the “statue of sufraggette” was shown at all. As mentioned the other statues weren’t marked at all but in the hierarchy of monuments that are shown Fawcett’s was the one deemed least important. Finally, while the others were all marked with symbols suggesting some kind of monument the Fawcett statue had the icon of a camera suggesting it was something someone happened to have snapped a picture of but not a real monument in the same sense as the others.

So why is any of this important?

The meanings of statues and other monuments are not fixed in stone – or bronze. Statues mean different things to different people. Their importance for a society as a whole can wax or wane over time. We can forget who they represent or we can decide that the people who were granted statues in the past don’t actually deserve them. Within a generation or two of setting up their statues of the tyrant killers the Athenians were already debating whether the murder they had committed had in fact been a public service – a political assassination – or whether it was actually the result of a lovers’ quarrel. Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square is the one shown when you zoom out furthest on Google Maps because Churchill, voted as “the Greatest Britain” of all time in 2002, is arguably our most famous leader. But he owes that status to the importance we now attach to the Second World War and there is nothing to say that with the passing of time he will continue to enjoy the same significance. Even now his statue has periodically been defaced. Whether the vandals’ grudge is actually against Churchill himself or whether his fame simply makes the statue an obvious target for venting anger is a different question. The point is that not everyone reveres the statue – its importance is contested.

The meaning of the statuary assemblage of Parliament Square as a whole is also continually changing and being redefined as new statues are added. Where once it was the preserve of statues of Britain’s most illustrious political leaders, with statues of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela it has now become a commemorative space that transcends national boundaries and is somewhere for celebrating universal human aspirations toward equality, dignity and peace. The addition of Fawcett’s statue makes sense in this context. As the first statue of a woman in the square it is a powerful challenge to the previously exclusive maleness of the square. That was the whole point of erecting it. Labelling all the male statues on the map while referring to Fawcett simply as “the suffragette” rather undermines that point, to put it mildly.

Fawcett’s statue didn’t just happen to appear in the square. It was the end result of a campaign started by activist Caroline Criado-Perez who was frustrated that all the other statues in Parliament Square were of men. She started an online petition, which gathered nearly 85,000 signatures and the support of several high profile celebrities and politicians. Decisions were made about who the recipient of this first female statue should be, about the artist commissioned to make the work, about how the statue should be portrayed and where exactly it should stand.

The choice of Fawcett, one of the early pioneers of the cause for female suffrage in Britain, was made by Criado-Perez and the statue’s unveiling was timed to coincide with the centenary of women – or at least women over 30 – being granted the vote in 1918. The message of the statue – like all statues – is a complex one in which most of the details are significant. Above all, however, the statue is there to remind us that political equality for women was hard fought and that the struggle against discrimination is by no means over. The banner the statue holds before it proclaims “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere” – words written by Fawcett herself – and is a call to us to remain vigilant.

The importance of Fawcett’s statue will undoubtedly change over time. As the newness wears off and it becomes part of the furniture of the square it will be absorbed into the national consciousness. It will undoubtedly be joined by new statues, some of them probably – hopefully – also of women. The people honoured by statues and the things they are honoured for will create a conversation between these monuments through which their meaning will be subtly altered.

But such conversations don’t just take place within the settings where monuments stand and between the monuments themselves. They also take place in the real world – in the pages of newspapers, between families and friends and, increasingly, online. How much importance we attach to Fawcett’s statue and the meanings we attribute to it will be determined by these conversations. The way that Google Maps portrayed the monument was a contribution – albeit perhaps a small one – to this conversation and one that definitely downplayed the statue’s significance by neglecting to name her and by presenting her statue as somehow less important than those of the men.

Images of people who made a major contribution to the cause of female suffrage shown on the base of Millicent Fawcett’s statue

The plinth on which Fawcett’s statue stands is intended to challenge the vision of history, suggested by the other monuments in the square, in one more important way. On it are inscribed the names and likenesses of 55 women and 4 men who also made a significant contribution to the cause of female suffrage. This is an argument against the all too common view that history is shaped by great men, which galleries of statues usually end up reinforcing. The base of Fawcett’s statue reminds us that the struggle to obtain the vote for women was not achieved solely through the efforts of one individual. One of the names inscribed there is that of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette.

Nonetheless the figure atop the base has been chosen for a reason. This is not meant to be an anonymous statue.

There might be those who disagree with the choice but Criado-Perez chose Millicent Fawcett as the one to be immortalized in bronze because she was one of the earliest campaigners for votes for women, because of the energy she put into the cause throughout her life, and because she hadn’t previously been honored with a statue. Labeling her monument simply ‘statue of suffragette’ dismisses all of that as irrelevant and does a disservice not only to Fawcett herself but also to those who worked to have her statue erected. It also plays footloose with the facts and manages to get the history wrong, which is quite remarkable considering the label was just three words long. Fawcett, unlike Pankhurst, wasn’t a suffragette at all. She was a suffragist.

The two groups distinguished themselves primarily by the methods they used to try to achieve their aims, the suffragists pursuing a purely peaceful course, the suffragettes willing to resort to more radical methods and sometimes violence. Which group played a greater role in achieving the vote for women and their attitudes toward one another are issues that continue to be hotly debated. Such complexity is brushed aside if all of those women are simply thrown under the umbrella term “suffragette”.

It’s probably clear from the above that I’m already a fan of the new statue of Fawcett even though, living in Denmark, I haven’t yet been to see it. I think it matters that the message the statue is meant to convey does get through. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of how we think about this particular statue at a more academic level I think this case says something interesting about how public statues are represented online through tools like Google Maps.

I’m not suggesting that Google deliberately attempts to control the way we think about these things. Far from it – much of the information in Google Maps has been entered by anonymous volunteers and the importance given to different monuments is, I assume at least in part, a factor of the interest shown in them. Nonetheless representations of monuments on such tools can feed into the conversation we have about their significance, not only reflecting the public attitude toward such monuments but also subtly shaping those attitudes.

It would be interesting to look at other cities and spaces of commemoration and consider the choices that have been made there. But first back to my article,


A coda: you might have noticed that throughout this piece in talking about Google Maps’ representation of Parliament Square I am using the past tense. When I noticed the label ‘Statue of Suffragette’ last week I posted about it on Twitter and drew it to the attention of Caroline Criado-Perez . One of her followers took it up with Google and a few days later I received this tweet from Criado-Perez: “Twitter delivers. Statue now renamed on @GoogleMaps”. And so the conversation about the meaning of our monuments goes on…