Remembering the past, in ancient and modern contexts, is crucial way in which society passes a legacy of knowledge and values from one generation to the next. Voices from the past continue to speak in monuments, in literature and in symbols, such as the Remembrance Day poppy. Inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian physician John McCrae who served in World War I, the poppy commemorates fallen soldiers, whose voices encourage the living to carry on of the fight “To you from falling hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high”. If this bond is broken, the voices cry, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields”.
The poem connects the importance of perseverance with the act of remembrance of the terrible sacrifices of battle; to remember is to carry the torch, the illumination of the past event, into the present and to guide our future.
Connections between the ancient and the more recent past are difficult and often discouraged by academics for a number of good reasons. There is, however, a danger in regarding the ancient past and its inhabitants as isolated and hallowed objects, to be displayed, labelled and approached as a distinct entity from the present. This way of approaching history can limit the fundamentally human connections and interactions that make history so poignant and illuminating.
Modern Monuments To Ancient History: Puella Incognita – Who’s That Girl?
One beautiful illustration of our modern reverence for the past is the tomb of the unknown teenage girl, adjacent to the London office building affectionately known as “the Gherkin”. The bones of this young lady, unearthed during excavations in 1995, were kept at the Museum of London until 2007, when the monument was dedicated. She was given a proper burial procession, from a service at nearby St. Botolph’s (Aldgate) Church to the burial site, where a dedication and libations were made, accompanied by music. The event provided a unique opportunity for a modern audience to step into history, connecting with the differences and similarities between ancient and modern burial practices. The grey stone tomb, which stands as a permanent memorial (and a welcome seat along the bustling Bury Street), is almost certainly more grand and prominent than her original burial monument would have been (although none was found).
But what do we know about this puella incognita (unknown girl)?
Carbon dating associated burial pottery suggests that she had been buried there since 350-400 AD, and studies of the bones indicate that she was 13-17 years old when she died. The orientation of the body in the original burial was in a supine position (with the head facing south) with her arms crossed over each other. Apart from her gender, estimated lifetime, and location of burial, we know very little. Was she was a Roman, a native Briton, or from another part of the world? After all another Roman era tombstone found on Tower Hill RIB 9 belonged to a native of Athens.
Puella Incognita’s modern tombstone, inscribed in Latin and English with a characteristic laurel wreath decoration at the top, echoes with language that is recognizable in epitaphs across history. DIS MANIBUS “to the spirits of the dead” records the subject of the dedication (the Manes were deities of the underworld), followed by the name of the deceased PUELLA INCOGNITA LONDINIENSIS “the unknown girl from Londinium”, is a standard formula in ancient and modern funerary monuments. HIC SEPULTA EST “lies buried here”, is a bit more unusual, especially in Roman Britain (there are only 5 examples of this term in Roman Britain, none from London). I would have preferred HIC SITUS EST “here lies”, as there are 260 examples of this term in Roman Britain (a handful from London) and it has remained as a common term in burial monuments throughout history, providing a further point of connection with a modern audience.
Less frequently noted is the inscription painted in red on the top of the tomb, a quote from the neoclassical poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Images from the Arcadian Dream Garden, which combines references to ancient and more recent ruins (e.g. Panzer tanks). The text commemorates the connections between and ancient and modern worlds through a common experience of humanity: death and commemoration, monuments and remembrance.
As a whole, this memorial combines past and present voices in a cohesive and quite beautiful way. The dedication was a thoughtful gesture, which illustrates a poignant connection between past and present worlds in the heart of London. It reveals our best possible intentions towards ancient history: a retrospective memorial for an unknown teenage girl. Although we don’t know who she is, whether she was a good or bad person, we know that we should treat other people in a way that mirrors, if not exceeds, our own expectations. What we have created for an unknown girl is a testament not only to her but also to the value of a modern society: the continuity of culture, humanity, and respect for the departed.
Remembrance, and the monuments which embody it, are not universally seen in a positive light. Recent protests have called for the removal of monuments to confederate generals from the American Civil War. These monuments are not burials, but they are memorials; they represent a voice from the past, a moment in time. They commemorate not only the individual depicted but also those who considered that individual worthy of honour. To the protestors, the history which these memorials preserve and evoke is painful; the remembrance of slavery and the society which sought to preserve it.
As observed with our unknown girl, the dedication of a monument is not only an honour for an individual, but a statement on behalf of those carrying out the act of commemoration. Good or bad, these monuments are part of our history and, to many Americans, a national legacy. So what do we do with contentious monuments?
Roman Attitudes to Monuments and Commemoration
Rome and her Empire have left an unparalleled legacy of monuments, as well as some illuminating lessons about monumental culture. Romans were masters of re-inscribing history and reusing monuments. Without Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, Romans, like many successive generations, relied on public monuments and imagery to define and shape their recorded history and their collective sense of self.
Roman monuments had their share of socially awkward moments down the years. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in the theatre of Pompey in 44BC, Caesar’s supporters found themselves in a difficult situation: one could not get rid of the massive monumental building or the statue of Pompey (Caesar’s rival) at whose feet Caesar is claimed to have fallen (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 66). Instead, the later historian Cassius Dio (who has been known to “sex up a dossier”) claimed that Caesar’s successors (the Truimvirs: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus) turned the Curia room (the site of Caesar’s slaughter) into public latrines; the unhappy memory of that space being defiled by daily ordure (Cassius Dio, History 47.19). The emperor Augustus (formerly called Octavian) later moved the statue of Pompey to the theatre stage, where it was associated with Pompey’s victory rather than Caesar’s downfall (Suetonius, Augustus, 31.5). While all historical sources have their limitations, many of these accounts appear to corroborate one other, especially Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote a century after the event in question. Their descriptions of public buildings and monuments, which were still in use at the time of their writing, are likely to contain at least some element of truth.
Augustus, a political mastermind, was careful to be respectful of commemoration. After the defeat and death of Marc Antony, despite a Senate initiative to condemn him and his monuments (Plutarch, Antony, 49, Dio, History 15.19), Augustus demanded that Antony’s name be reinscribed. According to his own account (Res Gestae), Augustus also ordered the restoration of over 80 buildings and monuments in Rome, retaining the name of the original dedicator rather than adding his name; amongst these was the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, one of Rome’s most sacred sites. These restorations reflected an outward show of respect for history (for more see S. Walker’s chapter in, Jon Coulston and Dodge Hazel (eds.), Ancient Rome – The Archaeology of the Eternal City (2000), 61-75 and A. Cooley’s chapter in Cooley (ed.) The Afterlife of Inscriptions (2000)).
Destroying a monument violated a number of Roman principles: it was a waste of resources, it drew attention to the individual being dishonoured, and showed a disrespect for fundamental Roman values: pietas (respect for ancestors) and clementia (forgiveness). Antony was not to be forgotten but remembered as a loser to a more glorious opponent (for more on Augustus, Antony, and damnatio memoriae, cf. a recent article by Nick Ackert).
This is not to say that the Romans left all their monuments unharmed. Suetonius (Domitian 23) describes how senators violently beat a statue of the condemned emperor Domitian in the Roman Forum. Suetonius is not an infallible source but, in this case, is corroborated by accounts of violent statue mutilation in Pliny, Panegyricus, 52.4-6.
Domitian’s name was hacked off of bases and building dedications across the Empire, not as a means of removing his memory but as a means of transforming the message of a monument: from “Domitian was a great man” to “Domitian was a bad man”. Recarved statues bear visible traces and their bases carried unsightly gashes where names had been removed (see below). This practice became known as damnatio memoriae – a posthumous condemnation of a person’s reputation by defacing their monuments. Crucially, damnatio memoriae involved the alteration but not the wholesale destruction of a monument. It conveyed a very public censure, a way of remembering (not forgetting) a fall from grace. Roman monumental culture seems to have recognised that destroying a monument also destroyed an opportunity for subsequent generations to learn from the past. Their progression as a society could only be appreciated by comparison with the past, glories and failure alike.
Approaching Modern Commemoration: What We Can Learn from the Romans
In light of past and present attitudes towards the Romans, consider what we can learn from them, particularly in our approach to contentious monuments. If memorials are destroyed wherever the individual concerned has flaws, or beliefs that are unacceptable by modern standards, then only monuments for puella incognita “unknown girl” or an unknown soldier, are guaranteed to stand the test of time. Whatever the merits of the Confederate cause in the Civil War, and the subsequent decision to erect a monument commemorating a general who fought for it, the removal of such a monument is a step towards erasing a memory, which would in turn preclude learning from it. If we use monuments, as the Romans did, as a barometer or our progress as a culture, how will modern society be able to gauge its development from racial, religious and sexual intolerance? These are lessons worth learning, these are events worth remembering.
Reinscribing history by relocating monuments, adding additional figures, or writing a postscript, are all options that worked for the Romans, and they have been applied in modern culture with success. For example, monumental statues from the Communist regime in Hungary have been moved to a special park outside Budapest, appropriately named “Memento Park”. Here public artworks and monuments of the past live on, but in a different context outside the main civic spaces of the modern city.
Reinscribing monuments with postscripts is another a successful way to alter the monumental message. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a monument commemorating those fallen in the US army’s campaign against Native American tribes in 1868 was altered in 1970; offensive terminology (“savage”, “rebel”) was removed from the original marble plaque and postscript was added. This monument illustrates how additions can transform the message of a monument, in a manner that is respectful to the original context whilst demonstrating how society has progressed.
One final example is a contentious statue, from a similar time (1880’s), on the facade of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Allegorical figures represent the continents (or perhaps the races) of the world. Europe is represented by two figures carved in the Classical tradition, a male youth and a seated woman bearing a resemblance to the (contemporary) Statue of Liberty. Another statue features figures representing America and Australia; the seated figure of a mostly naked Native American embodies the concept of the “noble savage” whilst a semi-nude aboriginal woman clutching a child sits at his feet, her face contorted in an unhandsome grimace.
This latter statue invokes a visceral response but, rather than get my chisel out, I went inside the museum, and learned about the context in which it was built. The imperial imagery it employs is not so different from the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London (1872). These contentious figures weave a narrative of Empire, dominance and superiority that is as illuminating as it is uncomfortable for a modern audience. They reveal how differently people viewed the world and globalization in the past.
There are no protesters in Vienna, presumably because these statues are not directly in the faces of the individuals they characterize. But would it be so terrible if they were? An encounter with the attitudes of the past will in many cases be a confrontation, but through this dispute we can develop a deeper understanding of both the attitudes of that time and the fundamental social changes that have taken place since. Should we destroy these statues or should we accept monuments for what they are; crucial records of events and voices in history?
The next generation is not only looking at history, their gaze is fixed keenly on the present: how will the current generation treat its heritage? Rather than trying to remove what is considered a negative historical message, why not embrace it and add a voice to it? Don’t erase history: reinscribe it. Create a positive message. Add to the narrative with a text or statues of the people whose roles and sacrifices should have been recorded. Another solution could be to move contentious statues to different locations, where they could be visited as a collective. As the Romans demonstrated, preserving the past was an essential part of learning from it.
The architect of Memento Park, Ákos Eleőd, observed: “Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyse it, and think about it!”
As in John McCrae’s poem, remembrance is holding the torch high and illuminating the past. Whether or not we like what we see, this approach brings the greatest benefit to those who will follow.