British Museum: Free exhibition – Defacing the Past in imperial Rome, from 13 October

Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome

We all know how important a good public image is in our own interconnected world – and this autumn sees a new exhibition at the British Museum in London, which explores why certain coins and artworks were defaced “either to condemn the memory of deceased Roman emperors or to undermine the power of living ones”.

From Emperor Sejanus to Nero and Domitian to Commodus, the exhibition looks at why objects and coins were defaced, from the point of view of the defacer.

The exhibition is of particular interest to me, as a direct descendant of Rome’s emperors, who are either my great grandfathers or great uncles – and sometimes both, as a result of close family members marrying each other in ancient Rome.

The main image of the coins shows Emperor Commodus, who is my 55th great uncle – and who was assassinated. He is renowned for having devalued the Roman currency – and his legacy was famously described as “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”. It is easy to understand why coins bearing his image were defaced.

The exhibition is free.

Castel Sant’Angelo on the River Tiber, site of ancient Rome’s treasury.


Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome

British Museum, Museum Street, London WC1

13 October 2016 – 7 May 2017
Room 69a

Supported by Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald

Research funded by


Main image: Copper-alloy medallion showing the defaced bust of the Roman emperor Commodus (r. 180–192). Minted in Rome, AD 191.




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