‘The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome’ at The British Museum

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Find out how this iconic bronze head of Rome’s first emperor Augustus became a symbol of African resistance in the ancient royal city of Meroë, in northern Sudan.

'The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome' at The British Museum
The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC [Credit: British Museum]

When the Meroë Head was excavated in 1910, it caused an immediate sensation. It is remarkably well preserved and only survived because in antiquity it was ritually buried far from the borders of the Roman Empire. In this display you will come face to face with this potent symbol of Rome’s authority, and see how grains of sand, fused to the corroded surface of the bronze, still hint at its dramatic fate.

Augustus became sole ruler in 27 BC, after a civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination. The Meroë Head must have been created soon after. Uniquely among Augustus’ bronze portraits, it preserves inlaid eyes that vividly capture his powerful gaze. Originally, it must have been part of a statue set up in a settlement at the southern border of Egypt, soon after the Roman conquest.

Further to the south, in what is now northern Sudan, lay Kush, a powerful African kingdom with its capital at Meroë. In 25/24 BC a Kushite army raided Roman Egypt’s southern border. Pursued by the Romans, the invaders destroyed and looted portrait statues of Augustus, among them the Meroë Head. Despite Roman demands, this prized trophy was never sent back. Instead, as a permanent act of defiance, the Kushites buried it beneath the steps of a victory monument at Meroë, so that worshippers symbolically trampled Augustus’ decapitated head as they entered the building.

Rarely seen photographs from the time of the excavation bring the landscape and buildings of Meroë to life and capture the sense of excitement felt by the archaeologists involved. In the display you will also discover why ruler portraits like the Meroë Head became such powerful tools of official propaganda, from antiquity to the present and from the sands of Sudan to the streets of modern Baghdad.

‘The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome’ runs until 15 February 2015.

See also The Meroë Head of Augustus: statue decapitation as political propaganda by David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum.

Source: The British Museum [December 19, 2014]

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