Some years ago, before we as a nation started punching ourselves in the face by moving to excise Confederate monuments from our public spaces and thereby destroy a part of our cultural patrimony, I studied a marble Roman portrait of the first emperor, Augustus, in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. At least it looked like Augustus, but it fell short of his classic good looks. It turned out it was him: He’d been recut from an earlier portrait of Nero, whose features were faintly visible through those of his great-great-grandfather.
Nero had been declared a public enemy and deposed, and the portrait’s owner, eager to get with the anti-Nero program, repurposed it. He could have taken a mallet to it and destroyed it, of course, a method that might be endorsed by haters of Confederate statues today. Certainly the Romans gave in often enough to the primal urge to remove, de-face, or smash portraits of the losers in their civil wars. At their best, the Romans were capable of following a third way, consciously pursuing a paradoxical strategy of allowing the viewers to figure out who, like Nero under the Joslyn portrait, they were to “remember to forget.”
Having spent much of my career studying Roman monuments, I am appalled by the destruction of our own, and I gladly join the thin chorus calling for a more sophisticated way of dealing with Confederate statues. I prefer one that leaves them in place and does not prevent our descendants from considering them in their own right. If you wish to erect another monument nearby, one that would enumerate Confederate sins, that seems to me both useful and responsible.
The Romans’ experience with civil war can contribute something new to this debate, and we should learn from them. We rarely have the luxury of studying an ancient statue where and as it was originally erected. Even working with the scanty remains we have, we quickly see how everything about a monument, including how it was assembled, erected, and oriented, and even how it has weathered over time, is important evidence. The unpromising scattered rubble in the Roman Forum, carefully studied, has led to better understanding. Nothing is beneath study.
To take a current example, it might be hard for you or me to imagine what we could learn from the nearly identical Civil War common-soldier monuments like the one recently felled in Durham. Still, we should recognize that this doesn’t mean that others with greater insight won’t discover in them what we can’t. When we destroy a statue, we ensure that they can’t. Archaeology is full of cases where people studied what to the untrained eye might look like crud and found in it the gold of new knowledge.
The Romans could be quite apt at repurposing their civil-war generals to serve a public purpose. Augustus inherited an empire socially and economically devastated by the wars ending with Antony and Cleopatra. In an attempt to foster national unity, he built a great public plaza, the Forum of Augustus. Besides directly glorifying him, it had statue galleries of civic saints, the “greatest men,” whose lives had led up to his in a crescendo.
We sometimes see Robert E. Lee depicted as a sort of civic saint. In this guise he takes part in an American attempt at civically constructive repurposing.
Into these galleries Augustus stuck relatives, the ancient kings, and the mythic founders Aeneas and Romulus. But he also had to deal with the ugly era of civil wars that had brought down the republic. He therefore included statues of the long-dead generals Marius and Sulla, men at least as hard as Nathan Bedford Forrest, men who had not scrupled to openly murder their enemies, men who had trashed their otherwise good military or political reputations. Now, the better part of those reputations served the cause of national unity and Augustan rule, even though no one ever forgot that they had marched in civil war against Rome.
We sometimes see Robert E. Lee depicted as a sort of civic saint, as formerly in the Duke Chapel, or enshrined in the United States Capitol. In this guise he takes part in an American attempt at civically constructive repurposing, which marked the great age of reconciliation during the dotage of the Civil War veterans. If the Confederate heroes now seemed washed of their sins, that was a price of reconciliation. As in the case of Augustus’s Forum, such dedications could be breathtakingly self-serving: The people who put them up were not fashioned of unalloyed good. Lee and the other Confederates weren’t either, and they are now falling victim to our human weakness for toppling monuments to people who fall short of the virtue suggested by the pedestals they’re on. “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a bum,” Pappy Boyington said.
That’s the problem with monuments: You can’t control how people think about them. But if you eliminate them, you try to force others how to think. That’s bad civic stewardship, and hardly a fitting tribute to the slaves and their descendants. Nor is it becoming of anyone for whom decency and the Gettysburg Address might be taken as guides for behavior.