Effaced: the missing noses of classical antiquity

The project group had its inaugural meeting in Cardiff on 17 October 2016 to brainstorm, discuss themes and plan for the project’s future directions. Below, Mark Bradley (Department of Classics, University of Nottingham) discusses the sort of thing we’ll be exploring across the different periods within the project members’ expertise:


The ‘Nasothek’, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, room 14. Photo: Mark Bradley.

A display cabinet in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen exhibits scores of disembodied noses (and various other appendages) from its Greek and Roman sculpture collections. This macabre collection of body parts was assembled back in 1981 out of marble and plaster noses that had been deliberately removed by the museum’s curators from the heads of its classical sculptures during a post-war ‘de-restoration’ campaign: because they were all fakes, this defacement was part of an initiative to render the Glyptotek’s sculpture collections more ‘authentic’. So far so good, but this cabinet also tells a more sinister story about the mutilation of faces back in antiquity that can give us all pause for thought.

Noses on the vast majority of ancient stone sculpture are missing. Some of these have inevitably broken off accidentally (nose protrusions are the first thing to hit the floor when a statue topples over), but it is also evident that an overwhelming number of them have been deliberately targeted. A black basalt head of the emperor Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus in the British Museum shows a nose that has been clearly chiselled away, probably at the same time that early Christians carved a cross into the forehead of this pagan portrait. Ancient iconoclasm is one thing, but this wanton destruction of ancient portraits alludes to traditions of real-life facial mutilation that is evident across the ancient world from Homeric Greece, the Persian Empire, Classical and Hellenistic Greece, and Republican and Imperial Rome right through to the Byzantine period. In the Odyssey, one of Penelope’s suitors (dead or alive, it is not clear) is dragged outside the palace and his nose and ears are cut off, followed by his genitals, hands and feet; Heracles earned the nickname ‘Nose Docker’ on the grounds that he cut off the noses of heralds who told him what he didn’t want to hear; and nose mutilation was a punishment sometimes meted out to adulterers across Greek and Roman antiquity. In Egypt there was even a settlement called Rhinokoloura (“the city of docked noses”) where banished criminals whose noses had been sliced off were sent into exile. The Greeks had a single term for nose-docking (‘Rhinokopia’), and this was regularly dealt out as a punishment during the Byzantine empire: the emperor Justinian II, who was deposed and punished in precisely this way at the end of the seventh century so that he would never become reclaim the throne again (the emperor was expected to be the perfect image of God, free from any deformity), against all odds gathered an army and marched back on Constantinople a decade later, sporting a golden prosthetic nose over his disfigured face and seized back his title.

Along with gouging out the eyes, slicing off the ears, cutting out the tongue and castration, dismemberment and other ghoulish punishments, nose-docking has been a widely recognized form of punishment not only in the classical world, but also in Pharaonic Egypt, pre-Colombian America, the Arab world, early India and Medieval Europe, and in recent years occasional instances in South Asian countries have attracted media attention for their brutality. Across all these contexts, it has been a powerfully symbolic gesture associated with disempowerment, humiliation, visibility, exclusion, lost identity and pain, and has participated in discourses about politics, gender, race and slavery.

Mark Bradley is Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham and edits the Routledge series ‘The Senses in Antiquity’.

This entry was posted in Classical, Contemporary, Early Modern, medieval, Modern, Representation, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Effaced: the missing noses of classical antiquity

  1. Pingback: Mark Bradley (Nottingham), ‘Antiquity’s Missing Noses’ | Effaced From History

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