Shattered Foundations

The wanton destruction of historical artefacts and monuments in the museum of Mosul by supporters and fighters of Islamic State forces is a heartbreaking spectacle to behold:

While we are quick (and right) to condemn these acts as crimes against humanity, we are equally quick to forget what it is what we are looking at.

I have just called it a heartbreaking spectacle, and there will not be much disagreement over the ‘heartbreaking’ bit. Shameless thugs vandalise the remains of the earliest high cultures, smashing what is commonly regarded humankind’s common cultural heritage and calling it a fight against idolatry.

What we do not think through to an equal degree, of course, is the ‘spectacle’ part, even though it is, undeniably, a staged performance played to an audience who is easily reeled in, and made a part of, this staged reality with its predictable plot and its equally predictable audience response.

Like any spectacle, it comprises five vital elements: (i) a stage (prima facie this would appear to be the museum of Mosul; in reality it is the virtual world of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and our news media, of course), (ii) actors (the willing tools of the IS forces), (iii) theatrical props (the ancient artefacts), (iv) a plot of sorts (the despicable destruction of the monuments with its accompanying sound track), and  finally (v) an audience (the Western world).

Why is this spectacle so powerful? Why is it so painful to watch?

Replaceable objects? The so-called Perserschutt (Persian rubble). – Image source:

Invaluable objects – or replaceable decoration? It all depends on your perspective. – The so-called Perserschutt (Persian rubble); image source:

We live in a (largely) secular world, where hardly anything appears to be sacred – everything has a price tag on it, everything can be replaced somehow (even if it is by means of compensation). So one way of looking at this theatrical performance could be simply to say, ‘well, there were a bunch of idiots breaking stone with heavy equipment, just as they ought to be doing to the end of their lives – preferably as part of a chain gang’.

Except, no one with an IQ above room temperature is likely to adopt this point of view.

So what’s different here?

Is it the stage (a museum rather than a rocky landscape)? Is it the range of theatrical props (historical artefacts rather than any other kind of rock)? Or is it something to do with the audience, their frame of mind, and their expectations regarding the appropriate behaviour in a specific setting? A combination of these factors? Something else entirely?

An answer to this may lie in one of the predictable audience responses: the hope that the objects that got smashed to smithereens were not actually originals, but merely plaster casts, copies of objects kept in museums elsewhere – a short-lived, quickly frustrated hope.

The truth behind this response, however, is that, in spite of the common display of casual capitalist whateverism towards material objects, there are still certain things and scenarios left, to which we attach a sense of sacrosanctity in addition to the price tag.

The realisation that the third-rate actors of this performance in fact performed their little farce on a stage and using props that we recognise as actually sacrosanct is what causes our particularly emotional response. Had they done the same thing in a shop or in an office block, we presumably would have felt a lot more relaxed. Had they done the same thing on an actual stage and with fake artefacts, we could not have cared less.

Blending the artifice of a staged performance with our real world, however,  can result in a deeply unsettling experience once one realises that the artifice has begun to disintegrate: we would rather not think about a performance of an Oedipus drama in which actual parents and an actual son engaged in the actual acts, would we?

As a result, we are left disoriented – are we supposed to look? Are we supposed to look away? Will looking away condemn the spectacle, will it restore the spectacle to the fictional world of artifice?

Of course it won’t.

Ashurbanipal's soldiers give Susa the IS treatment. – Image source:

Ashurbanipal’s soldiers give Susa the IS treatment. – Image source:

The best thing we can do, I believe, in addition to putting an end to this madness, is to explore our responses to what we see and to get to understand what drives our emotions.

What we see smashed in the museum is not actually part of our direct cultural heritage – it is something that we have appropriated by proxy, it is something that we have been taught to value through our education.

It is something that gives us a sense of purpose as well as a sense of legacy, with very little actual understanding of the objects’ context and their cultural background.

Or has anyone recently asked themselves  just how many cultures were suppressed and destroyed by those whose artworks we now see smashed? It could be a case of historical justice after all…?

Again, no one with an IQ above room temperature is likely to adopt this point of view.

I have a nagging suspicion that what it is that’s truly unsettling about what we were made to see is something else. It is, or so I would argue, the violent intrusion of that fantasy space that we prefer to call our history and our memory. If the artefacts and tombs of times long gone are no longer sacred – what will ever be? Is there any hope for ourselves to be remembered?

Roman tombstones, for example, express this concern rather frequently and, on occasion, even state the price that would be paid for any interference – two examples may suffice to illustrate this:

  • CIL VI 5886 cf. p. 3418, 3851 = ILS 8178 (Rome)

A(ulus) Terentius Terentiae | Domiti l(ibertus) Heracleo. | quisquis es homo et vos sodales meos cunctos | rogo per deos superos inferosque ni | velitis ossa mea violare.

Aulus Terentius Heracleo, freedmen of Terentia and Domitius. Whoever you are, man, and all of you, my friends, I ask by the gods above and below to refrain from defiling my remains.

  • CIL VI 24799 (cf. p. 3917) = ILS 8220 (Rome)

Dis Manibus. | M(arco) Popilio M(arci) f(ilio) Zosimiano | filio piissimo. vix(it) ann(is) X | mens(ibus) II dieb(us) XII h(oris) VIII. | M(arcus) Popilius Euphemus | et Popilia Moschis | fecerunt et sibi et libertis | libertabusq(ue) suis posterisq(ue) eorum. | quisquis hoc monumentum violaverit | aut titulum deasciaverit aliove | quo nomine inscripserit dabit | in aerarium p(opuli) R(omani) HS XX m(ilia) n(ummum).

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Marcus Popilius Zosimianus, son of Marcus, the most dutiful son. He lived 10 years, 2 months, 12 days, 8 hours. Marcus Popilius Euphemus and Popilia Moschis had this made for themselves and their freedmen and freedwomen as well as their offspring.

Whoever will violate this memorial or erases its inscription or inscribes it with another name, will have to pay the treasury of the Roman people 20,000 sesterces.

Deasciare – to ‘erase’ (by means of an axe!): this is as close as it gets to a Latin term for what the IS brute squad were doing in the museum of Mosul.

Sometimes, of course, it was possible to take remedial action against wanton destruction and the danger of forgetting (CIL VI 19295 cf. p. 3915 = CIL  X 5736 cf. p. 1013 = ILS 8384 cf. p. 190, from Rome):

CIL VI 19295. – Image source:$DM_147.jpg;PH0011901&nr=2.

CIL VI 19295. – Image source here.

Heraclides Menodoti f(ilius) | Calliste matri suae et | Menodoto fratri l(ibertis) l(ibertorumque) l(ibertis) p(osterisque) om(nibu)s. | Ti(berius) Plautius Lupus | Ti(berius) Plautius Euaristus | A(ulus) Plautius Synegdemus. | hoc monumentum suum | violatum vindicarunt et | restituerunt no{n}mina | obitoru[m].

Heraclides, son of Menodotus, for Calliste, his mother, and Menodotus, his brother, and their freedmen, their freedmen’s freedmen, and all their offspring. Tiberius Plautius Lupus, Tiberius Plautus Euaristus, Aulus Plautius Synegdemus. They laid claim on their defiled memorial and restored the names of the dead.

In other cases, however, the invocation of heavenly wrath, whether from above or below, seemed to be the only recourse:

  • AE 1946.58 (Theveste, Numidia)

Ista(m) memoria(m) si qui(s) violaverit violavit (!) illum deus.

God will defile him whoever defiles this memorial.

  • AE 1988.380 (Rugge/Rudiae)

Fadius | Cominus | v(ixit) a(nnos) XXXX. || Ollam eius si quis | violavit (!) ad inferos | non recipiatur.

Fadius Cominus lived 40 years. If someone destroys his urn, may he not be received by the gods of the underworld.

Or, in a truly epic, interdenominational way – especially for those who think that sacred monuments and power tools should mix  (note the use of deasciare again; ILJug I 131 = AE 1959.252 = AE 2005.1187, from Salona):

Hanc sepultu]|ram si qu[is de]asciare volu|erit habe[at ir]ata numina | quitquid [Rom]ani sive Iudae|i vel C(h)rissi[ani] (!) | colent e[t deo]s Manis unus | quisque quot sibi fi|[e]ri non vu[lt] | facere non | debet.

Should someone desire to desire to damage this burial with tools, may he have divine spirits mad at them, whether of Roman, Jewish, or Christian creed, as well as the spirits of the departed: anyone who does not wish this to happen to them, should refrain from doing so.

Sapienti sat – enough for the wise.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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One Response to Shattered Foundations

  1. johncoyote says:

    This is very sad. People who don’t respect human life are scary and dangerous. People who don’t respect ancient things that are not replaceable. Have no common sense. I believe every life is valuable. Men who can take life without due-cause (Being attacked), can kill women and children. What kind of people are they? Every child in our world need a fair chance. I love history and art. This is a very sad video.

    Liked by 1 person

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