Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
The Meroe Head, so-called because it was found beneath a temple in the ruins of Meroe, is the head of a larger-than life statue of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus (better known as Augustus Caesar) the first Emperor of Rome (reigned 31 BCE-14 CE).
On 2 September 31 BCE Octavian Caesar (the future Augustus) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt at the Battle of Actium and claimed Egypt as a Roman province. Following his victory, Octavian pursued the scattered armies (many of whom defected to Octavian’s side) until the decisive defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Alexandria in August of 30 BCE, after which they killed themselves. Octavian, now supreme ruler of Rome, ordered building projects to begin in his new province of Egypt. Soon after, the Roman Senate awarded him the title `Augustus’ (“Illustrious One”) in 27 BCE and statues of Augustus Caesar were erected across Egypt as constant reminders of the power and reach of Rome.
In 25 BCE the Roman Governor in Egypt, General Aelius Publius Petronius, responding to provocation by Nubian forces to the north, attacked and sacked the Nubian city of Napata. In retaliation, the Nubians invaded Egypt and looted many of the statues (among other things) from the Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan. It is certain that the Meroe Head was once a part of one of these statues as described by the historian Strabo. Roman forces reclaimed many of the statues intact and others were returned following the peace treaty signed in 22 BCE between Rome and the Nubian capital of Meroe (which, interestingly, was uniquely generous to Meroe, favoring the Nubian city’s interests above those of Rome and leading to the construction of the Temple of Dendur in lower Nubia, where frecoes depicted Augustus paying homage to the Nubian god-brothers Pahor and Pedese) but the Meroe Head had been buried beneath the steps of a temple (perhaps deliberately, it is thought, so that the head of the Emperor would be ever beneath the feet of the citizens of Meroe) and was not discovered until excavations in Meroe by Professor John Garstang uncovered it in 1910.
The Meroe head measures 46.6 cm in height, 26.5 cm in width and 29.4 cm in depth and is made of bronze with alabaster, glass and coral inlays for the eyes, which are very expressive. The statue was most likely made by a Greek artist or, at least, was influenced by the classical Greek ideal in rendering human figures in sculpture. Many writers, following Garstang’s original description, have noted a “calm distant gaze” to the eyes which would have given the statue an aura of confidence and strength. Today the Meroe Head is a part of the collection of the British Museum.