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Statues of the Divine and Damned

In the National Museum of American History sits the Enthroned Washington. He is a mighty, imposing figure. Sculpted by Horace Greenborough, George Washington sits upon his throne as a god. His literally chiseled frame permeates the air with an undeniable machismo that is reinforced by his defiant finger pointed upwards to heaven and his outstretched hand bearing a sheathed sword. Saying that Greenborough modeled Washington after the Zeus Olympicos, the monumental statue of Zeus built by Phidias and considered to be one of the wonders of the world, is redundant as the comparison between Washington and the divine is blatantly explicit.

The Enthroned Washington is an exaggeration of the average statue, even critics at the time made snide remarks about the “half-naked” Washington. However, it serves as an obvious example of the deification complex that exists around statues and the men they represent. Social norms have created an accepted perception of statues that views them as either all good or all bad; a narrow, binary interpretation on the meaning of statues that leads to needless cultural conflict and a poor-faith interpretation of the past and the people those statues honor.

Let’s keep pulling on this binary framework by going back in time to Rome where the emperor is dead.

How did he die? Old age, struck down by the gods, assassination, poisoning, choking on a single hair in a glass of milk, war, there are many ways he could’ve died. Around the dead emperor, the imperial family, the senate, various patricians, and the military commanders circle around his corpse like Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. They debate whether the dead emperor should get Apotheosis or the Damnatio Memoria. Either he can receive apotheosis and be revered as a literal god. A cult could develop around him, and his statue could be promulgated across the empire.

Or he could get the Damnatio Memoriae. His memory would be damned, and his image on coins, arches, and statues could be literally scratched out by the new emperor. Augustus was given Apotheosis. Nero was given the Damnatio Memoriae. This tradition of damning and consecrating emperors and select people around the emperors existed from Rome’s transformation into an empire at the beginning of the common era until its dramatic collapse four hundred years later.


The people that statues honor should not be viewed as black or white, but as the gray, nuanced figures they were. Our cultural interaction with statues should be changed into a new gray framework. Doing so can greatly reduce the debates over statues, which waste time and energy.


This phenomenon of condemnation and consecration is multigenerational. Even though we are separated by two thousand years of cultural change, the American public treats statues under the same binary logic as Rome’s elite. The comparison isn’t exactly perfect, the amount of people who judge statues today is much larger than Rome’s elite, and those who got consecrated or the Damnatio Memoriae usually had advocates and critics who knew the person unlike today’s statues on trial that have no character witnesses, but the logics endemic within Rome’s tradition and today’s movements are the same. The people that statues honor should not be viewed as black or white, but as the gray, nuanced figures they were.

Our cultural interaction with statues should be changed into a new gray framework. Doing so can greatly reduce the debates over statues, which waste time and energy. Money that could go to promoting business and helping the poor is instead spent on protecting statues or keeping order. So, what can this non-deification/damnation framework look like? First, in addition to evaluating who the statue honors, governments and the public should evaluate what the statue honors. Secondly, the people behind the statue should be viewed as noble or good, but flawed beings. Finally, does the community want or benefit from the statue? It’s a loose checklist, but it’s better than toppling statues of Ulysses S. Grant or defending monuments to the Confederacy because of the binary framework. There should be no more Enthroned Washingtons, but there is no need to destroy them.

This new framework is also flexible. Stone Mountain, an overtly racist engraving on a mountainside to the Confederacy, should be removed even though some in Georgia like the carving. Basically, anything built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy should be removed because it dignifies a regressive, ethno supremacist system. A statue to Henry Ford honoring entrepreneurialism, however, should be kept even though Ford was anti-Semitic. If the community wants a monument to Ford, people learn to view Ford as a flawed figure, and it is sincerely honoring the positive achievements of Ford, then there’s little reason for it not to exist.

Is this type of thinking around statues going to replace the ancient logic of Apotheosis and the Damnatio Memoriae? Probably not, but with better education and more awareness through culturally relevant figures, this new framework can become more ingrained in the collective consciousness, and thus evolve America’s interaction with these men and women of stone.

David Leshchiner is a second-year double major in International Relations and Data Science. He is the Editor for Foreign Affairs at the Agora.

Image courtesy Paul Brennan, Creative Commons

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