Today it’s ‘culture wars’ – but from Caesar to Colston, public art has long been reviled and reinterpreted

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University

Two thousand years ago the ancient Romans had some imaginative solutions to the problem of what to do with statues of rulers they had come to deplore. Some they gleefully toppled and threw into the nearest river, Edward Colston-style. But others they carefully reworked. It didn’t take much to get out a chisel and refashion the face of the old tyrant into the face of the new beloved leader.

If cash was very tight, you might just put a new name on to an old statue, because hundreds of miles away hardly anyone knew what these guys really looked like. As Alex von Tunzelmann deftly captures in her recent book, Fallen Idols, statues are always works in progress: toppled, moved, reworked, reerected and reinterpreted. There has never been a time when they were not contested.

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