The Tarpeia Debates: Sites of Roman Executions and Sam Durant’s “Scaffold”

I have just read Candice Hopkins essay “The Appropriation Debates” in the most recent issue of Mousse magazine.

Hopkins, whose work on global indigenous art and culture I first encountered at documenta 14, discusses two controversial artworks of the last year: the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) at the Whitney Biennial and the purchase of Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While I knew of the former and visited the exhibition, I had no idea of the latter dispute, posting a photograph from the original site of Durant’s work in 2012 at dOCUMENTA (13) during my visit to documenta 14 in Kassel this summer.

Hopkins describes the reaction to Schutz’s painting of the open casket of Emmett Till, murdered by a group of white men in 1964, both in the protests within the museum space and also in terms of those who wrote for its removal, and even destruction, and those wrote against.

On the opening days, Parker Bright placed his body between it and the audience. On his shirt, the message: “Black Death Spectacle.” Bright—like artist Hannah Black, whose letter denouncing the painting went viral—was critical not only of the transformation of black death into spectacle but also of the potential profit by a white painter from black trauma…Black’s letter garnered fierce debate. Some, like artist Coco Fusco, felt that aspects of the letter were essentialist: “The authority to speak for or about black culture is not guaranteed by skin color or lineage, and it can be undermined by untruths.” But Fusco was most critical of the call for the painting’s censorship, “her use of offense as a rationalization for censorship reinforce elitist and formalist views that ethical considerations don’t belong in the aesthetic interpretation of art.” Even novelist Zadie Smith has weighed in: “When arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated that antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity.”

As is clear from Smith’s statement, central to Hopkins’ recounting of these debates is the question of appropriation and, specifically, who has the right to speak for the other and to recount their trauma. She quotes Hannah Black as follows:

discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded.

It is this issue understanding appropriation ‘in a reparative mode’ that Hopkins expands beyond the Schutz debate and into another controversy closer to her own work on contemporary indigenous art and culture.

Sam Durant’s Scaffold is an assemblage of multiple gallows, stretching from that built to execute John Brown in 1859, the Manakato gallows of 1862 and that built to hang Saddam Hussein in 2006. After being created for dOCUMENTA (13) (see image below), it was shown at The Hague, accompanied by performances of ‘Murder Ballads’, as a stark protest against capital punishment.

Yet when the work was purchased by the Walker, it brought the Manakato gallows onto their historical site of enactment. It was on this land that 38 members of the Dakota tribe, were chosen by President Lincoln to bear responsibility for the so-called Dakota Wars, uprisings to protect against loss of land and their culture. Here is how Hopkins articulates the core issue:

What does it mean to return them [the gallows] to the place of the original trauma? For the Dakota and their allies, who already lead a daily fight against historical ignorance, Scaffold became a different kind of monument; for them it was a daily reminder of the pain and suffering of their people.

Hopkins then describes the swift action, on the part of the Walker, the Dakota leaders and the artist, where they met and agreed to destroy the work. Hopkins wonders whether this decision, which unlike the Schutz debate brought inclusive dialogue and resolution, was perhaps too swift and absolute:

Unlike Schutz’s painting, for which there will be no real resolution, here it felt like the resolution perhaps came too quickly. Instead of completely destroying the sculpture, what about leaving it there in part or making use of the empty plot as a stage for the kind of conversations Durant had hoped to spark at The Hague concerning justice and history? Since the water protectors gathered at Standing Rock, native voices have been gathering and getting stronger. Here is an opportunity to build upon that strength by providing people with a place to speak.

Hopkins’ connections between these two debates in terms of appropriation, site, trauma and platforms to speak, brought me back to my own discipline of Classics, and specifically the way in which the teaching of ancient cultures through their texts and visual art, can sometimes be too severely severed from sites of historical violence. When a student in Ohio reads about ancient slavery or gendered violence, has appropriation been taken too far to distance them from the possible connections between ancient cultures and our own?

Take for example the story of Tarpeia, as told by the historian Livy in his History (1.11.5-9). Following the Romulan Rome’s abduction of women (e.g. the Sabine women) from surrounding tribes, Rome’s neighbors mounted a series of attacks.

The last, and the fiercest by far, came from the Sabines.… Spurius Tarpeius, the commander of the Citadel, had a daughter who was a Vestal Virgin. On one of her trips outside the walls to collect holy water at the Camenae springs, Tatius, the Sabine king, succeeded in bribing her with gold to open up the Citadel to the Sabine soldiers. As soon as they gained entrance, however, the Sabines crushed her to death beneath their shields, whether to make it look as if they took the Citadel by force, or to make an example of her treachery by showing that a traitor could safely trust no one.

Livy proceeds to narrate two other versions of the story:

There is, however, another version of the story. In this, Tarpeia had stipulated as her reward whatever the Sabines wore on their left arms, with an eye on the massive gold armbands and the beautiful gem-studded rings they commonly wore; instead, she got their shields. There is also a third account, in which Tarpeia is a heroine: in this version, she made the pact for “what they wore on their left arms,” and then surprised them by asking for their shields instead of the gold. When the Sabines perceived the trick, they destroyed her by giving her what she demanded.

These alternative versions of the Tarpeia story, in which she is turned into a cunning defender of Rome, rather than an example of betrayal, are part of the literary tradition that moralizes Roman women, for their heroic actions, equating them with men (e.g. Propertius’ elegy 4. 4). Yet, when we read the story of Tarpeia (in Livy or Propertius), in its ambivalence, should what would it mean for us to also acknowledge the fact that her story is invoked throughout the ancient Roman world to describe the site at which state executions were ritually performed?

Here is a later section of Livy’s History (6.20.12-14):

[After they found him guilty of tyrannical ambitions,] the tribunes threw Manlius, the very same hero who had repelled the Gaul’s attack from the Capitoline, down from the Tarpeian Cliff [in 384 BC]. Thus did one and the same place become a monument to both the unparalleled glory and the capital punishment of the same man.

Here too is some evidence from Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Early Rome 7.35.4):

[After Marcius, a leading aristocrat, refused to confess any wrongdoing or to beg for lenience from the plebs, the tribune Sicinius] ordered them to take Marcius to the hill lying above the Forum. There is a high sheer cliff there from which the Romans customarily throw people condemned to die.

Elsewhere in our sources, this punishment was enacted on those who committed perjury and also incest. It is in the latter case that we have a report of a legal ruling by the rhetorical theorist Quintilian (Oratorical Training 7.8.3):

[One legal judgment reads:] “Condemned of incest, she was thrown off the cliff, but lived: the punishment is repeated.”

Implicit in this ruling, is the chilling reality that even in the cases of incestuous sexual violence and rape, it was the woman (the victim) who was punished with this horrific execution. In light of this, how do Livy’s ‘alternative’ versions read now? Also, there was a relief sculpture of the death of Tarpeia on the nearby Basilica Aemilia in the Roman Forum, at the foot of the cliff, and what would it mean for Romans to be confronted by her story amid this ongoing form of state capital punishment?

While there is no plaque or memorial on the site in Rome to commemorate or explain this practice, the analogy with Hopkins’ account of Durant’s Scaffold is still relevant. When we include stories of gratuitous sexual violence in our Latin textbooks and explain them away by pointing to the foundational stories of Rome and female heroic actions on behalf of the state, what does it mean for those same students not to be confronted with the way the story and site at which this happened is also the basis for a systematic enactment of state execution, which also repeats gendered violence?

When we have a President who bypasses sentencing procedures by demanding the death-penalty (for the NYC truck attacker), we have a responsibility to understand that ancient Greece and Rome are part of what Hannah Black described as the “barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded.”

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