All over America—and increasingly, across the world—statues are falling to the ground. They’re being pushed or pulled by coordinated teams of protesters or, if the project is too big for anything less than a professional crane crew, covered in vivid, colorful graffiti. It began with Confederate monuments and moved to Bristol, England where a group of protesters threw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the nearby river. Statues of Christopher Columbus, King Leopold II, and Oliver Cromwell are all under a new spotlight. But any king could tell you: These statues were never about history. They were political statements—assertions of control and legitimacy—and there’s absolutely nothing new about their politically-charged toppling, either. In any revolution, one of the first orders of business is to send images of the powerful careening to the ground.
Statuary has long been central to the consolidation of state power. Over the course of his four-decade reign, the Roman emperor Augustus frequently asserted his legitimacy through coins and building projects like the Ara Pacis, “The Altar of Augustan Peace,” essentially a large announcement rendered in marble that Augustus had finally put a stop to all Rome’s many wars at home and farther afield. But he used statues, too, to assert himself as the rightful emperor of Rome at a time when the empire was still adjusting to the idea of being ruled by an emperor at all.
His successors followed in his steps; a heroic equestrian statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius has been particularly influential in the centuries since, inspiring an entire tradition of civic statuary. It survived the Middle Ages and continued on public display in Rome because, as Allison C. Meier explained at JSTOR, the Catholic Church thought it was supposed to be Constantine. Hence it provided a prominent model as the Renaissance gathered steam. Donatello’s Gattamelata, which was commissioned by the Republic of Venice to celebrate an important military leader, would be particularly influential, and over time, equestrian sculpture became a genre unto itself, a go-to for representing overpowering military might, used by European kings for centuries, towering over those walking by.
But even regimes without a monarch used the technique. Historian Erika Doss, who has written extensively about public memorials, pointed out that there was a “statue mania” in 19th and early 20th century America and Europe. “Determined to unique the French body politic around a consensual national mythology, Third Republic patriots unleashed an army of Marianne memorials in public squares throughout France in the latter decades of the nineteenth century,” she writes in Memorial Mania, plus a plethora of tributes to famous Frenchmen like Louis Pasteur. America embarked upon a similar program, rebuilding the national mythology after the Civil War—there’s a triumphal equestrian statue of William T. Sherman outside Central Park. And, of course, the former Confederate states were busily asserting the legitimacy of the Jim Crow system when they put Confederate memorials large and small across the landscape. Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue, too, is directly in the tradition of the Marcus Aurelius statue, asserting not just legitimacy but the power to crush anybody who dissents against that authority.
And, so, one of the first orders of business in revolutions throughout history has been attacking the statues that upheld the previous regime. Ritual destruction stands in a long tradition that also dates back to the Romans, a practice known as damnatio memoirae. The revolutionaries of the 18th century targeted symbolically weighty statues. In Paris, they made a point of attacking the Basilica at St. Denis, the burial place of centuries of French kings, and damaging their tombs—which Napoleon Bonaparte later ordered restored, as he restored elements of the monarchy. In 1776, fired up after a reading of the newly signed Declaration of Independence, New Yorkers pulled down a large statue of George III at Bowling Green—which was, incidentally, based on the statue of Marcus Aurelius. For decades, Irish republicans wanted to topple the pillar to English naval hero Horatio Nelson in the center of Dublin, but despite multiple attempts, it wasn’t until 1966 that somebody managed to blow the thing up.
Defaced and toppled statues are a defining image of the late 20th century and its geopolitical sea changes. The U.S.S.R. and its satellite states were famous for their giant tributes to Lenin and Stalin; those were scattered as the regime fell. But the destruction isn’t always a straightforward moment, either: A defining image of the Iraq War was the removal of the statue of Saddam Hussain, seized upon by the media and George W. Bush’s administration and held up as an example that American troops were, indeed, being greeted as liberators. But it was only the beginning of a long quagmire, rather than a confirmation that the mission had indeed been accomplished. That’s not surprising considering that the toppling was stage-managed by the U.S. Army, and there’s a world of difference between a crowd of protestors spontaneously targeting a monument and an occupying military doing so.
As protests have swelled globally, statues of kings are looking newly vulnerable. Across Belgium, statues of Leopold II, who was responsible for atrocities in the Congo at the dawn of the 20th century—and also Queen Vicroria’s first cousin by marriage—have become the focus of intense protests; one was set on fire, and another covered in red paint. The longer this goes on, it may even prompt new scrutiny into the connections between the Crown and Britain’s role in slavery. For instance, officials in Glasgow suspect a statue of the Dutch-born William of Orange could become a target—since, as William III of Great Britain, he benefitted personally from the slave trade and helped increase access to the business, which enriched Glasgow. The anti-monarchical group Republic has petitioned London mayor Sadiq Khan about the statutes to such figures as William IV, who argued against the abolition of the slave trade before he took the throne.
And yet, the Windsors have been very, very silent in the face of the uproar, even as Meghan Markle delivered a speech supporting Black Lives Matter and she and Harry reportedly plan to get more publicly involved, which likely would have been impossible before they left the royal fold. “Had Meghan and Harry still been in the U.K. and working members of the royal family that speech couldn’t have happened,” former palace aide Dickie Arbiter told Newsweek. “It’s highly politicized because of the very nature of what it is. It is a social issue for the United States and it is not for a head of state to voice an opinion, whether the queen or the president of France or whoever.”
But of course, it’s not merely an American social issue—slavery is deeply intertwined with the history of the United Kingdom, its elite, and its royal family. Nor is that limited to Great Britain—colonial occupation, bound up in racial oppression, has been central to the project of European monarchy, though the Brits are among the last royals standing. And while Prince Charles called the slave trade an “atrocity” on a 2018 royal visit to Ghana, acknowledging Britain’s role in the business, they’re a long way from fully owning up to the history. The Windsors essentially serve publicly as living civic statues; thus far, they’ve always triumphed through their ability to morph what precisely they stand for. But staying on their plinth will require more delicate balancing than ever.