The Romans left behind a lot of straight roads and enough buildings to keep archaeologists in work for decades. Oh, and coins. Lots of them. The new Evil Emperors exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum uses some to illustrate the role of narrative, subjectivity, and image management when it comes to political leaders.
- Anecdotal tour of a few emperors to add nuance to their reputation
- All display information in English as well
- Runs Nov 12, 2019 to Oct 4, 2020
- Just needs an ordinary museum entrance ticket to view
- See also: Kunsthistorisches Museum tickets and visitor info
Stories of Ancient Rome
(Exhibition view © KHM-Museumsverband)
The Kunsthistorisches Museum houses many treasures, though the coin collection is the quiet bespectacled child in a family of extroverts. But do not let the modest exterior deceive you, for the collection has much to offer. Like the Evil Emperors exhibition.
The exhibition essentially highlights the issues around legacies, image, and reputation, and how subjective reports and political expediency manipulate all three to leave us with simplified, perhaps inaccurate, views of historical personalities.
If you hear the names, Nero and Caligula, for example, chances are you imagine crazy despots. But that’s never the whole story. Nero’s disaster management at the burning of Rome was , for example, quite the opposite of the popular myth involving fiddles. And Caligula liked to rebuild derelict temples.
The exhibition consists of a series of displays that each tackle an emperor, with a couple of anecdotes and relevant coins of the time. The coins, of course, represent an official record that tell only part of an emperor’s true story.
The chronology covers several hundred years’ worth of time, covering such famous names as Commodus (of Gladiator fame) or Constantine.
So you learn, for example, about damnatio memoriae, when names are wiped from the historical and physical record, where an emperor’s face might be rubbed off a coin.
Although only a single room, I found the anecdotes intriguing and a reminder of two important concepts.
First, that history has its own subjective truth.
Second, that it’s probably not worth becoming an emperor unless you want an inglorious end. So many seemed to die at the hands of conspirators, relatives, and rivals. Stick to selling larks’ tongues down the colosseum.
Dates and tickets
The Evil Emperors exhibition runs from November 12th, 2019 to October 4th, 2020.
How to get to the exhibition
See the main museum article for travel tips. Once inside, head up the stairs or take the lift: the coin collection sits on the second floor in its own little corner of the building. Go to the very back of the display rooms to find the Evil Emperors exhibition.
Address: Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna