To Punch or Not to Punch a Roman emperor: That is the Question

Commodus, National Roman Museum – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is a matter of custom in our polite society to not judge a book by its cover, to not confuse appearance for reality, to honor that sacred nest egg of the inner self that lies unborn beneath the harsh and tapering ruffled feathers of the body. The opposite extreme strikes us as unreasonable: 18th-19th century phrenology’s attempt to extrapolate character traits of ‘types’ and ‘races’ based on a statistical extrapolation of meager data, in effect equating e.g., ‘prominent brow-ridge’ with ‘dumb’ was in fact so dumb, and the brow-ridges of its adherents so smooth, that it constituted its own refutation.

We nonetheless think there is an interesting connection between facial appearance and underlying reality, in the way that it serves as a target for our own moral judgments, and perhaps as a looking glass into ourselves. If the contemporary political world tells us anything, it’s that figureheads—the “Drumpfs” and “Sleepy Joes” groping their way to the top of the pile, can survive a beating with legacies intact. By the same token, one might argue that certain political figures of the past have deserved whatever walloping they have received, which brings us to the issue at hand: punchability. In this essay we’d like to highlight a few of the features of punchability, as illustrated by some of the more illustrious faces of the past.

In our view, ‘punchability’ is objective; of course, there is one clear sense in which it is subjective: in that whether a given depiction is ‘punchable’ is something we might disagree about, as well the extent to which a figure is ‘punchable’; yet, there arguably belong to the figures certain facial features, bone structures, expressions, pursed lips—purely formal features—which serve to ground the correctness of attributions of ‘is punchable’, and which would have no place in explaining why we so often converge in judgments about ‘punchability’ if the phenomenon were not to some extent objective. In other words, convergence about which figures are punchable is the pattern we’d expect if punchability displays some of the hallmarks of objectivity.

We would suggest further that any progressive doctrine of punchability must allow for the possibility of rational disagreement over whether a given figure is punchable, which in turn requires the presumption of punchability’s objectivity. One might object that attributions of ‘is punchable’ vary according to place and time. But a single look at this bust of the roman emperor Nerva is enough to dispel this opinion: just one look and notice how he seems to be sneering at you, while you have the impulse to punch him. Even the most “unnervable” among us would not hesitate in his desire to go toe-to-toe with this schmuckaroo:

Nerva, Roman Emperor, 96 – 98 AD
(Sneering at us)
Museo Nazionale Romano (CC BY-SA 4.0)

More broadly than our rejection of relativism about punchability, we find a merit in thinking of punchability as a cross-cultural phenomenon but also as a trans-historical phenomenon; judgments about punchability are invariant—another mark of ‘objectivity’—once a figure is regarded as punchable, the judgement cannot sincerely be revoked; thus in this sense judgments about punchability are like judgments about truth: once a proposition is true, it remains true.1

Vitellius, Roman Emperor, 24 September 15 – 22 December 69 AD
(Here seen resembling Chris Christy)
Musée du Louvre (CC BY 2.5)

Once the initial hurdle is crossed, judgments about punchability can only ever be amplified—ratcheted up by comparison with other punchable figures. Nerva’s sneering countenance, once the ground for his initial punchability, gives rise to a feeling that finds even more intense expression when we compare it to the Chris Christy-like smugness of Vitellius.2

Hypothetically, once the initial judgment has been made, then since the punchable figure serves as target for our moral distain, the target may be, so to speak, widened out as history continues to bloody his nose and historians pummel him senseless from their armchairs; if and when this happens, we should expect the intensity of punchability perceived on average by the general public to increase, assuming that the stigmata of such historical blood knowledge has trickled down to the bleating sheeple.

Going back to our truth analogy, the converse holds as well, in that a figure initially judged ‘not-punchable’ remains ‘not-punchable’, his features casting over our gaze a certain stalwart nobility, an elegance whose edges of refinement are not to be dulled with the reversals of historical fortune (reputation). Bill Clinton, for instance, was never really punchable, despite his potato-nose, and so Slick Willy’s inability to weather the scandal resulting from a basic failure to keep his winky in his pantaloons does not suddenly release the floodgates of punchability. The prominent nose of emperor Vespasian, by contrast, cries out to be broken in a wild flurry of punches:

Vespasian, Roman emperor, 17 November 9 – 24 June 79 AD
(He kind of looks like Bill Murray)
Pushkin Museum after original in Musée du Louvre (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The medium in which the figure is depicted may also make some difference to whether we consider the figure punchable. For example the pathetic looseness of Harvey Weinstein’s jowls, the corporate war-room ruddy duress of his cheeks as he helps himself to a walker and the arms of his legal team when he enters the courtroom, are features that overwhelm the gestalt of his adult-baby pity-appeal, particulars which serve to ground our attribution of ‘is punchable’; and yet arguably the medium of live video-feed enhances such features in a way that might be lost if, for example, we were beholding a bust of Weinstein. Thus one can only imagine just how much more punchable many of the figures in our gallery would have seemed in real life.

So far we have been claiming that ‘punchability’ admits of degree—that is, it seems clear that certain figures are more ‘punchable’ than others, and that this intensity of punchability appears to be both a function of the facial features which ground any degree of punchability in the first place, as well as our own attitudes toward the figure in question. Lest it be thought that we rely too much on the emperors of yore to support our point, consider The Zuck. The more we detest the Zuck, the more punchable the Zuck appears. As with Zuck, so with Commodus, there is a common deadness, a cool calculation in the eyes of these individuals which grounds their punchability; we feel an instinct to snap life back into them, and using our fists, to perhaps remind them that they too are mortal creatures on this Earth:

Zuckerberg, CEO and Commodus, Roman Emperor, 180 – 192 AD
(Notice the common deadness, cool calculation in their eyes)
Getty Villa (OCP)

Cassius Dio’s description fits them equally: “…not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions…”3

In our discussion of selected aspects of individual ‘punchability’, it might be thought that we have elided over an importance sense of the term which pertains to boxing (we might speak of someone as a ‘punching bag’). It might be objected that a figure’s appearing ‘punchable’ is simply a reflection of their already appearing to have been punched; yet while this may be often the case, it would hardly be an acceptable definition of ‘punchability’ to suggest that the punchable figure looks ‘as if’ they have already been punched, since after all, this would raise the further question of what it looks like ‘to have been punched’ and we would be back to square one. In any case, such a quality is clearly displayed by Constantius Chlorus, who appears to have been batted about the ears, resulting in characteristically warped ‘boxers ears’:4

Constantius Chlorus, Roman Emperor 293 – 305
(Appearing to have been batted about the ears)
AntikenMuseum Goettingen

We also have to keep in mind certain disanalogies with ‘punchable’ in the boxing sense; even the Rocky Balboa who in the final round versus Cold War villain Ivan Drago had taken the utmost of beatings does not look particularly punchable, even though obviously in the boxing sense of the word, he has been punched. This, we would argue, is on account of the fact that he begins to look disfigured, his eyes cut in the corner of the ring, he’s staggering, his face swollen beyond belief, and as he begins to look disfigured (as well does Ivan Drago), he begins to be a target of our sympathy and pity, reactive attitudes which are incommensurate with, and even preempt, the perception of punchability.

Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, ‘Rocky IV’ (1985)
(increasingly disfigured, resulting in decreased punchability)

The butt-chin deserves special consideration in light of its complexity. On the one cheek, when the butt-chin is perceived it would seem to trigger a perception of punchability, in that with its perception comes the observation ‘this man could take a punch’, or excites our curiosity—what would it be like to really cold clock this man? But we have already suggested that ‘punchability’ is not to be understood in strictly boxing terms. On the other cheek, the butt-chin presents itself to us as a measure of resistance—we observe in ourselves the impulse to punch, much as thought nods slightly in sub-vocal expression while we ourselves lie publically silent— yet in near-immediate succession to this realize ‘this man could roll with a punch’, rendering the target unsuitable for this particular expression of our moral distain. Thus in the butt-chin of Constantine we catch a glimpse of the moon of our own cowardice:

Constantine I, Roman Emperor, AD 306 – 337
(Note the punchable butt-chin)
Palazzo dei Conservatori, Musei Capitolini, Rome (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Based on our gallery of punchable figures, we might begin to delineate some common features of punchability: (a) exaggeration of particular features associated with ‘punching’—the boxers’ ears, the butt-chin, a nose screaming to be smashed-in, and (b) the schmooshedness of the face—that the features appear to stand in closer spatial relations to one another than they ought to, or than is ‘normal’, such that they resemble a caricature of a person (and in a way, this reflects their reality, since the political figure is often so detached from the interests of the general public as to seem slightly inhuman, or even reptilian), or a Svankmayer-style straw doll that has been accidentally deposited in space, so that the air, instantaneously sucked from its membranes, cinches up the living hoody of its features: eyes, nose, lips, mouth.

Trajan, for example, displays clearly some characteristic schmooshedness: the tightening closeness of the lips, and the sort of gracile chin which looks like it already has been smashed in with a ball peen hammer, so that one more punch would finish the job, or at least remind him of his fragility as a fellow human being:

Trajan, Roman Emperor, 98 – 117
(Displaying the schmooshedness characteristic)
Glyptothek, Munich

A full ethics of punchability would seek to define not only when a face is punchable, but also those vices within the individual that key us in to its punchability.5 It would thus be a two-pronged development of (a) an elaboration of the conditions under which a judgment of ‘is punchable’ appropriately applies, and (b) an elaboration of the relevant moral features whose perception elicits the proper judgment. This brief essay has primarily been concerned with the former, since it is ‘up to’ ethical theory—and the adjudication between particular normative theories—to advance the latter.

Broadly speaking, though, we would suggest that (b) best falls within the purview of the family of theories known as virtue ethics, since virtue ethics has developed concrete proposals about the role emotion and perception play in making moral judgments. In this connection, virtue ethicists might explore how judgments of punchability—targeted at individuals deserving of moral distain, might be justified as expressions of legitimate moral outrage. Such an account, if fully developed, might even be extended to explain why certain other individuals simply don’t strike us as punchable, by explaining how facets of their appearance come to be associated with ‘being a solid dude’ or ‘the sort of guy I’d have a beer with’, which seem true descriptors of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, eminently non-punchable fellows.6

Hadrian, Roman Emperor, 117 – 138
(A generally speaking solid dude)
Glyptothek, Munich
Antoninus Pius, Roman Emperor, 138 – 161
(A sort of guy I’d have a beer with)
Glyptothek, Munich

By way of conclusion, we’d like to note that everything we do is, to some extent, a celebration of futility. When we attempt to imagine, for instance, a completely unpunchable world, we fail marvelously, because such a world, denuded of self-interest, is also denuded of individuality and the moral failing (as the Germans might express it, the ‘überfällig’) which comes with it. In this, then, the best of all possible worlds, we expect there to always be some faces which are punchable, Leibniz’ face included.

Gottfried Leibniz
(More of a polymath than an emperor –
it’s the überfällig that leads to his punchability)
(Getty Images)

  1. To briefly address the hyperreal. Say a face can have a face. Then its face can also have a face. And so on ad infinitum. But all, in principle, remain punchable. It clearly follows that objective moral judgment does not depend on reality being as we suppose it is.
  2. We find echoes of our sentiments in Seutonius who offers the description of Vitellius: “…He was in fact abnormally tall, with a face usually flushed from hard drinking, a huge belly, and one thigh crippled from having been struck once by a four-horse chariot…” (Seutonius “Vitellius” Chapter 17).
  3. Dio Cassius, Roman History 73.1.2, Loeb edition translated E. Cary
  4. One can only speculate about the repercussions of such abuse, Sextus Aurelius Victor claims he was “a lover of eloquence, which, since, through slowness of mind, he was unable to attain, he used to envy in others,” Epitome de Caesarius, our italics.
  5. In Trajan’s case it might be intellectual failings that elicit punchability. According to Syme, “He looked stupid and was believed to be honest,” Ronald Syme, Tacitus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 39; yet another story has it that Trajan insisted to his philosopher buddy Dio Chrysostom: “I have no idea what you are talking about, but I love you as myself” Barry Strauss, Ten Caesars (Simon and Schuster, 2019), 156.
  6. Cassius Dio agrees, saying of Hadrian: “He was pleasant to meet and had a certain charm” Roman History 69.2.62, Loeb edition translated E. Cary.