Damnatio Memoriae: Forgetting the Past in Ancient Rome

Around half of all Roman emperors received some form of the condemnation.

By Mati Davis and Sara Chopra

While the phrase damnatio memoriae – a “condemnation of memory” in Latin – is modern in origin, it captures a broad range of actions posthumously taken by the Romans against former leaders and their reputations. Most prevalent during the Republican and Imperial periods, this tactic generally involved the defacement of all visual depictions and literary records of a condemned individual. This could come in the form of an official decree by an emperor or the senate, or a set of actions taken by the populace – a collective act of expression by the people against an unpopular leader. The literary and archeological records show that instances of damnatio memoriae weren’t decreed with much restraint. In fact, around half of all Roman emperors received some form of the condemnation, and from Caligula in 41 CE to Magnus Maximus in 388 CE, not many could escape its wrath. 

When many people think of the Roman world, statues are often among the first artifacts that come to mind. Invocations and celebrations of leaders, gods, and events, these depictions were the bread and butter of any city in the empire. Statues of Roman emperors peppered many central public spaces, serving as symbols of the state’s power. At Roman funerals, relatives of the dead invoked images of the past, donning wax face masks of their ancestors to educate future generations about their heritage. In Roman religious life, many statues and visual representations held apotropaic roles, warding away harm from those they protected. 

Surrounded by these statues and images, the average Roman constantly came into contact with the faces of these omnipresent gods, leaders, and heroes, both mythical and real. Many statues served multiple purposes at once; A statue of Augustus in a forum on the fringes of the empire was both state sponsored propaganda and a corporeal invocation of the emperor. 

Given the proximity of these monuments to Roman life and the intertwined relationship between the two, it isn’t difficult to understand the visceral reactions many expressed toward these statues when a damnatio memoriae was declared against an individual. Pliny describes such a scene in his Panegyrici Latini, discussing the damnatio memoriae against the emperor Domitian following his assassination:

It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with [axes, as] if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy—so long deferred—were unrestrained; all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames (52.4-5). 

For Romans like the ones whom Pliny describes, seeking and receiving the opportunity to not only watch the former emperor’s likeness topple to the ground, but also play a part in the toppling, provided them with a sense of restored justice. When reading his words, the agony of these individuals, who lost their relatives and friends to Domitian’s reign of terror, is tangible; It most likely gave them a remarkable sense of solace, and perhaps even fulfilled a wish for vengeance against the emperor.

The Severn Tondo (Portrait of the family of Septimius Severus) / Photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Altes Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Beyond literature, one surviving example that provides clear visual evidence of a damnatio memoriae is the painting of the Severan family on the Severan Tondo, now in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Before his death, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus appointed his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, to rule as co-emperors. However, as so often happens between siblings in Roman history (see: Romulus and Remus), Geta was assassinated by Caracalla, who ascended as the sole Caesar of the Roman state. Assuming his new role, Caracalla declared a damnatio memoriae against his late brother, even threatening execution to those who spoke Geta’s name. Today, the tondo clearly portrays Septimius Severus, his wife, and his son, Caracalla, as a smiling family, while Geta’s face has been not-so-subtly scraped from the portrait.

A second example, one closer to home, can be found within our own Penn Museum and references the damnatio memoriae declared against Domitian. The Puteoli Marble Block contains an inscription on one side, which once spoke in praise of the emperor. However, as Pliny above, as well as Suetonius, describe, following Domitian’s death in 96 CE, the senate, embittered by Domitian’s authoritarian rule and paranoid nature, passed a decree against him; chiseling his name off all inscriptions and removing the heads from his public statues, they worked to erase his face and image from the empire. Nevertheless, the attempted erasure of the Puteoli Marble Block’s inscription wasn’t entirely successful, as one can still make out some of its words. Additionally, despite the efforts to remove his face and name from the legacy of Rome, Domitian still lives on in history as one of the most famous Roman emperors, and even today, his name recalls paranoia and abuse of power. 

These unsuccessful and conspicuous “erasures” beg the question: was a damnatio memoriae truly intended to fully erase the memory of these individuals and their actions, condemning their legacies to obscurity, as its name suggests?

The Puteoli Marble Block (95-102 CE) / Penn Museum

That is certainly the view of Sarah Bond, who believes the destruction of the memory of a former emperor allowed for easier transition between rulers, serving a “cathartic purpose.” However, the apparency of these vandalisms betrays another intention. Lauren Hackworth Peterson, a professor at the University of Delaware, counters Bond, proposing that damnatio memoriae had the opposite effect on communal memory. In destroying images of their emperors through public actions, she argues, the Romans in fact created a void which “call[ed] attention to itself;” these manufactured absences became monuments to both the removed statue and the events that led to its removal. According to Peterson, when a damnatio memoriae was enacted, the victim’s memory was not forgotten, but rather condemned. As classicists, this is quite clear – one can hardly say that history has forgotten Nero, Caligula and Domitian.  Instead, we remember them almost exclusively for their negative attributes and decisions: the things that they did wrong. Their legacies shed light upon the nature and purpose of a damnatio memoriae – it served to reset the political landscape, not by drowning the people’s consciousness in Lethe’s stream, but instead by reshaping the narrative of the past.

Here, it’s crucial to mention that as we draw comparisons between current and ancient events and institutions, we cannot pretend that the ancient world is the same as our own. Nearly two thousand years after the infamous reign of Domitian, public statues no longer serve the same educational functions as they did then, since modern technologies and nationwide schooling have risen to fill those roles. 

Still, the legacy of damnatio memoriae has extended far beyond the Romans, having become a fixture of politics and society across nations and cultures. Several years ago, Ukraine removed all statues of Lenin from the country in an effort to move on from its Soviet past. And although calls for statue removals have made national headlines in recent weeks, months, and years, the practice of damnatio memoriae in the United States has appeared throughout many pivotal moments in our nation’s history, particularly during the American revolution. 

On July 9th, 1776, a group of New Yorkers, having heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence for the first time, marched from New York City Hall to Bowling Green to tear down a massive statue of King George III. While the statue was melted to make bullets for the upcoming war, its pedestal was left empty as a reminder of the revolution; over two hundred years after the event, the fence that surrounded the original monument still stands there today. The leaders of the young United States deliberately chose to leave those empty supports as their own monument, one that reminded and continues to remind New Yorkers and Americans of their fight to uproot an oppressive system. No one can say that King George III is forgotten from our history – on the contrary, he plays a pivotal role. What has changed since he rode his horse upon that pedestal is our perception of him. 

Tearing down statue of George III / New York Public Library

At a similar point in history, when the revolutionary war began, Benedict Arnold, a Connecticut-born colonist, joined the Continental army, distinguishing himself during the Battle of Saratoga. Despite seriously injuring his leg, his actions saved hundreds of American lives. However, just a short time later, his annoyance at not being promoted further within the American ranks eventually led him to make a secret deal to hand over West Point, an American fort, to the British for £20,000. 

When we remember him today, Benedict Arnold’s name is synonymous with betrayal. But how does our country commemorate our most infamous traitor? When visiting Saratoga National Historical Park, visitors can see a short stele that depicts an odd figure: a single boot. This monument, dubbed the “Boot Monument,” recognizes how Arnold’s actions and sacrifice – the injury of his leg – during the Battle of Saratoga helped our nation gain the upper hand in the war.

The Boot Monument, erected 1787 / Photo by AmericasRoof, Wikimedia Commons

But as visitors take a look at the monument, they won’t see any mention of Arnold’s name, only the inscription:

“In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General.”

Although it doesn’t involve the defacement that is often a hallmark of damnatio memoriae, this monument still utilizes erasure as a means of redefining national and cultural memory. This wasn’t a lack of resources or knowledge on the part of the erectors of the monument, but a deliberate act of erasure, albeit one committed pre-construction. This isn’t the only damnatio memoriae placed upon Arnold, either; at West Point, among the list of officers who fought on the side of the Continental Army, there hangs a plaque that reads only, “Major General, born 1740.” These “incomplete” monuments to his memory show that we don’t need a statue with Arnold’s likeness and name explicitly carved into it to remember his deeds. As history looks back on him and his legacy, the absences of his name and figure speak more than their hypothetical presences.

Originally published by Discentes: Penn’s Classical Studies Magazine, University of Pennsylvania, 08.21.2020, free and open access, republished under fair use for educational non-commercial purposes.



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