Posted by: Dominic | April 22, 2011

Damnatio Memoriae

Al-Jazeera today reports that in the wake of revolution in Egypt and the ouster of its long-time president Hosni Mubarak, an Egyptian court has ordered the names of Mubarak and his wife removed from public view. Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, have their names emblazoned on everything from street signs and squares to schools, libraries, and sporting venues.

Hosni Mubarak, former president of Egypt

NPR quoted Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments – “Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet. Stricken from every pylon and obelisk of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of man, for all time” – noting that the ruling comes at the beginning of Jewish Passover, celebrating the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

But there is a much more historical precedent for banning a disgraced leader’s name: the damnatio memoriae (“erasure of memory”) of ancient Rome. The first reference I could find to it is in the 1st century BCE historian Livy, who relates the story of Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, a consul who was charged with treason in 384 BCE (6.20.14). While the state sentenced him to death, his family decreed that none of the Manlius clan would ever bear the name Marcus again.

Damnatio memoriae comprised several different behaviors that ranged from a ban on a name, as with Macrus Manlius, to the removal of images, to the removal of a name from all public records. The emperor Commodus, famously portrayed in Gladiator and assassinated in 192 CE, was subject to a damnatio according to this passage from the Historia Augusta.

Cincius Severus dixit: “Iniuste sepultus est. qua pontifex dico, hoc collegium pontificum dicit. quoniam laeta percensui, nunc convertar ad necessaria: censeo quas is, qui nonnisi ad perniciem civium et ad dedecus suum vixit, ob honorem suum decerni coegit, abolendas statuas, quae undique sunt abolendae, nomenque ex omnibus privatis publicisque monumentis eradendum…”

Cincius Severus said: “Wrongfully has he been buried. And I speak as pontifex, so speaks the college of the pontifices. And now, having recounted what is joyful, I shall proceed to what is needful: I give it as my opinion that the statues should be overthrown which this man, who lived but for the destruction of his fellow-citizens and for his own shame, forced us to decree in his honour; wherever they are, they should be cast down. His name, moreover, should be erased from all public and private records…” (trans. D. Magie)

The Emperor Commodus as Hercules. Capitoline Museum in Rome.

The first emperor subject to a damnatio was the hated Domitian, who ruled from 81-96 CE. His condemnation after his murder in 96 is recorded by the 2nd century CE biographer Suetonius.

Contra senatus adeo laetatus est, ut repleta certatim curia non temperaret, quin mortuum contumeliosissimo atque acerbissimo adclamationum genere laceraret, scalas etiam inferri clipeosque et imagines eius coram detrahi et ibidem solo affligi iuberet, novissime eradendos ubique titulos abolendamque omnes memoriam decerneret.

The senators on the contrary were so overjoyed, that they raced to fill the House, where they did not refrain from assailing the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging kind of outcries. They even had ladders brought and his shields and images torn down before their eyes and dashed upon the ground; finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated. (trans. J.C. Rolfe)

More graphic examples of damnatio include erasures from stone decrees and the destruction of images. The emperor Geta is one of the most famous victims of this complete removal from the public sphere. He shared the throne with his brother Caracalla for not quite a whole year, Caracalla murdered Geta in 211 CE. Geta’s name has been chiseled out of inscriptions, such as the one on the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. Even though the inscription on that monument was pretty well replaced, it is still obvious that some kind of editing went on. Take a look at the fourth line of the inscription.

The Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome

The fourth line now reads “OPTIMIS FORTISSIMISQVE PRINCIPBVS” – to the best and bravest princes. But it originally read “to the most noble son of Lucius [i.e., Septimius Severus], Caesar Publius Septimius Geta.”

Geta’s image was also erased. The imperial family is shown below in the so-called Severan Tondo, with Geta’s face carved out, leaving Caracalla and their parents.

The Severan Tondo

One of the paradoxes of this practice is that these are very visible forms of destruction and mutilation – rather than fully erasing a memory, they actually call more attention to what used to exist, with an ugly and conspicuous absence.

Inscription with a damnatio memoriae. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.



  1. […] has once again proved a fertile ground for comparing the ancient and modern worlds. At the beginning of this year, the ruling military council of that country issued new rules for […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: