Damnatio Memoriae before our very eyes…

Posted on May 25th, 2011 by

An interesting column from the New York Times about a practice as old as Egypt itself–the attempt to expunge the names and images of ousted political rulers from public spaces.  See below for an excerpt on the practice in Rome.


Erasing the Face of History

LAST month, a Cairo court ordered that images of the ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and his wife, Suzanne, as well as their names, be removed from all “public squares, streets, libraries and other public institutions around the country.” Posters and portraits of the Mubaraks are ubiquitous in Egypt. Squares, sports fields, libraries, streets and more than 500 schools bear their names.

This mandated erasure is meant to serve as closure for the Egyptian people after three decades of Mubarak rule. But will it help them heal and move forward? For precedent and possible implications of the ruling, we should look to antiquity.

The destruction of images by government decree in the Roman world is called “damnatio memoriae.” Such a decree meant that the name of the damned was scratched (oftentimes conspicuously) from inscriptions, his face chiseled from statues and the statues themselves often abused as if real persons, frescoes of his likeness painted over, his wax masks banned from being paraded in funerals, coins with his image defaced, his writings sometimes destroyed and his wills often annulled.

Romans saw it as a punishment worse than execution: the fate of being forgotten. It was suffered by numerous ignominious emperors of Rome in the early empire, and, even in the later empire, it was a mark of great disgrace. After the rebellious Maximian was subjected to damnatio memoriae around A.D. 311, his friend and co-ruler Diocletian was said to be so grief-stricken that he soon died as well.

Excisions like Maximian’s from frescoes and statues can be viewed in the most basic sense as announcements from rulers to the populace about the end of one reign and the beginning of another. But when the populace engages in the destruction itself, it can also serve a cathartic purpose.

According to the historian Suetonius, in the chaos that followed the assassination of the emperor Caligula in A.D. 41, “some wanted all memory of the Caesars obliterated, and their temples destroyed.” The new emperor, Claudius, ultimately blocked the Senate’s attempt to decree a formal damnation of his predecessor’s memory. (Now on the throne himself, he probably wanted to avoid condoning regicide.) Yet Suetonius’ statement indicates that common people wanted the chance to vent their frustrations over Caligula’s corrupt reign and senseless brutality.

Regardless of what happens to the images of and references to Mubarak in these public spaces, I hope the people and politicians of Egypt can move forward and establish a stable future for themselves–one that acknowledges and builds on the past.  As the column points out…

The ancient world also knew something about how difficult it was to break free from the past. Sculptures and carvings were sometimes recycled; after one emperor’s face was obliterated, the stone could be recut into the likeness of the new one. Sometimes that new ruler was an improvement on the old: for instance, the tyrannical emperor Domitian was transformed on reliefs into Nerva, who renounced his predecessor’s methods.

But likely more often, the opposite was true: the ruthless emperor Caracalla had his brother Geta murdered, and then had a damnatio memoriae declared, ordering that Geta’s inscriptions and images be erased throughout the empire.

Perhaps it is best that the people of Egypt be spared this forced amnesia and be allowed to retain some memories of their former president. Erasing the crimes of the past doesn’t help us avoid them in the future.


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