Damnatio memoriae is the Latin phrase literally meaning "condemnation of memory" in the sense of a judgment that a person must not be remembered. It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman Senate upon traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State. The intent was to erase someone from history, a task somewhat easier in ancient times, when documentation was much sparser.
The sense of the expression damnatio memoriae and of the sanction is to cancel every trace of the person from the life of Rome, as if he had never existed, in order to preserve the honour of the city. In a city that stressed the social appearance, respectability and the pride of being a true Roman as a fundamental requirement of the citizen, it was perhaps the most severe punishment.
In Ancient Rome, the practice of damnatio memoriae was the condemnation of Roman elites and emperors after their deaths. If the Senate or a later emperor did not like the acts of an individual, they could have his property seized, his name erased and his statues reworked. Because there is an economic incentive to seize property and rework statues, historians and archaeologists have had difficulty determining when official damnatio memoriae actually took place, although it seems to have been quite rare.
Historians sometimes use the phrase de facto damnatio memoriae when the condemnation is not official. Among those few who did suffer legal damnatio memoriae were Sejanus, who had conspired against emperor Tiberius in 31, and later Livilla, who was revealed to be his accomplice.
Only three emperors are known to have officially received a damnatio memoriae. These were Domitian whose violent death in 96 ended the Flavian Dynasty, the co-emperor Publius Septimius Geta, whose memory was publicly expunged by his co-emperor brother Caracalla after he murdered him in 211, and in 311 Maximian, who was captured by Constantine the Great and then encouraged to commit suicide.
Any truly effective damnatio memoriae would not be noticeable to later historians, since, by definition, it would entail the complete and total erasure of the individual in question from the historical record. However, since all political figures have allies as well as enemies, it was difficult to implement the practice completely. For instance, the Senate wanted to condemn the memory of Caligula, but Claudius prevented this. Nero was declared an enemy of the state by the Senate, but then given an enormous funeral honoring him after his death by Vitellius. While statues of some emperors were destroyed or reworked after their death, others were erected. Also, many coins with the images of the discredited person continued to circulate. A particularly large number exist with Geta's image.
Similar practices in other societies
- When the ancient Israelites entered the land of Canaan, they were ordered to utterly exterminate several pagan tribes and their property, but the tribe of Amalek was specifically singled out for not only destruction but that God would "completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven".
- In Ancient Greece, Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus to become famous. To discourage such acts, the Ephesus leaders decided that his name should never be repeated again, under penalty of death. This attempt was unsuccessful, however, as illustrated by the fact that his name is still known today.
- Ancient Egyptians attached the greatest importance to the preservation of a person's name. The one who destroyed a person's name was thought somehow to have destroyed the person, and it was thought that this effect extended beyond the grave.
- The cartouches of the heretical 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten were mutilated by his successors. Earlier in that same dynasty, a similar attack on Hatshepsut was carried out. However, only engravings and statuary of her as a crowned king of Egypt were attacked. Anything depicting her as a queen was left unharmed, so this was not strictly speaking damnatio memoriae.
- Following the death of Pope Alexander VI, Julius II said on the day of his election: "I will not live in the same rooms as the Borgias lived. He desecrated the Holy Church as none before. He usurped the papal power by the devil's aid, and I forbid under the pain of excommunication anyone to speak or think of Borgia again. His name and memory must be forgotten. It must be crossed out of every document and memorial. His reign must be obliterated. All paintings made of the Borgias or for them must be covered over with black crepe. All the tombs of the Borgias must be opened and their bodies sent back to where they belong – to Spain." The Borgias' apartments remained sealed until the 19th Century.
- Adandozan, king of Dahomey in the beginning of the nineteenth century, had imprisoned his brother Gakpe. Once the latter became king Ghezo, he took revenge by erasing the memory of Adandozan. To this day, Adandozan is not officially considered as one of the twelve kings of Dahomey.
- Marino Faliero, fifty-fifth Doge of Venice, was condemned to damnatio memoriae after a failed coup d'état.
- More modern examples of damnatio memoriae in actual practice include the removal of portraits, books, doctoring people out of pictures, and any other traces of Joseph Stalin's opponents during the Great Purge. (For example in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.) When in 1952 the Soviet Union football team lost to Yugoslavia at the Summer Olympics, Stalin ordered that all footage of the event be destroyed. Stalin himself was edited out of some propaganda films when Nikita Khrushchev became the leader of the Soviet Union, and the city of Tsaritsyn that had earlier been named Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961.
- In Argentina, it was forbidden to say "Juan Domingo Perón" after the coup that deposed him in 1955, and the media often referred to him as the "Deposed Tyrant". Additionally, hospitals and other public buildings named after him during his presidency were quickly renamed by the Liberating Revolution. Photographs and other representations of the Argentine leader were also prohibited. Also in Argentina in the year 2003 following the election of President Néstor Kirchner, there was a widespread effort to show the illegality of Jorge Rafael Videla's rule. The government no longer recognized Videla as having been a legal president of the country, and his portrait was removed from the National Argentinian military school.
- A similar fate befell jarl Hákon Sigurðarson in 10th century Norway; according to Snorri Sturluson, after his death, "So great was the enmity of the Throndhjem people against Earl Hakon, that no man could venture to call him by any other name than "the evil earl"; and he was so called long after those days."
- In the United States, the official portraits of disgraced Maryland governors Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel were absent from the Maryland State House Governor’s Reception Room for periods of time. In both cases this followed allegations of corruption. Mandel's portrait was restored when he was later cleared of charges. Agnew was never cleared, but his portrait was restored after arguments that no one had the right to change history.
- Memorials to Continental general Benedict Arnold at the Saratoga National Historical Park and the United States Military Academy bear neither his name nor his likeness, as a result of his treason. For example, at the United States Military Academy the names of all the governors of this site are listed except for Arnold; in his instance only the date of his tenure, 1780, appears.
- In 2007, the Spanish Parliament passed the Historical Memory Law to remove the traces of the Nationalist faction in the Spanish Civil War and afterward. Public buildings and streets named after nationalist personalities were renamed and statues of Francisco Franco and other nationalist leaders were removed.
- In 2008, two engraved bricks on the "Wall of Fame" at Liverpool's famous Cavern Club were controversially removed because they bore the names of two members of the music industry who have since been disgraced by sexual scandal: singer/songwriter Gary Glitter and record producer Jonathan King. In their place, a metal plaque was installed which simply stated that the names had been removed (albeit without actually identifying the men).
- In 2007, after it was found that professional wrestler Chris Benoit had murdered both his son and his wife before taking his own life, the WWE removed all mention of Benoit from its TV broadcasts, website and subsequent DVD releases. Wrestling Observer Newsletter had a recall poll to remove him from their Hall of Fame but was under the 60% needed to do so.
- On 10 May 2012, the Canadian Forces announced that it had made a "terrible mistake" by publishing a booklet with a photograph bearing the likeness of convicted murderer and rapist Russell Williams in the background, and ordered 4,000 copies of the book destroyed. The photograph was incidental to the subject matter of the book, but the image was felt to be offensive. In 2010, the CF had also burned his uniforms and destroyed his medals.
- The names of Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne were erased from all Egyptian monuments after they were deposed in 2011.
- Convicted child rapist and retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was edited out of a mural at Penn State University, and replaced with a blue ribbon. The famous coach Joe Paterno also had a statue of him, and the backwall to it removed, along with the record of his victories from 1998 through 2011 (out of a head coaching career spanning 1966 to 2011) vacated (Paterno does, however, remain on the same mural from which Sandusky was omitted).
- In 2012, in the wake of child sexual abuse allegations against the late disc-jockey and TV presenter Jimmy Savile, his headstone was removed from his grave site. In addition, buildings named after him have been renamed and street signs with his name have been taken down. The BBC later announced it would no longer show reruns of Top of the Pops hosted by Savile. Subsequent attempts to expunge public memory of Savile have included the vandalism of properties that he once owned and the banning of items bearing his image (or even simply slogans from his TV shows) from being listed for sale on eBay.
- Following disclosures that widely-respected Alzheimer's disease researcher Sidney Gilman was passing inside information about ongoing drug trials to hedge fund traders, the University of Michigan, where he taught, deleted all references to him from its website.
- The once-common medical term "Heimlich Maneuver", to describe a technique for treatment of choke victims, was renamed "Abdominal Thrusts" in the light of dispute regarding the extent of involvement that its purported inventor, Dr. Henry Heimlich, actually had in devising the technique.
- In December 2013, the high-ranking North Korean politician Jang Sung-taek was publicly purged from the Worker's Party of Korea. In the aftermath, documentary footage first broadcast in October was edited to remove all frames with his presence.
Damnatio memoriae in fiction
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Many contemporary novels and films mention a form of damnatio memoriae. Two early examples are the "vapourization" of "unpersons" in George Orwell's 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four ("He did not exist; he never existed"); and the reference to the Egyptian practice in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, in which the Pharaoh Seti orders the name of Moses be struck from every building and never mentioned by anyone.
More recent authors who have used damnatio memoriae as a plot device include Milan Kundera in his 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, R.A. Salvatore in the 1990 novel Homeland, Lois Lowry in her 1993 novel The Giver (a version in which the damned name is never given to any new baby ever again), and Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson in their 1999 Prelude to Dune trilogy. Another occurrence of this plot device is prevalent in the fantasy novel Prince of the Blood by Raymond E. Feist. In David Wong's "John Dies At The End" and sequel, "This Book Is Full Of Spiders" being killed by the 'shadow people' completely erases one from history, such that their friends are not even allowed to remember them.
In Harry Potter series. Sirius Black, Phineas Black, and Andromeda Black were "blasted off" the Black Family's tree.
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- Censorship of images in the Soviet Union
- Crisis of the Roman Republic
- Forced disappearance
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- List of tombs of antipopes
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