Damnatio memoriae is the Latin phrase literally meaning "damnation 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.
Though in Latin, the term damnatio memoriae was not used by the ancient Romans. The first appearance of the phrase is in a dissertation written in Germany in 1689. The term is used in modern scholarship to cover a wide array of official and unofficial sanctions whereby the physical remnants of a deceased individual were destroyed to differing degrees.
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. Examples of this may include the destruction of the statues and other images of two close members of Caligula's family, his wife Milonia Caesonia and his daughter Julia Drusilla, which occurred after the emperor was assassinated.
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.
It is unknown whether any damnatio memoriae was totally successful as it 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 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
- According to the biblical story, when the ancient Israelites entered the land of Canaan, they were ordered to destroy several pagan tribes and their property; but the tribe of Amalek was not only specifically singled out for destruction, Yahweh 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. Most famously, the cartouches of the heretical 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten and his immediate successors were mutilated by Horemheb, who succeeding in wiping out their names so completely that it took until the 19th century for them to be rediscovered. 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.
- In 10th century Norway, after the death of jarl Hákon Sigurðarson, according to Snorri Sturluson "So great was the enmity of the Trondheim 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."
- 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.
- All court documents related to the 1598 process against a Parisian early serial killer nicknamed the "Werewolf of Châlons" or "the Demon Tailor" were destroyed in a process intended to erase his memory. The killer's name is today unknown.
- The penultimate verse of the Book of Revelation in the King James Version "And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." appears to threaten whoever alters its text with a self-referent kind of damnatio memoriae.
- More modern examples of damnatio memoriae 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 the Soviet Union football team lost to Yugoslavia at the 1952 Summer Olympics, Stalin ordered that all footage of the event was to 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.
- 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 his convictions were overturned on appeal, and while Agnew was also convicted, his portrait was restored after complaints and 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. The plaque at the Military Academy says simply, "Major General. Born 1740."
- For a time during the latter part of the 20th century, Madame Tussauds museum in London displayed a statue of Adolf Hitler in the stairway leading from the main floor down to its basement Chamber of Horrors. Unlike most other statues in the museum, this Hitler statue had no identifying label.
- In Uruguay during the early 1970s the Tupamaros, a local guerrilla group, was making the government and police look foolish with their brazen raids and kidnappings. As a result, in the news a number of terms could not be used to describe them ("commando", "terrorist", etc.), nor could the organization's name itself be mentioned. As a substitute for "Tupamaros" people spoke of "The Nameless Ones."
- 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 emerged that professional wrestler Chris Benoit had murdered his son, wife and self, WWE removed all mention of him from its TV broadcasts, website and subsequent DVD releases. In 2014, Benoit's footage was redistributed, sometimes with a viewer advisory, as part of the WWE Network, a video-on-demand service.The incident itself was recapped in WWE 50, an official company retrospective book.
- 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 and the wins were restored in 2014).
- 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, buildings named after him were renamed and street signs with his name were 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 commemorative plaques and properties that he once owned.
- 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.
- In December 2013, the high-ranking North Korean politician Jang Sung-taek was publicly purged from the Worker's Party of Korea and subsequently executed. In the aftermath, documentary footage first broadcast in October was edited to remove all frames with his presence.
- In Judaism, it is common up to the present to express strong condemnation of a person by adding whenever his name is mentioned the Hebrew words "Yimach Shmo VeZichro" (ימח שמו וזכרו), literally "May his name and memory be erased" - though in present Jewish society, this is not necessarily accompanied by an effort to actually destroy physical records mentioning that person.
- In January 2014, after the separation of French president François Hollande and his "First Lady" Valérie Trierweiler 130 pages with 600 pictures of the First Lady had been deleted on the official internet site of the Elysée at 26 January 2014 at 11 o'clock.
In popular culture
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.
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- Censorship of images in the Soviet Union
- Crisis of the Roman Republic
- Forced disappearance
- List of Roman emperors to be condemned
- List of tombs of antipopes
- Memory hole
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