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The Severan Tondo, c. 199 AD tondo of the Severan family, with portraits of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, and their sons Caracalla and Geta. The face of one of Severus' and Julia's sons has been erased; it may be Geta's, as a result of the damnatio memoriae ordered by his brother Caracalla after Geta's death.

Damnatio memoriae (Latin pronunciation: [damˈnaː.ti.oː meˈmo.ri.ae̯]) is a modern Latin phrase meaning "condemnation of memory", indicating that a person is to be excluded from official accounts. Depending on the extent, it can be a case of historical negationism. There are and have been many routes to damnatio memoriae, including the destruction of depictions, the removal of names from inscriptions and documents, and even large-scale rewritings of history. The term can be applied to other instances of official scrubbing. The practice has been seen as early as the Egyptian New Kingdom period, where the Pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten were subject to it.

After Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of antiquity, the people of Ephesus banned the mention of his name. His name has since become an eponym for people who commit crimes for the purpose of gaining notoriety.


Although the term damnatio memoriae is Latin, the phrase was not used by the ancient Romans, and first appeared in a thesis written in Germany in 1689.[1]

Ancient world

Damnatio memoriae of Commodus on an inscription in the Museum of Roman History Osterburken. The abbreviation "CO" was later restored with paint.

Today's best known examples of damnatio memoriae from antiquity concern chiselling stone inscriptions or deliberately omitting certain information from them.

Ancient Mesopotamia

According to Stefan Zawadzki, the oldest known examples of such practices come from around 3000-2000 BC. He cites the example of Lagash (an ancient city-state founded by the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia), where preserved inscriptions concerning a conflict with another city-state, Umma, do not mention the ruler of Umma, but describe him as "the man of Umma", which Zawadzki sees as an example of deliberate degradation of the ruler of Umma to the role of an unworthy person whose name and position in history the rulers of Lagash did not want to record for posterity.[2]

Ancient Egypt

Coffin believed to belong to Akhenaten found in Tomb KV55. Note the typical obliteration of the face.

Egyptians also practiced this,[3] as seen in relics from pharaoh Akhenaten's tomb and elsewhere. Akhenaten's sole worship of the god Aten, instead of the traditional pantheon, was considered heretical. During his reign, Akhenaten endeavoured to have all references to the god Amun chipped away and removed.[4] After his reign, temples to Aten were dismantled and the stones reused to create other temples. Images of Akhenaten had their faces chipped away, and images and references to Amun reappeared. The people blamed their misfortunes on Akhenaten's shift of worship to Atenism, away from the gods they served before him.[5] Other Egyptian victims of this practice include the pharaohs that immediately succeeded Akhenaten, including Smenkhkare, Neferneferuaten, and Ay.[3] The campaign of damnatio memoriae against Akhenaten and his successors was initiated by the latter's successor, Horemheb, who decided to erase from history all pharaohs associated with the unpopular Amarna Period; this process was continued by Horemheb's successors.[6] Tutankhamun was also erased from history in this way even though he had restored Egypt to the Amun god because he was simply one the kings who succeeded Akhenaten and he was possibly Akhenaten's own son.

Ancient Hittites

The erased rock relief at Sirkeli Höyük that is believed to be of Mursili III.[7]

One case of damnatio memoriae is known for the ancient Hittite empire. Mursili III was a king of the Hittites for about seven years in 1282–1275 BC who was then overthrown by his uncle Hattusili III, who assumed the throne.

There is a well known relief of Mursili's father Muwatalli II near the village of Sirkeli Höyük in Turkey,, as well as a second, very similar relief that is believed to be that of his son Mursili. It was largely destroyed in antiquity, most likely by his spiteful uncle. The relief of the father was left untouched.

Ancient Greece

Part of an honorific decree for Phaedrus of Sphettus, passed in 259/8 BC. The lines mentioning Phaedrus' interactions with the Antigonids were chiselled out as part of the damnatio memoriae of 200 BC.

The practice was known in Ancient Greece.[8] The Athenians frequently destroyed inscriptions which referred to individuals or events that they no longer wished to commemorate.[9] After Timotheus was convicted of treason and removed from his post as general in 373 BC, all references to him as a general were deleted from the previous year's naval catalogue.[10] The most complete example is their systematic removal of all references to the Antigonids from inscriptions in their city, in 200 BC when they were besieged by the Antigonid king Philip V of Macedon during the Second Macedonian War.[11] One decree praising Demetrius Poliorcetes (Philip V's great-grandfather) was smashed and thrown down a well.[12]

At Delphi, an honorific inscription erected between 337 and 327 BC for Aristotle and his nephew Callisthenes, two philosophers who were closely associated with the Macedonians, were smashed and thrown in a well after the death of Alexander of Macedon in 323 BC.[12]

Ancient Rome

Erased mention of Geta in an inscription after his damnatio memoriae (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari)
Lucius Aelius Sejanus suffered damnatio memoriae following a failed conspiracy to overthrow emperor Tiberius in AD 31. His statues were destroyed and his name obliterated from all public records. The above coin from Augusta Bilbilis, originally struck to mark the consulship of Sejanus, has the words L. Aelio Seiano obliterated.

In ancient Rome, the practice of damnatio memoriae was the condemnation of emperors after their deaths. If the Senate or a later emperor did not like the acts of an emperor, they could have his property seized, his name erased and his statues reworked (normally defaced). Because there was 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.

Compounding this difficulty is the fact that a completely successful damnatio memoriae results—by definition—in the full and total erasure of the subject from the historical record. In the case of figures such as emperors or consuls it is unlikely that complete success was possible, as even comprehensive obliteration of the person's existence and actions in records and the like would continue to be historically visible without extensive reworking. The impracticality of such a cover-up could be vast—in the case of Emperor Geta, for example, coins bearing his effigy proved difficult to entirely remove from circulation for several years, even though the mere mention of his name was punishable by death.[13]

Difficulties in implementation also arose if there was not full and enduring agreement with the punishment, such as when the Senate's condemnation of Nero was implemented—leading to attacks on many of his statues[14]—but subsequently evaded with the enormous funeral he was given by Vitellius. Similarly, it was often difficult to prevent later historians from "resurrecting" the memory of the sanctioned person.

The impossibility of actually erasing memory of an emperor have led scholars to conclude that this was not actually the goal of damnatio. Instead, they understand damnatio:

not so much as an attempt to obliterate memory entirely as to transform honorific commemoration into a form of visible denigration. That is: the power of an act of damnatio relies, at least in part, on the viewer of a monument being able to supplement the gaps in an inscription with their own knowledge of what those gaps had once contained, and the reasons why the text had been removed

— Polly Low, "Remembering, Forgetting, and Rewriting the Past"[15]

These emperors are known to have been erased from monuments:[16]

Emperor Reign Notes
Caligula 37–41 Disputed whether per senate decree[17][18]
Nero 54–68 hostis iudicatio (posthumous trial for treason)[17]
Domitian 81–96 per senate decree (96)[17]
Commodus 177–192 per senate decree (192)[17]
Clodius Albinus Usurper
Geta 209–211 per his brother Caracalla
Macrinus 217–218 Usurper
Diadumenian 217–218 Usurper
Elagabalus 218–222
Severus Alexander 222–235 Only during the reign of Maximinus Thrax
Maximinus Thrax 235–238 per senate decree (238)[17]
Maximus I Caesar only
Philip the Arab 244–249
Philip II 247–249 Philip the Arab's son
Decius 249–251
Herennius Etruscus 251 Decius' son
Hostilian 251 Decius' son
Aemilianus 253
Gallienus 253–268
Aurelian 270–275
Probus 276–282
Carus 282–283
Carinus 284–285
Numerian 283–284
Diocletian 284–305
Maximian 286–305 per senate decree (310)[17]
Galerius 305–311
Valerius Severus 306–307
Maximinus II 308–313 per senate decree (313)[17]
Maxentius 306–312
Licinius 308–324
Constantine II 337–340
Constans 337–350
Magnentius Usurper
Magnus Maximus 383–388

Middle Ages

The Doge of Venice Marino Faliero's portrait (right) was removed and painted over with a black shroud as damnatio memoriae for his attempted coup. The shroud bears the Latin phrase, "This is the space for Marino Faliero, beheaded for crimes."

In the Middle Ages, heresiarchs could have their memory condemned. The Council of Constance decreed the damnatio memoriae of John Wycliffe.[19]

The practice of replacing pagan beliefs and motifs with Christian, and purposefully not recording the pagan history, has been compared to damnatio memoriae as well.[20]

In her book Medici Women - Portraits of Power, Love and Betrayal, Gabrielle Langdon also presents compelling evidence concerning a probable damnatio memoriae issued against Isabella de' Medici, a prominent female figure of the 16th century Renaissance Medici court.[21]

The Americas

Ancient Maya

Several apparent damnatio mamoriae incidents occurred within the Maya civilization during the Classic period (250–900 CE) as a result of political conflicts between leaders of the local kingdoms.

One notable incident occurred in the kingdom of Paʼ Chan (modern-day Yaxchilan, Mexico) in the middle of the 8th century. In June 742, the k'uhul ajaw (Holy Lord, i.e. king) of Pa' Chan, Itzamnaaj Bahlam III, died after a 60-year-long rule, during which he turned his kingdom into one of great riches after a large number of military campaigns which were recorded and illustrated on multiple high-quality stelae, lintels and hieroglyphic steps of temples which he dedicated to his military success (e.g. Temple 44) and his family (e.g. Temple 23). Though he had a son who eventually ascended to the throne after his death, there was a mysterious decade-long interregnum period in which Pa' Chan did not record the existence of any king. Itzamnaaj Bahlam's son, Yaxun Bʼalam IV, also known as Bird Jaguar IV, ascended to the throne in April 752, nearly ten years after his father's death.[22]

This interregnum period may be explained by a text from the nearby northern kingdom of Yokib (modern-day Piedras Negras, Guatemala). Panel 3 of this city, largely regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of Mayan art, was carved approximately in 782 and illustrates an episode of the reign of Itzam Kʼan Ahk II (also known as Pawaaj Kʼan Ahk II), in which he celebrated his first kʼatun (period of 7200 days) as king, on July 27, 749. Panel 3 claims that the celebration "was witnessed by Sak Jukub Yopaat Bahlam, Holy Lord of Paʼ Chan." Also known as Yopaat Bahlam II, this mysterious ruler does not appear anywhere else in the historical record, not even in his supposed homeland. Moreoever, his respectful presence at a celebration in Yokib, Paʼ Chan's centuries-old and bitter rival (which had, in fact, scored a victory in battle against Itzamnaaj Bahlam III in 726), as well as the depiction of Itzam Kʼan Ahk apparently addressing a speech (now hardly readable, but probably involving an event of Paʼ Chan's past) toward a party from Paʼ Chan—which included his son and "heir to the throne" of Paʼ Chan (chʼok paʼchan ajaw), Sihyaj Ahkteʼ—, possibly indicate that he ruled as a vassal of Itzam Kʼan Ahk, or that he used the celebration as an opportunity to ask for Itzam Kʼan Ahk's support against Yaxun Bʼalam IV, his political rival.[23] This has led to the conclusion that if this man truly ruled Paʼ Chan, any records of his existence were destroyed during the reign of Yaxun Bʼalam IV, who notoriously led a massive propaganda campaign throughout his rule to claim legitimacy over the throne, which involved the rewriting of his kingdom's dynastic history and restoration of several historical records of previous kings. The immense texts writing Yaxun Bʼalam's own version of his kingdom's dynastic history may have been carved over existing records which would have been intentionally erased with plaster, possibly destroying the records of the king (or kings) of the interregnum.[22]

It is possible Yopaat Bahlam and his son lived the rest of their lives in exile at Yokib, and that the "heir to the throne" never rose to power. Yopaat Bahlam may have been buried in Burial 13 of the city, judging from a text carved on four Spondylus limbatus shells found within it which bears his name and mentions that he had previously visited the city in January 747, also within the interregnum.[23]

New Spain

The Chapultepec portrait of Moctezuma II, made in 1519 and intentionally damaged in the middle of the 18th century, is the only surviving Chapultepec portrait of a Mexica monarch.

Notorious incidents of damnatio memoriae occurred during the existence of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Spanish colony that emerged after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521. Various viceroys ordered the destruction of monuments and documents depicting certain episodes of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican history and rebels to Spanish rule over the Americas.

For instance, Moctezuma I (not to be confused with his more famous great-grandson Moctezuma II), 15th-century huei tlahtoani (Great Speaker, i.e. emperor) of the Excan Tlahtoloyan (lit. Triple Capital),[24] known by historians as the Mexica or Aztec Empire (also known as the Aztec Triple Alliance, whose inhabitants referred to themselves as Culhua-Mexica), ordered the creation of a portrait of himself and of his military and political advisor Tlacaelel at Chapultepec, a historically and naturally important site which nowadays is within Mexico City. This became a tradition among subsequent Mexica rulers, and portraits of Axayacatl and Ahuizotl, two of Moctezuma's successors, were also made throughout the rest of the century (Tizoc's absence may be explained by his sudden death from poisoning). Moctezuma II would create the last portrait of this kind in 1519 (which Hajovsky (2015, p. 118) believes might be "the last Aztec monument"), at the eve of the Spanish conquest.

Antonio de León y Gama, a distinguished Mexican intellectual, wrote in the late 18th century that these portraits were well preserved up until that century. León y Gama claimed that the only portrait he got to see himself was Moctezuma II's, before its destruction was ordered by the authorities in 1753 or 1754. He mentioned that Axayacatl's portrait still existed earlier in that century before it was "broken up and removed." Indeed, the remains of Moctezuma's portrait, approximately 2 meters (over 6 feet) high, reveal that its damage was not accidental or natural. It was carved on pink-to-gray andesite, which is "slightly harder than marble," according to Hajovsky. The markings in the damaged parts show that apparently its destruction was executed with the dropping of a boulder, and that deep holes were drilled "perhaps in order to pry the stone apart or blow it up."

In another notorious instance, Spanish bishop Juan de Zumárraga ordered the destruction of a portrait depicting Nezahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco, on July 7, 1539, along with various other sculptures at the Hill of Texcotzingo "in a manner such that they would no longer be remembered,"[25] a clear example of damnatio memoriae.

During the Mexican War of Independence, which started in 1810, one of the earliest revolutionary leaders, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, nowadays remembered as a national Hero, was executed by the Spanish authorities in 1811. After his execution, according to contemporary accounts, the authorities declared a damnatio memoriae. According to one of Hidalgo's soldiers, Pedro García (1790–1873), "the fierce war against Hidalgo's memory and his ideas" was done through strict censorship.

It became illegal to speak about Hidalgo anywhere, it became a great crime that was severely punished. This is the reason why no portrait which resembles him at all is found anywhere in the country, since the prohibition lasted nearly ten years. Nobody felt safe speaking inside their homes.

The Spanish efforts to erase his memory, however, were in vain. The War of Independence continued, and the leaders who continued to revolution after Hidalgo's death made great efforts to commemorate his legacy. José María Morelos, for example, declared in 1813 that September 16, the anniversary of the beginning of the war, would be celebrated every year "remembering always the merit of the great Hero Don Miguel Hidalgo and his partner Don Ignacio Allende."[26]

Similar practices in modern times

Alexander Malchenko, an early socialist revolutionary, removed due to his support of J. Martov
Nikolai Yezhov removed after his 1940 execution.

While complete damnatio memoriae has not been attempted in modern times—naming or writing about a person fallen from favour has never been made subject to formal punishment—less total instances of damnatio memoriae in modern times include numerous examples from the Soviet Union, retouching photos to remove individuals such as Leon Trotsky,[27] Nikolay Yezhov,[28] and even Stalin.[29] After Stalin ordered the murder of Grigory Kulik's wife Kira Kulik-Simonich, all photographic records of her were destroyed; although she was described as very pretty, no photographs or other images of her survive.[30] Following their fall from favour, Lavrentiy Beria and others were removed from articles in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.[31] Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, many communist statues, particularly of Lenin and Stalin, were removed from former Soviet satellite states.[32] Following a 2015 decision, a process of decommunization in Ukraine successfully dismantled all 1,320 statues of Lenin after its independence, as well as renaming roads and structures named under Soviet authority.[33]

The graphic designer David King had a strong interest in Soviet art and design, and amassed a collection of over 250,000 images. His most striking examples of before-and-after alterations were published as The Commissar Vanishes.


19th century Polish writers often omitted mentioning two kings from the list of Polish monarchs, Bezprym and Wenceslaus III of Bohemia, which has resulted in their being omitted from many later works as well.[34]


The treatment of Chinese politician Zhao Ziyang following his fall from grace inside the Chinese Communist Party is regarded as another modern case of damnatio memoriae.[35]


The destruction of all copies of The Victory of Faith in order to erase Ernst Röhm is considered an act of Nazi damnatio memoriae.[36] In the end, two copies survived: one preserved in London and one preserved by the Communist government of East Germany.[37]

North Korea

In December 2013, Jang Song-thaek was abruptly accused of being a counter-revolutionary and was stripped of all his posts, expelled from the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), arrested and executed. His photos were removed from official media and his image digitally removed from photos with other North Korean leaders.[38]


The term is used in modern scholarship to cover a wide array of official and unofficial sanctions through which the physical remnants and memories of a deceased individual are destroyed.[39][40]

Looking at cases of damnatio memoriae in modern Irish history, Guy Beiner has argued that iconoclastic vandalism only makes martyrs of the "dishonored", thus ensuring that they will be remembered for all time.[41] Nonetheless, Beiner goes on to argue that the purpose of damnatio memoriae—rather than being to erase people from history—was to guarantee only negative memories of those who were so dishonored.[41][42] Pointing out that damnatio memoriae did not erase people from history but in effect kept their memory alive,[42] Beiner concluded that those who partake in the destruction of a monument should be considered agents of memory.[43]

Author Charles Hedrick proposes that a distinction be made between damnatio memoriae (the condemnation of a deceased person) and abolitio memoriae (the actual erasure of another from historical texts).[44]

In case of removal of Soviet monuments in Eastern Europe, the primary reason was that they were established as a symbol of occupation, domination or cult of personality, rather than simple historic mark. It has been pointed out that all Nazi-established monuments and street names have been removed after World War II which has been perceived as natural reaction after liberation at that time.[45][46]

See also


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  46. ^ "Should Soviet monuments be dismantled or preserved? – DW – 07/09/2023". dw.com. Retrieved September 6, 2023.


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