World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Damnatio memoriae

Article Id: WHEBN0000044345
Reproduction Date:

Title: Damnatio memoriae  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Censorship, Iconoclasm, Domitian, Tutankhamun, Commodus
Collection: Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome, Damnatio Memoriae, Historical Deletion
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Damnatio memoriae

Tondo of the Severan family, with portraits of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla, and Geta. Geta's face has been erased, because of the damnatio memoriae ordered by his brother.

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.


  • Overview 1
    • Etymology 1.1
    • Practice 1.2
  • Similar practices in other societies 2
    • Modern 2.1
  • In popular culture 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6



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

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.


Lucius Aelius Sejanus suffered damnatio memoriae following a failed conspiracy to overthrow emperor Tiberius in 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 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.

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.[1]

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, the Israelite national god Yahweh would "completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven".[2]
  • 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,[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]
  • 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."[6]
  • Following the death of [7]
  • 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.


A photograph of Stalin with Soviet commissar Nikolai Yezhov was retouched after Yezhov fell from favor and was executed in 1940.
  • 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.[8] 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 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.[9][10] 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.
  • In Uruguay during the early 1970s the [11]
  • 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).[12]
  • 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.[13]
  • 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.[14] In 2010, the CF had also burned his uniforms and destroyed his medals.[15]
  • 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).[16]
  • 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.[17] The BBC later announced it would no longer show reruns of Top of the Pops hosted by Savile.[18] Subsequent attempts to expunge public memory of Savile have included the vandalism of commemorative plaques and properties that he once owned.
  • 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.[20]
  • 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.[21]

In popular culture

Many contemporary novels and films mention a form of damnatio memoriae. Two early examples are the "vapourization" of "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 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.

See also


  1. ^ Geta: The One Who Died
  2. ^ The Holy Bible, Exodus, Chapter 17, Verse 14, New International Version.
  3. ^ Egyptian Religion, E.A Wallis Budge", Arkana 1987 edition, ISBN 0-14-019017-1
  4. ^ a b "Erasing the Face of History".  
  5. ^ Peter F. Dorman, "The Proscription of Hapshepsut", from Hapshepsut: From Queen To Pharaoh, ed. Catherine H. Roehrig, Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), pp. 267–69
  6. ^ "Varð hér svá mikill máttr at fjándskap, þeim er Þrœndir gerðu til Hákonar jarls, at engi maðr mátti nefna hann annan veg en jarl hinn illa; var þetta kall haft lengi síðan." , ch. 56Heimskringla, Óláfs saga TryggvasonarSnorri Sturluson, .
  7. ^ a b  
  8. ^ "How do you punish a football team?". BBC News. June 24, 2010. Retrieved January 9, 2012. 
  9. ^ Governor Glendening's Press Conference on the opening of the Exhibit of Governors' Portraits in the Governor's Reception Room Maryland State House, Annapolis, April 13, 1995
  10. ^ Mandel portrait hung in State House Baltimore Sun, October 14, 1993
  12. ^ "Gary Glitter Brick Removed". The Guardian. Retrieved August 2013. 
  13. ^ WWE: Chris Benoit Tragedy Illustrates WWE's Power and Lack of Accountability, Bleacher Report; April 2, 2011. Accessed September 17, 2011.
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ Montreal Gazette, Military burns William's uniforms, November 20, 2010
  16. ^ Greg McCune (November 9, 2011). "Scorned Penn State coach painted out of campus mural". Reuters. Retrieved November 10, 2011. 
  17. ^ Finlo Rohrer (November 1, 2012). "Jimmy Savile: Erasing the memory". BBC News. Retrieved November 15, 2012. 
  18. ^ Dan Woolton (November 1, 2012). "Now BBC drops Savile's Pops: Archive episodes are binned by the Corporation". Mail Online. Retrieved November 15, 2012. 
  19. ^ Popper, Nathaniel; Vlasic, Bill (December 15, 2012). "Quiet Doctor, Lavish Life: A Parallel Life".  
  20. ^ Anonymous (December 9, 2013). "Kim Jong-un's uncle vanishes from documentary footage - in pictures".  
  21. ^ French Radio Europe1. accessdate=January 30, 2014 "Exclu : le Lab publie les 600 photos de Valérie Trierweiler expurgées par l’Elysée". 

External links

  • Damnatio memoriae
  • "The Commissar Vanishes" – Yezhov airbrushed out of a picture with Joseph Stalin
  • Pope Alexander VI and his mistress.
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.