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.
Head of young Publius Septimius Geta at Glyptothek, Munich

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 result is to erase someone from history.




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 erased.


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 anyway, 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.[1]

Similar practices in other societies

A photograph of Stalin with Soviet commissar Nikolai Yezhov was retouched after Yezhov fell from favor and was executed in 1940.
  • 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.
  • 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,[2] 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, Thutmose III carried out a similar attack on his stepmother Hatshepsut late in his sole reign.[3] However, only engravings and statuary of her as a crowned king of Egypt were attacked. Anything depicting her as a queen was left unharmed (and the campaign ended after his son by a secondary queen was crowned co-regent), so this was not strictly speaking damnatio memoriae.[4] There is also some debate whether this defacement was Thutmose's doing at all, since most of the damage is estimated to have happened some 47 years into this reign.
  • In Judaism, the curse, "May [his / her] name and memory be obliterated," (Hebrew: ימח שמו וזכרו , yimach shmo ve-zichro) is used.[5]
  • Despite successfully invading England in 1216,[citation needed] being proclaimed King Louis of England in London and conquering half the country, under the terms of the treaty of Lambeth Louis is not counted as one of the Kings of England.
  • 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.[6] In a twist of fate, 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.
  • 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."[7]
  • 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.[8][9]
  • 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 treachery. 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.
  • After the disbanding of the Soviet Union and abandonment of any officially sanctioned ideology, most of the places renamed after Communist personalities and leaders, including entire cities such as Leningrad, were restored to pre-union names, or given a different non-socialist name. Additionally, statues of communist heroes like Lenin were for the most part removed and/or destroyed.
  • In 2007, the Spanish Parliament passed the Ley de Memoria Histórica de España to remove the traces of the Nationalist faction in the Spanish Civil War and afterwards. 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 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.[10] Wrestling Observer Newsletter had a recall poll to remove him from their Hall of Fame but was under the 60% needed to do so.
  • In 2010, all traces of Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo were obliterated from the University of Southern California after a scandal involving both accepting payment while playing for their respective USC teams.[citation needed]
  • In 2010, the Canadian Forces burned the uniforms and destroyed the medals of convicted murderer Russell Williams.[11]
  • The names of Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne were erased from all Egyptian monuments after they were deposed in 2011.[3]
  • Alleged child rapist and retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was edited out of a mural and replaced with a blue ribbon.[12]

Damnatio memoriae in fiction

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.

The device has also appeared in the American television series Star Trek: The Next Generation as the Klingon practice of discommendation; as a threat in Ancient Greek and Persian culture in Frank Miller's 1998 comic book series 300 and its 2007 film adaptation; and in the 2004 role playing game Vampire the Requiem.

See also


  1. ^ Geta: The One Who Died
  2. ^ "Egyptian Religion", E.A Wallis Budge", Arkana 1987 edition, ISBN 0-14-019017-1
  3. ^ a b "Erasing the Face of History". New York Times. May 14, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/opinion/15bond.html?_r=1. Retrieved 2011-05-15. 
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Rosenberg, Bernhard H.; Chaim Z. Rozwaski (1999). Contemplating the Holocaust. Jason Aronson, Inc. p. 1. ISBN 0765761114. "There is an old dictum and hallowed custom that when speaking of the enemies of the Jewish people or of a wicked person, one says immediately after mentioning their names, Yimach Shmo V'zichro—may his name and memory be blotted out." 
  6. ^ BBC
  7. ^ "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." Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, ch. 56.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Mandel portrait hung in State House Baltimore Sun, October 14, 1993
  10. ^ WWE: Chris Benoit Tragedy Illustrates WWE's Power and Lack of Accountability, Bleacher Report; April 2, 2011. Accessed September 17, 2011.
  11. ^ Montreal Gazette, Military burns William's uniforms, November 20, 2010
  12. ^ Greg McCune (2011-11-09). "Scorned Penn State coach painted out of campus mural". Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/09/us-crime-coach-mural-idUSTRE7A88AF20111109. Retrieved 2011-11-10. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Damnatio Memoriae — (lateinisch „Verdammung des Andenkens an ...“) bedeutet die völlige Auslöschung des Andenkens an eine Person durch die Nachwelt. Der Begriff bezieht sich auf Handlungen im Römischen Reich, ist selbst aber eine moderne Neuschöpfung. Die Namen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Damnatio memoriae — (lateinisch für „Verdammung des Andenkens“) bedeutet die Verfluchung und demonstrative Tilgung des Andenkens an eine Person durch die Nachwelt. Der Begriff bezieht sich vor allem auf Handlungen im Römischen Reich, ist selbst aber eine moderne… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Damnatio Memoriae — Portrait de Néron retravaillé en effigie de Titus après la damnatio memoriæ du premier, musée du Louvre (Ma 3562) La damnatio memoriæ est un ensemble de condamnations post mortem à l oubli votée par le Sénat romain à l encontre d un personnage… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Damnatio memoriae — Tondo con la familia de Septimio Severo en el que aparecen retratados Severo, su esposa Julia Domna, sus hijos Caracalla, y Geta, cuya cara ha sido borrada por su damnatio memoriae ordenada por su hermano y asesino Caracalla …   Wikipedia Español

  • Damnatio memoriae — Тондо с изображением Септимия Севера, его супруги Домны и детей  Геты и Каракаллы. После убийства Геты Каракаллой изображения Геты были уничтож …   Википедия

  • damnatio memoriae — dam·nà·tio me·mò·riae loc.s.f.inv., lat. TS stor. in Roma antica, condanna postuma per cui veniva distrutto o censurato tutto ciò che poteva tramandare il ricordo di un personaggio {{line}} {{/line}} ETIMO: lat. damnatio memoriae propr. condanna… …   Dizionario italiano

  • Damnatio memoriae — Portrait de Néron retravaillé en effigie de Titus après la damnatio memoriæ du premier, musée du Louvre (Ma 3562) La damnatio memoriæ est un ensemble de condamnations post mortem à l oubli votées par le Sénat romain à l encontre d un personnage… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • damnatio memoriae — /dæmnatioʊ məˈmɔriaɪ/ (say damnahteeoh muh mawreeuy) noun (in ancient Rome) a dishonour accorded by the Senate to traitors and any other who brought shame on Rome which involved erasing the memory of the persons in question as by removing their… …   Australian English dictionary

  • Damnatio — steht für: kirchenrechtlich die Verdammung den Tieren zum Fraß vorwerfen, antike römische Strafe, siehe Damnatio ad bestias (lat. = Verurteilung zum Tierkampf) Verurteilung zum Kampf ohne Aussicht auf Rettung, antike römische Strafe, siehe… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Damnatio ad bestias — Panthers devouring a criminal. Roman floor mosaic, 3rd century AD. Archaeological Museum of Tunisia …   Wikipedia

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