My good friend and UNC colleague, the newly-minted Dr. Sarah Bond, has an op-ed in today's New York Times, "Erasing the Face of History," in which she compares the erasure of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak's images in Egypt to the long practice of damnatio memoriae in the Roman world:
The destruction of images by government decree in the Roman world is called “damnatio memoriae.” Such a decree meant that the name of the damned was scratched (oftentimes conspicuously) from inscriptions, his face chiseled from statues and the statues themselves often abused as if real persons, frescoes of his likeness painted over, his wax masks banned from being paraded in funerals, coins with his image defaced, his writings sometimes destroyed and his wills often annulled.In addition to offering NYT readers a great ancient history lesson, Sarah levels an interesting critique at the new regime in Egypt:
Romans saw it as a punishment worse than execution: the fate of being forgotten. It was suffered by numerous ignominious emperors of Rome in the early empire, and, even in the later empire, it was a mark of great disgrace. After the rebellious Maximian was subjected to damnatio memoriae around A.D. 311, his friend and co-ruler Diocletian was said to be so grief-stricken that he soon died as well.
Excisions like Maximian’s from frescoes and statues can be viewed in the most basic sense as announcements from rulers to the populace about the end of one reign and the beginning of another.
The Egyptian courts would have been better off following Claudius’s example and resisting a ban on the Mubaraks’ images. Instead of enforcing it, Egypt should allow individuals and institutions in possession of the former president’s likeness to decide for themselves whether to keep it. It is one thing to be allowed to deface an image, and quite another to be ordered to do so. [...]Well said, Dr. Bond! (And be sure to follow @SarahEBond on Twitter.)
Perhaps it is best that the people of Egypt be spared this forced amnesia and be allowed to retain some memories of their former president. Erasing the crimes of the past doesn’t help us avoid them in the future.