May 14, 2011

Damnatio memoriae from antiquity to the present

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.

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.

In addition to offering NYT readers a great ancient history lesson, Sarah levels an interesting critique at the new regime in Egypt:
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. [...]

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.

Well said, Dr. Bond! (And be sure to follow @SarahEBond on Twitter.)

6 comments:

Sarah Bond said...

Well, a certain Dr. K taught me how to be a better writer :)

Laura B. said...

ok ladies -- can you please clarify?: I thought that damnatio memoriae was a modern term historians use to refer to several different methods of erasing people in ancient Rome, not an actual legal term that the Roman Senate decreed. Sarah's article doesn't specify either (since the technicality of the term is not the point of her historical comparison), but the wikipedia article definitely makes it seem like a term that the Romans used. As in: "I decree that he undergo damnatio memoriae!" Then again, it's wikipedia and thus not to be trusted. I don't have JSTOR access to a Harriet Flower nor an Eric Varner article which may clarify this for me. Could you?

Sarah Bond said...

Sure thing! You are very correct that this is a MODERN, rather than ancient term. I tried to make this clear (but failed) in the article by saying that the term for this in the Roman world is (rather than was) damnatio memoriae, but I should have made it crystal that this is a modern word for a state sanctioned damnation of an individual. Harriet Flower will surely be upset, but it doesn't change the fact that the Romans recognized a difference between a formal sanction and informal. We call the formal one damnatio memoriae today.

Anonymous said...

Love to see any parallel to the ancient world in a modern newspaper. Kudos, Sarah!

Douglas said...

Wasn't this done in Egypt as well? I dimly recall Akhenaten and a few other pharaohs being subject to this.

Bone Girl said...

Yes, Sarah's op-ed has a couple paragraphs on Egypt (specifically addressing Akhenaten, even).

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