Damnatio memoriae

Damnatio memoriae is a modern Latin phrase meaning "condemnation of memory", indicating that a person is to be excluded from official accounts. 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 is seen as long ago as the aftermath of the reign of the Egyptian Pharaohs Akhenaten in the 13th century BC, and Hatshepsut in the 14th century BC.

The Severan Tondo, circa AD 199 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.



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

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

Ancient Era

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

The best known (preserved to this day) examples of damnatio memoriae in antiquity concern chiseling 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 2000-3000 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 the posterity.[2]

Ancient Egypt

Egyptians also practiced this,[3] as seen in relics from pharaoh Akhenaten’s tomb and elsewhere. His worship restricted to the one god Aten instead of the many gods common to the time was considered heretical. During his reign, Akhenaten himself attempted to have all references to the god Amun chipped away, to stop the worship of that god.[4] After his reign, temples to the 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]

Another Egyptian victim of this practice was pharaoh Ay.[6] The campaign of damnatio memoriae against Akhenaten and Ay's 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.[7]

Ancient Greece

The practice was known in Ancient Greece.[8]

Another example of damnatio memoriae as a punishment in Ancient Greece was the one meted out by the peoples of Ephesus after Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of antiquity. Felons would be erased from history for the crimes they had committed.

Ancient Rome

In ancient Roman society, "a Roman's house was perceived as an extension of the self, signalling to divine protectors and social and genealogical status to the world outside."[9] Similarly, just as the domus would have been seen as an extension of the self, memory was thought of as one of the best ways to understand the self. In a society without much written documentation, memory training was a big part of Roman education.[9] Orators, leaders, and poets alike used memory training devices or memory palaces to help give speeches or tell long epic poems. In Natural History, Pliny writes:

It would be far from easy to pronounce what person has been the most remarkable for the excellence of his memory, that blessing so essential for the enjoyment of life, there being so many that were celebrated for it. King Cyrus knew all the soldiers of his army by name: L. Scipio the names of all the Roman people.

Memory palaces provided an aid for remembering certain key ideas. By assigning locations in their homes for different ideas, poets or the like could walk back and forth through their house, recalling ideas with every step. Memory training often involved assigning ideas to wall paintings, floor mosaics, and sculptures that adorned many ancient Roman homes. The punishment of damnatio memoriae involved altering the rooms, many times destroying or tampering with the art in their homes as well, so the house would no longer be identifiable as the perpetrator's home. This would in turn, erase the perpetrator's very existence.[9]

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 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.

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 actual practice however it is unlikely that such complete success was possible except in cases where the individual in question was of limited contemporary notability, 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, it appears that coins bearing his effigy continued to circulate for years after his condemnation, even though the mere mention of his name was punishable by death.[10]

Marino Faliero's portrait 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."

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[11]—but subsequently evaded with the enormous funeral he was given by Vitellius. Similarly, there was little to prevent historians later "resurrecting" the memory of the sanctioned person.

The sense of the expression damnatio memoriae and of the sanction is to remove every trace of the person from life, as if they had never existed, in order to preserve the honour of the city. In a city that stressed social appearance, respectability, and the pride of being a true Roman as a fundamental requirement of the citizen, it was perhaps the severest punishment.[citation needed]

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, heresiarchs could have their memory condemned. The Council of Constance decreed the damnatio memoriae of John Wycliffe.[12]

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.[13]

Modern usage

USSR and Eastern Europe

While extreme damnatio memoriae is not carried out in modern times—naming or writing about a person fallen from favour is not subject to formal punishment—less total examples of damnatio memoriae in modern times include numerous examples from Soviet Union, retouching photos to remove individuals such as Leon Trotsky,[14] and even Stalin himself,[15] and the cutting out of Great Soviet Encyclopedia articles on Beria and others following their fall from favour.[16] Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, many communist statues, particularly of Lenin and Stalin, were removed from former Soviet's satellite states.[17] Following a 2015 decision, Ukraine successfully dismantled all 1,320 statues of Lenin after its independence, as well as renaming roads and structures named under Soviet authority.[18]

United States

In the United States, the monument for the Battle of Saratoga has a blank niche where Benedict Arnold's name is missing from the list of victorious generals.[19] Various other Revolutionary War monuments either omit his name or, in the case of West Point, anonymously list only his rank and date of birth.[20]


19th century Polish writers often omitted mentioning of two kings from the list of Polish monarchs, Bezprym and Wenceslaus III of Bohemia, which has resulted in them being omitted from many later works as well.[21]


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.[22]


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.[23][24]

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'll be remembered for all time.[25] 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.[26][25] Charles Hedrick therefore 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).[27]

See also


  1. ^ Adrastos Omissi (June 28, 2018). Emperors and Usurpers in the Later Roman Empire: Civil War, Panegyric, and the Construction of Legitimacy . OUP Oxford. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-19-255827-5.
  2. ^ Zawadzki, Stefan (2011). "Puścić w niepamięć, zachować złą pamięć: władcy w asyryjskich inskrypcjach królewskich w pierwszym tysiącleciu przed Chr.". In Renata Gałaj-Dempniak; Danuta Okoń; Magdalena Semczyszyn (eds.). Damnatio memoriae w europejskiej kulturze politycznej (in Polish). IPN. ISBN 978-83-61336-45-7.
  3. ^ Wilkinson, Richard H. (January 1, 2011). "Controlled Damage: The Mechanics and Micro-History of the Damnatio Memoriae Carried Out in KV-23, the Tomb of Ay" . Journal of Egyptian History. 4 (1): 129–147. doi:10.1163/187416611X580741 . ISSN 1874-1665 .
  4. ^ Jarus, Owen (July 24, 2014). "Egyptian Carving Defaced by King Tut's Possible Father Discovered" . Live Science. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
  5. ^ Redford, Donald (1984). Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton University Press. pp. 170–172. ISBN 978-0-691-03567-3.
  6. ^ Wilkinson, Richard H. (January 1, 2011). "Controlled Damage: The Mechanics and Micro-History of the Damnatio Memoriae Carried Out in KV-23, the Tomb of Ay" . Journal of Egyptian History. 4 (1): 129–147. doi:10.1163/187416611X580741 . ISSN 1874-1665 .
  7. ^ Elizabeth D. Carney; Sabine Müller (November 9, 2020). The Routledge Companion to Women and Monarchy in the Ancient Mediterranean World . Taylor & Francis. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-429-78398-2.
  8. ^ Callataÿ, François De (May 18, 2020). 4. Remelted or Overstruck: Cases of Monetary Damnatio Memoriae in Hellenistic Times? . University of Toronto Press. doi:10.3138/9781487531782-008/html . ISBN 978-1-4875-3178-2.
  9. ^ a b c Bergmann, Bettina (June 1994). "The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii". The Art Bulletin. 76 (2): 225–256. doi:10.2307/3046021 . ISSN 0004-3079 . JSTOR 3046021 .
  10. ^ "Geta: The One Who Died" . Archived from the original on December 3, 2010.
  11. ^ Russell, Miles; Manley, Harry (2013). "Finding Nero: shining a new light on Romano-British sculpture" . Internet Archaeology (32). doi:10.11141/ia.32.5 .
  12. ^ "Article" . Retrieved May 31, 2020.
  13. ^ Strzelczyk, Jerzy (1987). Od Prasłowian do Polaków (in Polish). Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza. p. 60. ISBN 978-83-03-02015-4.
  14. ^ Iina Kohonen (July 1, 2017). Picturing the Cosmos: A Visual History of Early Soviet Space Endeavor . Intellect Books. pp. 135–137. ISBN 978-1-78320-744-2.
  15. ^ Carl T. Hyden; Theodore F. Sheckels (January 14, 2016). Public Places: Sites of Political Communication . Rowman & Littlefield. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-4985-0726-4.
  16. ^ The Materiality of Text – Placement, Perception, and Presence of Inscribed Texts in Classical Antiquity: Placement, perception, and presence of inscribed texts in classical antiquity . BRILL. October 22, 2018. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-90-04-37943-5.
  17. ^ Dr Lynda Nead (August 1999). Law and the Image: The Authority of Art and the Aesthetics of Law . University of Chicago Press. pp. 47–. ISBN 978-0-226-56953-6.
  18. ^ Wilford, Greg (August 20, 2017). "Ukraine has removed all 1,320 statues of Lenin" . The Independent. Retrieved October 8, 2020.
  19. ^ Groark, Virginia (April 21, 2002). "Beloved Hero and Despised Traitor" – via
  20. ^ Yusko, Dennis; Union, Copyright 2001 Albany Times (June 17, 2001). "Infamous Benedict Arnold finally gets some respect" . Houston Chronicle.
  21. ^ Mroziewicz, Karolina (2020). "Same Kings, Different Narratives: Illustrated Catalogues of Rulers of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" . Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung. 69 (1): 27–67. ISSN 0948-8294 .
  22. ^ Gerard, Bonnie. "Damnatio Memoriae in China: Zhao Ziyang Is Laid to Rest" . The Diplomat. Retrieved November 15, 2019.
  23. ^ Eric R. Varner (2004). Monumenta Graeca et Romana: Mutilation and transformation : damnatio memoriae and Roman imperial portraiture. BRILL. p. 2.
  24. ^ Elise A. Friedland; Melanie Grunow Sobocinski; Elaine K. Gazda. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Sculpture. Oxford. p. 669.
  25. ^ a b Beiner, Guy (2018). Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular; Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster . Oxford University Press. pp. 380–381. ISBN 978-0198749356.
  26. ^ Beiner, Guy (2007). Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 305.
  27. ^ Hedrick, Charles W., Jr. (2000). History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity . Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0292718739. Retrieved February 20, 2021.

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