Damnatio memoriae

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The Severan Tondo, a circa AD 199 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 "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 intent was to erase someone from history, a task somewhat easier in ancient times, when documentation was much sparser.



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 or she 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.

Though in Latin, the term damnatio memoriae was not used by the ancient Romans. The first appearance of the phrase is in a dissertation written in Germany in 1689. The term is used in modern scholarship to cover a wide array of official and unofficial sanctions whereby the physical remnants of a deceased individual were destroyed to differing degrees.[1][2]


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. Examples of this may include the destruction of the statues and other images of two close members of Caligula's family, his wife Milonia Caesonia and his daughter Julia Drusilla, which occurred after the emperor was assassinated.

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.[3]

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, Yahweh would "completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven".[4]
  • 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,[5] 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 during the Amarna Period 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. Among those who were erased was Tutankhamun, ironically today one of the best known pharaohs.[6] Earlier in that same dynasty, a similar attack on Hatshepsut was carried out.[7] 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.[8]
  • 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."[9]
  • Following the death of Pope Alexander VI, Julius II said on the day of his election: "I will not live in the same rooms as the Borgias lived. He desecrated the Holy Church as none before. He usurped the papal power by the devil's aid, and I forbid under the pain of excommunication anyone to speak or think of Borgia again. His name and memory must be forgotten. It must be crossed out of every document and memorial. His reign must be obliterated. All paintings made of the Borgias or for them must be covered over with black crepe. All the tombs of the Borgias must be opened and their bodies sent back to where they belong – to Spain."[10] The Borgias' apartments remained sealed until the 19th century.[10]
  • 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.[citation needed]
  • Marino Faliero, fifty-fifth Doge of Venice, was condemned to damnatio memoriae after a failed coup d'état.[citation needed]
  • All court documents related to the 1598 process against a Parisian early serial killer nicknamed the "Werewolf of Châlons" or "the Demon Tailor" were destroyed in a process intended to erase his memory. The killer's name is today unknown.[11]
  • Ivan VI of Russia (1740–64), imprisoned as an infant after a Coup d'état was at the time essentially written out of Russian history, with an attempt made to destroy any documents or coins mentioning him.[12]
  • The penultimate verse of the Book of Revelation (in the King James Version "And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.") appears to threaten whoever alters its text with a self-referent kind of damnatio memoriae.


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.[13] 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.
  • 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.[14][15] 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.
  • 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 treason. The plaque at the Military Academy says simply, "Major General. Born 1740."[16]
  • For a time during the latter part of the 20th century, Madame Tussauds museum in London displayed a statue of Adolf Hitler in the stairway leading from the main floor down to its basement Chamber of Horrors. Unlike most other statues in the museum, this Hitler statue had no identifying label.[citation needed]
  • In Uruguay during the early 1970s the Tupamaros, a local guerrilla group, was making the government and police look foolish with their brazen raids and kidnappings. As a result, in the news a number of terms could not be used to describe them ("commando", "terrorist", etc.), nor could the organization's name itself be mentioned. As a substitute for "Tupamaros" people spoke of "The Nameless Ones."[17]
  • In 2007, after it emerged that professional wrestler Chris Benoit had murdered his wife and son before committing suicide, WWE removed all mention of him from its television broadcasts, website, and subsequent DVD releases.[18] In 2014, Benoit's footage was redistributed as part of the WWE Network, sometimes with a viewer advisory warning.[19] The incident itself was recapped in WWE 50, an official company retrospective book.[20]
  • 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).[21]
  • In 2010, after the defeat of Sarath Fonseka in 2010 Presidential Election of Sri Lanka, Fonseka's name, military honors and achievements were removed from the official web site of Sri Lanka Army.[22]
  • 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.[23] In 2010, the CF had also burned his uniforms and destroyed his medals.[24]
  • The names of Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne were erased from all Egyptian monuments after they were deposed in 2011.[7]
  • 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 and the wins were restored in 2014).[25]
  • 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.[26] The BBC later announced it would no longer show reruns of Top of the Pops hosted by Savile.[27] Subsequent attempts to expunge public memory of Savile have included the vandalism of commemorative plaques and properties that he once owned.
  • Following disclosures that widely-respected Alzheimer's disease researcher Sidney Gilman was passing inside information about ongoing drug trials to hedge fund traders, the University of Michigan, where he taught, deleted all references to him from its website.[28]
  • 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.[29]
  • 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.[30]
  • In July 2015, the WWE removed all references to wrestler Hulk Hogan from their website after 8-year-old audio tapes emerged in which Hogan used the word "nigger".[31]
  • In Dominican Republic, the official photos of the local church hierarchy have been digitally modified, similar to the Yezhov's case in USSR (see above), to remove the disgraced Wesołowski.[32]
  • October 2015 saw the launch of a proposal to remove from the media all references to the names of mass-murderers (beginning 48 hours after the first report of a mass-murder) in order to prevent them from gaining permanent fame while the victims are forgotten.[33] The 48-hour proposed delay before a mass-murderer's name is to be expunged from reportage is intended to provide time to alert the public to the killer, in aid of police investigations.

In popular culture

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Eric R. Varner (2004). Monumenta Graeca et Romana: Mutilation and transformation : damnatio memoriae and Roman imperial portraiture. BRILL. p. 2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Elise A. Friedland, Melanie Grunow Sobocinski, Elaine K. Gazda. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Sculpture. Oxford. p. 669.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Geta: The One Who Died
  4. The Holy Bible, Exodus, Chapter 17, Verse 14, New International Version.
  5. Egyptian Religion, E.A Wallis Budge", Arkana 1987 edition, ISBN 0-14-019017-1
  6. Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs (Seattle)
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Erasing the Face of History". New York Times. May 14, 2011. Retrieved May 15, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 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
  9. "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.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Nigel Cawthorne (1996). Sex Lives of the Popes. Prion. p. 219.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Ramsland, Katherine (2005) The Human Predator. The Berkley Publishing Group, New York City.
  12. Ivan VI (1740-1741)
  13. "How do you punish a football team?". BBC News. June 24, 2010. Retrieved January 9, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 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
  15. Mandel portrait hung in State House Baltimore Sun, October 14, 1993
  16. Yusko, Dennis (June 17, 2001). "Infamous Benedict Arnold finally gets some respect". Chron.com. The Houston Chronicle.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. WWE: Chris Benoit Tragedy Illustrates WWE's Power and Lack of Accountability, Bleacher Report; April 2, 2011. Accessed September 17, 2011.
  19. "Details On WWE Network's Handling Of Chris Benoit Footage - Advisory Shown Prior To Shows", by Daniel Pena, WrestlingInc
  20. "Tremendous Tirades: ‘WWE 50’ Book Review", by Larry Csonka, 411Mania
  21. "Gary Glitter Brick Removed". The Guardian. Retrieved August 2013. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. http://www.lankanewspapers.com/news/2011/12/73131_space.html
  23. [1]
  24. Montreal Gazette, Military burns William's uniforms, November 20, 2010
  25. Greg McCune (November 9, 2011). "Scorned Penn State coach painted out of campus mural". Reuters. Retrieved November 10, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Finlo Rohrer (November 1, 2012). "Jimmy Savile: Erasing the memory". BBC News. Retrieved November 15, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Dan Woolton (November 1, 2012). "Now BBC drops Savile's Pops: Archive episodes are binned by the Corporation". Mail Online. Retrieved November 15, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Popper, Nathaniel; Vlasic, Bill (December 15, 2012). "Quiet Doctor, Lavish Life: A Parallel Life". The New York Times. Retrieved December 16, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Anonymous (December 9, 2013). "Kim Jong-un's uncle vanishes from documentary footage - in pictures". The Guardian. Retrieved December 10, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. French Radio Europe1. "Exclu : le Lab publie les 600 photos de Valérie Trierweiler expurgées par l'Elysée". Retrieved January 30, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "WWE terminates wrestler Hulk Hogan's contract". BBC News. July 24, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. 2006-2015, Merit Designs Consulting Group,. "Dominican bishops Photoshop the Vatican's shame away". DominicanToday.com. Retrieved August 30, 2015.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Tognotti, Chris (October 8, 2015). "Stop saying the Oregon shooter's name". The Daily Dot.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links