History of Erasing Unpopular Leaders: Damnatio Memoriae

Statue of Nero with his head removed

Q: Why haven’t we heard more about this?

Because it was erased! Well, not completely, and sometimes not permanently. You know of someone who was erased, but you probably didn’t realize it, as I’ll explain.

Divine Augustus

Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, portrayed the empire as a family under the emperor’s benevolent rule, and he passed legislation penalizing divorce, adultery, and familial disobedience. In contrast, he conferred political advantages upon fathers of three or more children. Bachelors who shirked “the duty of marriage” were penalized in their right to inherit, and they could not even secure good seats at the games! The census he ordered, mentioned in the Nativity story, may have been to evaluate the result of his reforms.

Maison Carree, Temple of Augustus, Nimes, France

Emperor Nero

Nero

Q: What’s the part of Damnatio Memoriae that you know but didn’t realize?

If I asked you what the large amphitheatre near today’s Roman Forum is called… you’d say the Colosseum. But that wasn’t its original name. Vespasian, the emperor after Nero originally built it. It was named upon its completion in 89 A.D. the Flavian Amphitheatre in honor of his family name and subsequent dynasty: Flavius.

Colossus of Nero
Defaced and clipped Nero coin
Name scratched off Sejanus coins
Defaced Caligula coin
  • Domitian (first empire-wide persecution of Christians, according to the church historian Eusebius.) There is a relief carving of Domitian departing from Rome on a military campaign, ushered out of the city by Victoria, Mars, and Minerva and personifications of the Senate and the Roman people. Yet the head atop the stately tunic-clad body of the emperor is not that of Domitian. Instead, it is Nerva who succeeded Domitian after the latter’s assassination and subsequent damnatio memoriae.
Nerva replaces Domitian in Cancelleria Reliefs at Vatican Museum
  • Decius (second empire-wide persecution of Christians).
  • Diocletian (last, largest, and bloodiest empire-wide persecution of Christians).

Q: What are other notable examples throughout the history of Damnatio Memoriae?

The obliterated face of Akhenaten
Spartans in the movie 300
Stalin and Nikolai Yezkov

Q: Is Damnatio Memoriae the same as today’s “cancel culture?”

There are some apparent similarities but some notable differences. It was usually reserved as a punishment for important government officials, Emperors, Senators, and Generals and typically done posthumously.

Q: What is different today about Damnatio Memoriae?

“Cancel culture” is not like what we see above for several reasons… but there are some interesting adjustments for changes across history.

Modern erasures

A recent funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad example is the San Francisco Board of Education voting to remove the names of 44 public schools — with names like Washington and Lincoln — without the benefit of having anyone on the board who knew how to do historical research beyond Google searches. It’s like voting down the “next celebrity” contestants on American Idol.

Writer and technologist. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, and pop culture. billpetro.com @billpetro

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