Damnatio memoriae is a modern Latin phrase meaning "condemnation of memory", indicating that a person is to be excluded from official accounts. Depending on the extent, it can be a case of historical negationism. 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 has been seen as early as the Egyptian New Kingdom period, where the Pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten were subject to it.
Today's best known examples of damnatio memoriae from antiquity concern chiselling stone inscriptions or deliberately omitting certain information from them.
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 posterity.
Egyptians also practiced this, as seen in relics from pharaoh Akhenaten's tomb and elsewhere. Akhenaten's sole worship of the god Aten, instead of the traditional pantheon, was considered heretical. During his reign, Akhenaten endeavoured to have all references to the god Amun chipped away and removed. After his reign, temples to 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. Other Egyptian victims of this practice include the pharaohs that immediately succeeded Akhenaten, including Smenkhkare, Neferneferuaten, and Ay. The campaign of damnatio memoriae against Akhenaten and his successors 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.
One case of damnatio memoriae is known for the ancient Hittite empire. Mursili III was a king of the Hittites for about 7 years in 1282–1275 BC. But then he was overthrown by his uncle Hattusili III, who then assumed the throne.
Located near the village of Sirkeli Höyük in Turkey, there's a well known relief of Mursili's father Muwatalli II, as well as a second, very similar relief that is believed to be that of his son Mursili. But then it was largely destroyed in antiquity, most likely by his spiteful uncle. The relief of the father was left untouched.
The practice was known in Ancient Greece. The Athenians frequently destroyed inscriptions which referred to individuals or events that they no longer wished to commemorate. After Timotheus was convicted of treason and removed from his post as general in 373 BC, all references to him as a general were deleted from the previous year's naval catalogue. The most complete example is their systematic removal of all references to the Antigonids from inscriptions in their city, in 200 BC when they were besieged by the Antigonid king Philip V of Macedon during the Second Macedonian War. One decree praising Demetrius Poliorcetes (Philip V's great-grandfather) was smashed and thrown down a well.
At Delphi, an honorific inscription erected between 337 and 327 BC for Aristotle and his nephew Callisthenes, two philosophers who were closely associated with the Macedonians, were smashed and thrown in a well after the death of Alexander of Macedon in 323 BC.
In ancient Rome, the practice of damnatio memoriae was the condemnation of emperors after their deaths. If the Senate or a later emperor did not like the acts of an emperor, they could have his property seized, his name erased and his statues reworked (normally defaced). Because there was 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 the case of figures such as emperors or consuls it is unlikely that complete success was possible, 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, coins bearing his effigy proved difficult to entirely remove from circulation for several years, even though the mere mention of his name was punishable by death.
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—but subsequently evaded with the enormous funeral he was given by Vitellius. Similarly, it was often difficult to prevent later historians from "resurrecting" the memory of the sanctioned person.
The impossibility of actually erasing memory of an emperor have led scholars to conclude that this was not actually the goal of damnatio. Instead, they understand damnatio:
not so much as an attempt to obliterate memory entirely as to transform honorific commemoration into a form of visible denigration. That is: the power of an act of damnatio relies, at least in part, on the viewer of a monument being able to supplement the gaps in an inscription with their own knowledge of what those gaps had once contained, and the reasons why the text had been removed
These emperors are known to have been erased from monuments:
|Caligula||37–41||Disputed whether per senate decree|
|Nero||54–68||hostis iudicatio (posthumous trial for treason)|
|Domitian||81–96||per senate decree (96)|
|Commodus||177–192||per senate decree (192)|
|Geta||209–211||per his brother Caracalla|
|Severus Alexander||222–235||Only during the reign of Maximinus Thrax|
|Maximinus Thrax||235–238||per senate decree (238)|
|Maximus I||Caesar only|
|Philip the Arab||244–249|
|Philip II||247–249||Philip the Arab's son|
|Herennius Etruscus||251||Decius' son|
|Maximian||286–305||per senate decree (310)|
|Maximinus II||308–313||per senate decree (313)|
Similar practices in modern times
While complete damnatio memoriae has not been attempted in modern times—naming or writing about a person fallen from favour has never been made subject to formal punishment—less total instances of damnatio memoriae in modern times include numerous examples from the Soviet Union, retouching photos to remove individuals such as Leon Trotsky, Nikolay Yezhov, and even Stalin. After Stalin ordered the murder of Grigory Kulik's wife Kira Kulik-Simonich, all photographic records of her were destroyed; although she was described as very pretty, no photographs or other images of her survive. Following their fall from favour, Lavrentiy Beria and others were removed from articles in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, many communist statues, particularly of Lenin and Stalin, were removed from former Soviet satellite states. Following a 2015 decision, a process of decommunization in Ukraine successfully dismantled all 1,320 statues of Lenin after its independence, as well as renaming roads and structures named under Soviet authority.
The graphic designer David King had a strong interest in Soviet art and design, and amassed a collection of over 250,000 images. His most striking examples of before-and-after alterations were published as The Commissar Vanishes.
19th century Polish writers often omitted mentioning two kings from the list of Polish monarchs, Bezprym and Wenceslaus III of Bohemia, which has resulted in their being omitted from many later works as well.
The destruction of all copies of The Victory of Faith in order to erase Ernst Röhm is considered an act of Nazi damnatio memoriae. In the end, two copies survived: one preserved in London and one preserved by the Communist government of East Germany.
In December 2013, Jang Song-thaek was abruptly accused of being a counter-revolutionary and was stripped of all his posts, expelled from the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), arrested and executed. His photos were removed from official media and his image digitally removed from photos with other North Korean leaders.
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 will be remembered for all time. 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. Pointing out that damnatio memoriae did not erase people from history but in effect kept their memory alive, Beiner concluded that those who partake in the destruction of a monument should be considered agents of memory.
Author Charles Hedrick 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).
In case of removal of Soviet monuments in Eastern Europe, the primary reason was that they were established as a symbol of occupation, domination or cult of personality, rather than simple historic mark. It has been pointed out that all Nazi-established monuments and street names have been removed after World War II which has been perceived as natural reaction after liberation at that time.
- Alan Smithee
- Cancel culture
- Censorship in Italy
- Censorship in North Korea
- Censorship of images in the Soviet Union
- Crisis of the Roman Republic
- Historical negationism
- Historical revisionism
- Execration texts
- Forced disappearance
- List of condemned Roman emperors
- List of tombs of antipopes
- Memory hole
- Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell's 1949 novel
- Persona non grata
- Yimakh shemo
- Omissi, Adrastos (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.
- Zawadzki, Stefan (2011). "Puścić w niepamięć, zachować złą pamięć: władcy w asyryjskich inskrypcjach królewskich w pierwszym tysiącleciu przed Chr." [Letting go, keep a bad memory: rulers in Assyrian royal inscriptions in the first millennium BC.]. In Gałaj-Dempniak, Renata; Okoń, Danuta; Semczyszyn, Magdalena (eds.). Damnatio memoriae w europejskiej kulturze politycznej [Damnatio memoriae in European political culture] (in Polish). IPN. ISBN 978-83-61336-45-7.
- 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.
- Jarus, Owen (July 24, 2014). "Egyptian Carving Defaced by King Tut's Possible Father Discovered". Live Science. Retrieved January 6, 2021.
- Redford, Donald (1984). Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton University Press. pp. 170–172. ISBN 978-0-691-03567-3.
- Carney, Elizabeth D.; Müller, Sabine (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.
- Kozal, Ekin; Novák, Mirko (2017), Facing Muwattalli: Some Thoughts on the Visibility and Function of the Rock Reliefs at Sirkeli Höyük, Cilicia, Ugarit-Verlag, doi:10.7892/BORIS.106777, retrieved June 17, 2022
- Callataÿ, François De (May 18, 2020). "4. Remelted or Overstruck: Cases of Monetary Damnatio Memoriae in Hellenistic Times?". Celebrity, Fame, and Infamy in the Hellenistic World. University of Toronto Press. pp. 90–110. doi:10.3138/9781487531782-008. ISBN 978-1-4875-3178-2. S2CID 234432435.
- Low 2020, pp. 239–243.
- Low 2020, p. 246.
- Byrne, S. G. (2010). "The Athenian damnatio memoriae of the Antigonids in 200 B.C.". In Tamis, A.; Mackie, C.J.; Byrne, S. G. (eds.). Philathenaios : studies in honour of Michael J. Osborne. Athēnai: Hellēnikē Epigraphikē Hetaireia. pp. 157–177. ISBN 9789609929707.
- Low 2020, p. 240.
- "Geta: The One Who Died". Archived from the original on December 3, 2010.
- Russell, Miles; Manley, Harry (2013). "Finding Nero: shining a new light on Romano-British sculpture". Internet Archaeology (32). doi:10.11141/ia.32.5.
- Low 2020, p. 245.
- Sandys, John (1919). Latin epigraphy: an introduction to the study of Latin inscriptions. Cambridge UP. p. 232.
- Gizewski, Christian (October 1, 2006), "Damnatio memoriae: Historisch", Der Neue Pauly (in German), Brill, doi:10.1163/1574-9347_dnp_e310400, S2CID 244835165, retrieved September 4, 2022
- Edoardo Bianchi (2014). "Il senato e la "damnatio memoriae" da Caligola a Domiziano". Politica Antica (1): 33–54. doi:10.7381/77974. ISSN 2281-1400.
- "Article". riviste.unimi.it. Retrieved May 31, 2020.
- Strzelczyk, Jerzy (1987). Od Prasłowian do Polaków [From Proto-Slavs to Poles] (in Polish). Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza. p. 60. ISBN 978-83-03-02015-4.
- Kohonen, Iina (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.
- The Newseum (September 1, 1999). ""The Commissar Vanishes" in The Vanishing Commissar". Archived from the original on February 8, 2007. Retrieved September 30, 2012.
- Hyden, Carl T.; Sheckels, Theodore F. (January 14, 2016). Public Places: Sites of Political Communication. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-4985-0726-4.
- Joseph Abraham, (2020) Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation, Hidden Hills Press, p. 147 ISBN 9780578680590.
- Petrovic, Andrej; Petrovic, Ivana; Thomas, Edmund, eds. (October 22, 2018). 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. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-90-04-37943-5.
- Nead, Lynda (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.
- Wilford, Greg (August 20, 2017). "Ukraine has removed all 1,320 statues of Lenin". The Independent. Retrieved October 8, 2020.
- 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.
- Gerard, Bonnie. "Damnatio Memoriae in China: Zhao Ziyang Is Laid to Rest". thediplomat.com. The Diplomat. Retrieved November 15, 2019.
- Jorge Álvarez (November 19, 2019). "«La victoria de la fe», el documental propagandístico del nazismo que Hitler mandó destruir". La Brújula Verde (in Spanish). Retrieved December 17, 2021.
se aplicó una damnatio memoriae sobre el fallecido mandatario y, dado que salía en bastantes escenas de La victoria de la fe, se ordenó la destrucción de todas las copias existentes
- Trimborn, Jürgen (2008). Leni Riefenstahl: A Life. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-1-4668-2164-4. Retrieved April 12, 2020.
- "Der retuschierte Onkel". Der Spiegel. Hamburg. December 10, 2013. Retrieved December 10, 2013.
- Varner, Eric R. (2004). Monumenta Graeca et Romana: Mutilation and transformation: damnatio memoriae and Roman imperial portraiture. BRILL. p. 2.
- Friedland, Elise A.; Sobocinski, Melanie Grunow; Gazda, Elaine K. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Sculpture. Oxford. p. 669.
- Beiner, Guy (2018). Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular; Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster. Oxford University Press. pp. 380–381. ISBN 978-0198749356.
- Beiner, Guy (2007). Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 305. ISBN 978-0-299-21824-9.
- Beiner, Guy (2021). "When Monuments Fall: The Significance of Decommemorating". Éire-Ireland. 56 (1): 33–61. doi:10.1353/eir.2021.0001. S2CID 240526743.
- 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. Archived from the original on June 11, 2022. Retrieved February 20, 2021.
- Andrejevs, Dmitrijs (August 17, 2022). "Ukraine war prompts Baltic states to remove Soviet memorials". The Conversation. Retrieved September 6, 2023.
- "Should Soviet monuments be dismantled or preserved? – DW – 07/09/2023". dw.com. Retrieved September 6, 2023.
- Low, Polly (2020). "Remembering, Forgetting, and Rewriting the Past: Athenian Inscriptions and Collective Memory". In Constantakopoulou, C.; Fragoulaki, M. (eds.). Shaping Memory in Ancient Greece: Poetry, Historiography, and Epigraphy (PDF). Histos Supplements. pp. 235–68. Retrieved January 13, 2023.