Damnatio Memoriae

When we were children, our parents and our teachers gave us several maxims to live by when dealing with individuals and situations whom we found detrimental or otherwise bothersome. The first was the famous "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." A corrollary to that (mainly from our mothers) was "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." When these two suggestions failed, they frequently (mainly from our fathers) gave us a simple missive: just ignore it. The bottom line is that by shrugging off these slights, we're supposed to be better people since we are denying our provacateurs that which they most desire: a reaction. By not reacting, their efforts have been defeated and they are frustrated.

So what happens when these ideas are taken to a society-wide level? In short, the answer is the damnatio memoriae, literally the damnation of memory. The term itself is Latin, so it should be obvious that it comes from an ancient Roman practice. The concept itself, however, was much older, appearing at least a thousand years earlier. The whole point of a damnatio memoriae is to completely erase an individual's existence from the annals of history so that their deeds, their words, their very names are removed from the canon of collective knowledge. It goes without saying that those who were most likely to be remembered by posterity (rulers and prominent public figures) were the main recipients of the damnatio memoriae. There is a semi-materialist train of thought that says that while a person might not have an eternal soul, one gains eternal life by being remembered and that one only dies when he is forgotten. The old saying goes "to be is to be perceived," but the converse of that is true as well: to be perceived is to be. The negation is even truer: to cease to be perceived is to cease to be (on a sidenote, that is such a cumbersome statement that I wish the English language would abolish the infinitive form that requires the word "to" to preface words). What does someone have to do to be so hated that their nation or society decides that it would be so dishonourable for people in the future to hear about them that people simply pretend they never existed at all?

Ancient Egypt

The damnatio memoriae was popular in Ancient Egypt and particularly in the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1300 BC) with no fewer than four consecutive rulers being subject to it. The damnatio memoriae served the function I mentioned earlier, but it also had a religious element in Egypt in that the defacing of a person's sarcophagus to remove their name would inhibit their entry into the afterlife.

  • Hatshepsut: Hatshepsut is famous today because she was a female Pharaoh rather than a Queen. She was the wife of the Pharaoh Thutmosis II and the stepmother of his son, Thutmosis III. After the elder Thutmosis' death, she served as his son's "co-regent" with the understanding that once he reached maturity, she would step aside. This was not the case, and she ruled the country single-handedly up until her own death, well into Thutmosis' adulthood. She was popular in some circles, but detested in others, where she was viewed as a duplicitous usurper with no business traipsing around with a false beard and a Pharaonic head dress. After her death, Thutmosis III and his son, Amenhotep II, vandalized and destroyed her monuments and removed her name from official records whereever they could find it. Because of this, dating the second half of the Eighteenth Dynasty is highly inexact and divergent to this very day.
  • Akhenaten: Akhenaten was the son of the successful Pharaoh Amenhotep III and saw himself primarily as a religious reformer whose goal was to destroy the henotheistic pantheon of the old gods and replace it with a faith dedicated to the one true god, the sun disc Aten. This was obviously rather unpopular with the powerful Theban priestly caste and with the common people as well. He also poured exorbitant amounts of money, gold, and labor into building a new capital at Akhetaten (modern Tel-Al-Amarna), a vacuous desert area that was really the only place Atenism ever caught on. This would be harmless enough if it weren't for the fact that by doing so, Akhenaten bankrupted the society and caused the economy to collapse. His apathy toward the affairs of state led to the Egyptian Empire being constantly under siege militarily, with large parts of Syria and Canaan being lost to the Hittites and the Mitanni. After his (possibly unnatural) death, Akhenaten's vizier and future Pharaoh in his own right Ay subjected him to the damnatio memoriae.
  • Smenkhkare: Smenkhkare was Akhenaten's immediate successor and reigned for a little less than a year. Smenkhkare didn't really do anything that awful, but he didn't do anything that great either, so because of his association with Akhenaten and the Amarna experiment, his memory was similarly expunged from official records by Ay.
  • Tutankhamun: It is ironic that the best known ruler of Egypt was one of the most fervently damned. Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and the successor of Smenkhkare, but because of his young age, was manipulated by his grandfather and "advisor" Ay and pursued no policies to speak of. Like his two predecessors, his association with Atenism earned him a damnatio memoriae that lasted until the early 20th century.
  • Ay: Also ironic is that the man who led the charge against Akhenaten and Smenkhkare would also wind up on the receiving end of a damnatio memoriae immediately after his reign by his own successor Horemheb because of his Amarna associations and a personal slight that prevented Horemheb from succeeding Tutankhamun. Ay's unscrupulous political maneuvering and frantic opportunism at all turns certainly didn't help his case either.

Ancient Rome

Writing about Roman figures who received the damnatio memoriae would probably evolve into a full-fledged book (anyone want to give me a publishing deal?) so I'll only choose a few particularly interesting luminaries.

  • Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Caligula): The year is 37 AD. The Roman world has just endured two and a half decades of rule by the moody, vindictive, and unpopular Tiberius and the Roman Senate has just elected the Empire's favorite son to succeed him. Gaius Germanicus was the son of the popular Kennedyesque general of the same name, and the latter was widely expected to succeed Tiberius before his untimely (and allegedly unnatural, at the hands of Tiberius' agents) death. Young Gaius started out all right, but after an extended illness, became paranoid and practiced bouts of cruelty that his predecessor could only have dreamed about. Caligula bucked the establishment at every turn, executing people at a whim, forcing Senators' wives to sleep with him, and naming his horse Incitatus as consul of Rome as a big "fuck you" to his enemies in the Senate. Eventually, Caligula's smart mouth got the better of him and after four years, a soldier whose sexuality he denigrated killed him. The Praetorian Guard subsequently killed his wife Caesonia and their daughter Drusilla before naming his uncle (the elder Germanicus' brother) Claudius Emperor. The Senate condemned Caligula's memory and tried to erase him from history.
  • Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero): Nero was the son of Caligula's sister Agrippina. She married her uncle Claudius and after Nero's succession was ensured, poisoned him. As with Hatshepsut and Thutmosis, Agrippina dominated the early years of Nero's reign. Unlike Thutmosis, however, Nero was not a conscientious administrator nor a successful general. Eventually, he tried to assassinate her by having a ceiling collapse onto her. When this failed, he had a barge built that was designed to sink, but when she survived that and swam to shore, he simply had her bludgeoned to death. Nero's later actions indicate that his mother was a moderating factor on his eccentricities, which included his staging performances in Greek lyrical style where he would play the lyre and forbid, under penalty of death, anyone assembled from leaving. Men would feign death and women would pretend to go into labor in order to get out of them. He also became increasingly despotic and arbitrary in dealing with those he deemed enemies of the state, and is believed to have ordered the Great Fire of Rome in order to make room for a new palace for himself. In 68 AD, the situation became untenable and it was clear that he would not survive. Right before he committed suicide, he sighed and lamented "what an artist the world is losing in me!" His body was desecrated and the Senate ordered his memory expunged from the records.
  • Titus Flavius Domitianus (Domitian): The year following Nero's death was so turbulent that no fewer than four Emperors reigned during it. The eventual winner was Vespasian, who ruled for ten years before passing the principate to his son Titus. Titus only ruled for two years before succumbing to an unidentified ailment (supposedly an insect flew into his nasal cavity and got lodged in his brain, but I highly doubt this) and was succeeded by his brother Domitian. Like his father and brother before him, Domitian had been a successful general (although the number of his engagements were limited) and enjoyed the support of the military...for a while. The general public wasn't really aware of who Domitian was, so to get his name out, he built temples and arenas. Unfortunately, the Roman economy was racked by instability and this sent it over the edge. Domitian also became increasingly autocratic, and evidently in an attempt to imitate Augustus started a bizarre campaign of public morality, which was a laugh since he was notorious for frequently engaging in orgiastic behavior both with and without his wife. The Senate was not particularly amused by antics, but like Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero, Domitian wrote them off as irrelevant and flouted his authority over them and ignored everything they said. If they didn't approve, he simply had them executed. Eventually, his late wife's valet stabbed him to death after 15 years of this sort of behavior. The Senate damned his memory.
  • Geta: Geta was the son of the barracks Emperor Septimius Severus and ruled as co-Emperor with his brother Caracalla. The two brothers could not stand one another and both frequently engaged in behavior that deliberately undermined the authority of the other. Caracalla, the more proactive of the two, finally had Geta murdered and evidently deified him, saying "it's better that he's a god than that he's alive," but pulled an about face and subjected him to the damnatio memoriae. As an aside, Caracalla was eventually killed by one of his bodyguards when he stopped to take a leak on the road.
  • Elagabalus: Elagabalus was a distant cousin of Caracalla and Geta, and was sort of like Akhenaten, Caligula, and Nero all rolled into one, with the added bonus that he assumed the purple at the advanced age of 14 years. Elagabalus attempted to replace Jupiter in the Roman pantheon with Sol Invictus (no, not me), the Romanized name of the Semitic sun god El. Mithraism and sunworship were prominent among Roman legionnaires, but were not particularly smiled upon in the capital. Elagabalus often hosted extravagant banquets and wore robes and shoes fashioned from all manner of priceless gems, only to discard them after one use. Such extravagance rarely endears anyone to the teeming masses of citizens who live in filth and Elagabalus was no exception. He took as his wife a Vestal Virgin, which was seen as a horrible act of blasphemy, and took several "husbands" in the form of male slaves. He frequently rewarded slaves and freedmen with positions of power based on their, uh, proportions. Elagabalus' crime was not so much in having homosexual tendencies, but in being a passive homosexual, which defied Roman standards of masculinity. His frequently repeated desire to undergo some sort of primitive gender reassignment surgery was simply beyond the pale, but ultimately the Praetorian Guard killed him and his mother in anger when Elagabalus ordered the death of his cousin and far more popular co-ruler Alexander Severus. Elagabalus attempted to rescind the order, but even though Alexander survived, the two were killed anyway. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and thrown into the Tiber River, and he was given a damnatio memoriae. Ironically, Alexander Severus would die in a similar fashion and would also have his memory damned. Out of the entire Severan Dynasty, only the founder escaped a violent death.


During his time in power, Josef Stalin unofficially condemned people with the Russian equivalent of the damnatio memoriae which frequently included editing films and photographs in such a way that certain people were removed altogether.

  • Leon Trotsky: During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Trotsky was Lenin's right-hand man for most of the struggle. After the successful overthrow of the Tsar and the Imperial system, Trotsky became the commander-in-chief of the Red Army and was tasked with the successful communization of Poland. He failed and his benefactor died not too long afterwards. A bitter power struggle erupted between Trotsky and Stalin, with the latter eventually coming out on top. When it became clear that life in the Soviet Union was not safe for Trotsky, he left for exile in Mexico. Stalin went through the Soviet archives and erased references to Trotsky in written records and removed his visage in many photographs, frequently replacing it with his own to highlight his (extremely minimal) role in the Revolution. Stalin eventually had Trotsky killed with an icepick to the head.
  • Josef Stalin: After Stalin's death, his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced him and began a process of Destalinization. Although not as wide-reaching or as unintentionally hilarious as Stalin's efforts against Trotsky, photographs and films featuring Stalin were edited (or sometimes simply reverted to how they looked beforehand).


The fact that I am even able to talk about these people says to me that damnatio memoriae is not very effective since, obviously, I was able to get information about them. I have to wonder, however, how many names and acts have been lost to history because of the damnatio memoriae? How many Pharaohs and Emperors and minor Communist Party functionaries will we never know existed because records of them have been destroyed? It seems to mainly be a symbolic act, certainly, but I think we can assume that there have been a great number of successful damned memories and those are the people who are truly lost. Shall we wear our shame on our sleeves and use these people as examples of what not to do or shall we forget they ever existed and allow our offspring to repeat their mistakes?

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