Damned to be Forgotten

The ancient Roman decree of damnatio memoriae (“damnation of one’s memory”) a punishment for an ancient Roman that is worse than death. The object of the punishment was to cancel every trace of the condemned person from the life of Rome to preserve the honor of the city – it would be as if they had never existed. The methods included, but were not limited to, scratching the name of the condemned person from inscriptions, abusing the statues of the person, mutilating or painting over their likeness and destroying results of their labor such as writings, buildings and so on.

Arched passage in ancient palace with shabby walls

From a modern perspective, we may not fully grasp the gravity of this punishment – We know that only very few people are remembered long after their deaths, and fewer still would have the luxury of having wax masks or likeness of themselves. Therefore, there has to be something more to this practice than mutilated likenesses and erasures of the person’s name from public registers. But consider this, even without wax masks or likenesses, a modern research shows that while many people do lack information on their family heritage these days, it also shows that they want to and are willing to take the steps to learn more about where they came from. In fact, 84 percent agree that it is important to know about their heritage. Being aware of your family history is important for many reasons like creating a sense of connection, a greater emotional well-being and even providing means to develop a sense of personal identity.

Two People Standing in Forest

It is then useful to briefly look at the specifics are behind damnatio memoriae itself and what one would need to do to earn such a punishment. Damnatio memoriae was normally reserved for those such as Senators and Emperors whose acts did not reflect well on Rome as a whole, or those who committed treason or brutality which put Rome in danger or disgrace. However, there were also many instances where emperors’ memories were censured because of conflicts with the senatorial aristocracy, with rival claimants to imperial power or with the army, without having much to do with the Roman public.

Among those who suffered damnatio memoriae in the Julian period were Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who had conspired against Emperor Tiberius in 31 CE, Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso, a senator accused of treason as well as the murder of the Tiberius’ nephew and heir, and Germanicus, was also a victim of this practice. Although the senate could vote for a condemnation of a person’s memory, the Emperor had the right to veto. For instance, when the senate wanted to condemn the memory of Caligula, the Emperor Claudius prevented this. Nero was declared an enemy of the state by the senate, but then was given an enormous funeral honoring him after his death by Vitellius.

Campitelli - Mamertinum - giustiziati laici 1040075.JPG
Gravestone in Mamertine Prison (ancient Roman prison), with the names of illustrious prisoners who were locked up in ancient times and executed. Among them the king Aristobulus II, Simon Bar Giora, Jugurtha and Vercingetorix. The inscription in Italian reads: “Here died, victims of the triumphs of Rome: Pontius king of the Samnites, former winner of the Caudine Forks, beheaded 200 BCE; Quintus Pleminius, former governor of Locri, tortured to death 180 BCE; the followers of the Gracchi, defenders of the plebeians, throttled 123 BCE; Jugurtha king of Numidia, starved to death 104 BCE; Aristobulus II king of the Jews, beheaded 61 BCE; Lentulus and Cetegus, Roman senators, and other accomplices of Catiline, throttled 60 BCE; Vercingetorix king of Gallia, beheaded 49 BCE; Sejanus minister of Tiberius, beheaded 31 AD; Simon bar Giora, defender of Jerusalem against Titus and Vespasianus, beheaded 70 AD; and many others, obscure or less famed, who fell in the whirlpools of hatred and human events.

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