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.

This practice is not excusive to the men in ancient Rome. The images of women were also subjected to the same treatment as those of the men. However, the women would either be condemned jointly with their male family members or, more frequently, as a consequence of controversies with the reigning emperor. An example of this was Agrippina the Elder for her feud with the Emperor Tiberius, and Claudia Livilla for assisting Sejanus in his attempt to overthrow Tiberius and for poisoning her husband, Tiberius’ son, Drusus the Younger.

Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso was a member of a distinguished family who had held political offices in Rome since the late third century BC. He had been appointed governor of Syria in 17 CE in close association with Emperor Tiberius’ nephew and heir, Germanicus, to the East. After the death of Germanicus, Piso was tried for treason and suspicion of the murder of Germanicus on his return to Rome. He was forced to commit suicide and his memory was disgraced.

The inscription of the Senatus Consultum de Cnaeo Pisone patre (“The Senate’s Discussion on Cnaeus Piso Pater”) offers many new insights into the legal and social life under Emperor Tiberius. Multiple copies were found within what was the Roman province of Baetica. This decree of the senate contains a summary of the senate’s judgements concerning Piso, his family members and accomplices in his crimes. The punishments imposed on Piso fall into six categories:

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Statue of a mourning Roman woman

No women were allowed to mourn Piso’s death according to ancestral custom. This ruling would have affected the whole domus (household) of Piso, as well as his relatives and dependents in other households. The act of mourning honored the man and marked his membership within his domus and the wider community. Therefore, this penalty denied Piso his recognition as a family member. In many cultures, including ancient Rome, mournings are also connected with the right to inherit or the actual act of inheritance itself –  one modern South East Asian culture, for example, requires the first born son to stand on his late father’s grave, ask those who attend to forgive his father’s transgressions and swear an oath to settle any debts his father may have incurred in his lifetime. By not allowing mourning for Piso, the senate symbolically and practically stated that, although Piso had two sons and a brother who were alive at the time of his death, no one inherited from Piso, and no one was responsible for any of Piso’s unsettled debts to society.

The reason that only women were mentioned in this decree as mourners demonstrates the extent to which mourning was an action performed by women in ancient Roman society. After the death of Augustus, for example, men were only required to mourn for a few days to not limit their life and occupations, as the women would mourn for a year as if they were mourning their own father or husband. Therefore, the mourning of women could be used to symbolize the feelings of the whole family.

Both public and private portraits of Piso were destroyed.  It’s important to realize, especially for a man of Piso’s rank, how many portraits of him there would have been in Rome at the time. He would have been represented by various kinds of portraits publicly and in private houses. Therefore, there would be a wide variety of images which were affected. These portraits could have been paid for by a number of different people, not only by family members – this would again eliminate him from societies beyond his own household. The senate’s ruling would not be limited to the city of Rome itself, even to Italy. Portraits in colonies or municipalities and those in private houses all over the Empire could be affected. No person or body is made responsible for this destruction, which may explain why in actual practice such bans were not complete and systematic and we can still see few images of a supposed condemned person to this day.

The family of the Calpumii, by blood or marriage, were not allowed to display Piso’s imago (wax masks) either at a funeral or in any atrium. The fact that these wax masks actually required a separate clause from the other images implies the unique character of these wax masks. This applies to any Calpurnius, whether called Piso or not, designed to ensure that Piso’s imago really does not appear in public. Unlike the other images, there is no talk of actually destroying these imagines, only of not displaying them.

Piso’s property was confiscated. Land which had been granted to Piso by the empire became imperial property again. All of Piso’s assets were also confiscated by the empire, only to be given again by the empire to his descendants at a later date on the condition that his eldest son Cnaeus should change his name. He was later to be known as Lucius. The effect of the confiscation was also to break the continuity between the generations in this branch of the Calpurnii Pisones. Although the rest of Piso’s property would be passed on to his descendants anyway, it would not come from himself as the head of the family. The confiscated property would become a gift from the senate and the princeps to the beneficiaries through Piso’s first born son provided that he changed his name to no longer reflect Piso’s relationship to himself and his family.

Clarifying the historical narrative of condemned imperial women is more complicated because of imposed silences or deliberate misrepresentations of failed plots in which these women were accomplices. The ladies’ political transgression is mostly veiled by Roman authors using other transgressions, such as alleged sexual misconduct. Nevertheless, conspiracy and adultery can be closely linked and the visual representations of condemned women were generally treated in the same manner, and for the same political reasons as those of their male counterparts.

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Destroyed statue of a Vestal virgin. Inscription is catalogued as CIL VI 32422. The name of the Vestal virgin has been erased, and only its initial, ‘C’ can be reconstructed

Collateral damnations, in which likenesses of imperial women were removed, destroyed, or disfigured together with those of their male family members, were common occurrences. During the first century CE, the memories and monuments of two empresses, Milona Caesonia and Poppaea Sabina, were condemned along with those of their husbands, Emperors Caligula and Nero respectively. Milonia Caesonia was Caligula’s fourth and final wife at the end of 39 CE or early 40 CE. Caesonia may have been pregnant at the time of the marriage and bore Caligula one daughter, Julia Drusilla. In the chaos that followed the assassination of Caligula, both Caesonia and Drusilla were assassinated along with Caligula. Caesonia had a very public presence in Rome, and Caligula had repeatedly, theatrically, and publically vowed his affection for her. Caligula had even displayed her to the troops dressed in male military regalia, intended as a mythological role-playing designed to present her as Roma or Minerva, presenting her as the protectress of their daughter and the people of Rome. Because of her influence and connections, Caligula’s assassins would not be able to afford to let Caesonia survive. Likewise, Julia Drusilla, Caligula’s only surviving child, would have been targeted for assassination.

Milonia Caesonia, wife of Caligula, Emperor of Rome. Line Wellcome L0050549.jpg
Milonia Caesonia

The damnation of Caesonia and Drusilla did not stop there. Caesonia was accused by contemporary historians of culpability in the failures and excesses of Caligula’s rule – a rather far-fetched depiction as she was said to be pregnant during her marriage to Caligula and would have been heavily pregnant and confined through most of her marriage leading up to Caligula’s murder. Drusilla was herself accused of inheriting her father’s savage temperament and that she would violently attack her playmates, attempting to scratch their faces – another far-fetched depiction as she was scarcely one-year-old at the time of her murder and it is unlikely that she would have attained the motor coordination necessary to deliberately attack anyone.

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