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The Severan Tondo, a circa AD 199 tondo of the Severan family, with portraits of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla, and Geta. Geta's face has been erased, because of the damnatio memoriae ordered by his brother after the fratricide.

Damnatio memoriae is a modern Latin phrase literally meaning "condemnation of memory", meaning that a person must not be remembered.

It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman Senate on traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State. The intent was to erase the malefactor from history.



Damnatio Memoriae, or oblivion, as a punishment was originally created by the peoples of Ephesos after Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of antiquity. The Romans, who viewed it as a punishment worse than death itself, adopted this practice. Felons would literally be erased from history for the crimes they had committed.


Damnatio memoriae of 'Commodus' on an inscription in the Museum of Roman History Osterburken. The abbreviation "CO" was later restored with paint.

The sense of the expression damnatio memoriae and of the sanction is to cancel every trace of the person from the life of Rome, as if he or she had never existed, in order to preserve the honour of the city. In a city that stressed social appearance, respectability, and the pride of being a true Roman as a fundamental requirement of the citizen, it was perhaps the most severe punishment.

In Latin, the term damnatio memoriae was not used by the ancient Romans. The first appearance of the phrase is in a dissertation written in Germany in 1689. The term is used in modern scholarship to cover a wide array of official and unofficial sanctions whereby the physical remnants of a deceased individual were destroyed to differing degrees.[1][2]


Lucius Aelius Sejanus suffered damnatio memoriae following a failed conspiracy to overthrow emperor Tiberius in A.D. 31. His statues were destroyed and his name obliterated from all public records. The above coin from Augusta Bilbilis, originally struck to mark the consulship of Sejanus, has the words L. Aelio Seiano obliterated.

In ancient Rome, the practice of damnatio memoriae was the condemnation of Roman elites and emperors after their deaths. If the senate or a later emperor did not like the acts of an individual, they could have his property seized, his name erased and his statues reworked. Because there is 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.

It is unknown whether any damnatio memoriae was totally successful as it would not be noticeable to later historians, since, by definition, it would entail the complete and total erasure of the individual in question from the historical record. It was difficult, however, to implement the practice completely. For instance, the senate wanted to condemn the memory of Caligula, but Claudius prevented this. Nero was declared an enemy of the state by the senate, but then given an enormous funeral honoring him after his death by Vitellius. While statues of some emperors were destroyed or reworked after their death, others were erected. Also, historians often wrote about the deposed emperors. Finally, many coins with the images of the discredited person continued to circulate. A particularly large number exist with Geta's image.[3]

Similar practices in other societiesEdit

After Venetian Doge Marino Faliero was executed in 1355, his picture was removed from the Doge's Palace. The black shroud painted in its place bears the Latin phrase, "This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes."
  • According to the biblical story, when the ancient Israelites entered the land of Canaan, they were ordered to destroy several pagan tribes and their property. The tribe of Amalek was specifically singled out for destruction. Yahweh would "completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven".[4] To this day, the Hebrew Bible is the only ancient source that attests the existence of the Amalekites, and no other archaeological or epigraphic evidence of their existence has been found.[citation needed]
  • In ancient Greece, Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus to become famous. To discourage such acts, Ephesus leaders decided that his name should never be repeated, under penalty of death. This attempt was also unsuccessful, however, as illustrated by the fact that his name is still known today.
  • Ancient Egyptians attached the greatest importance to the preservation of a person's name. The one who destroyed a person's name was thought somehow to have destroyed the person,[5] and it was thought that this effect extended beyond the grave. Most famously, the cartouches of the heretical 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten and his immediate successors during the Amarna Period were mutilated by Horemheb, who succeeded in wiping out their names so completely that it took until the 19th century for them to be rediscovered. Among those who were erased was Tutankhamun, ironically today one of the best known pharaohs.[6] Earlier in that same dynasty, a similar attack on Hatshepsut was carried out.[7] However, only engravings and statuary of her as a crowned king of Egypt were attacked. Anything depicting her as a queen was left unharmed, so this was not strictly speaking damnatio memoriae.[8]
  • In 10th century Norway, after the death of Jarl Hákon Sigurðarson, according to Snorri Sturluson "So great was the enmity of the Trondheim people against Earl Hakon, that no man could venture to call him by any other name than "the evil earl"; and he was so called long after those days."[9]
  • Following the death of Pope Alexander VI, Julius II said on the day of his election: "I will not live in the same rooms as the Borgias lived. He desecrated the Holy Church as none before. He usurped the papal power by the devil's aid, and I forbid under the pain of excommunication anyone to speak or think of Borgia again. His name and memory must be forgotten. It must be crossed out of every document and memorial. His reign must be obliterated. All paintings made of the Borgias or for them must be covered over with black crepe. All the tombs of the Borgias must be opened and their bodies sent back to where they belong – to Spain."[10] The Borgias' apartments remained sealed until the 19th century.[10]
  • Adandozan, king of Dahomey at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had imprisoned his brother Gakpe. Once the latter became king Ghezo, he took revenge by erasing the memory of Adandozan. To this day, Adandozan is not officially considered as one of the twelve kings of Dahomey.[citation needed]
  • Marino Faliero, fifty-fifth Doge of Venice, was executed in 1355 after a failed coup d'état. In the aftermath, his portrait displayed in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Hall of the Great Council) in the Doge's Palace was removed and the space painted over with a black shroud, which can still be seen in the hall today. An inscription on the painted shroud reads: Hic est locus Marini Faletro decapitati pro criminibus ("This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes").[11]
  • All court documents related to the 1598 process against a Parisian serial killer nicknamed the "Werewolf of Châlons" or "the Demon Tailor" were destroyed in a process intended to erase his memory. The killer's name is today unknown.[12]
  • Ivan VI of Russia (1740–64), imprisoned as an infant after a coup d'état was at the time essentially written out of Russian history, with an attempt made to destroy any documents or coins mentioning him.[13]
  • The penultimate verse of the Book of Revelation (in the King James Version "And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.") appears to threaten whoever alters its text with a self-referent kind of damnatio memoriae.
  • In Judaism, it is common to express strong condemnation of a person by adding whenever his name is mentioned the Hebrew words yimach shmo vezichro (ימח שמו וזכרו), literally "May his name and memory be erased"—though in present Jewish society, this is not necessarily accompanied by an effort to actually destroy physical records mentioning that person.
  • In Sweden after the overthrow of king Gustav IV Adolf his likenesses, inscriptions of his names, official medals, etc where either changed or recalled following the coup in 1809.


A photograph of Stalin with Soviet commissar Nikolai Yezhov was retouched after Yezhov fell from favor and was executed in 1940.
  • More modern examples of damnatio memoriae include the removal of portraits, books, editing people out of pictures, and any other traces of Joseph Stalin's opponents during the Great Purge (for example, in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia). When the Soviet Union football team lost to Yugoslavia at the 1952 Summer Olympics, Stalin ordered that all footage of the event was to be destroyed.[14] Stalin himself was edited out of some propaganda films when Nikita Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Union, and the city of Tsaritsyn that had earlier been named Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961.
  • In 1936, the Turkish government changed the name of a Kurdish-majority province from Dersim to Tunceli during the series of uprisings that culminated with the Dersim Rebellion in 1937-8. The name of its capital, previously Kalan, also became Tunceli. Because the word "kalan" happens to mean "surviving" in Turkish, producer Hasan Saltık was able to name his record label, which specializes in recordings of the music of minority ethnicities in Turkey, Kalan Müzik.
  • In Argentina, it was forbidden to say "Juan Domingo Perón" after the coup that deposed him in 1955, and the media often referred to him as the "deposed tyrant". Hospitals and other public buildings named after him during his presidency were quickly renamed by the Liberating Revolution. Photographs and other representations of the Argentine leader were also prohibited.
  • Memorials to Continental general Benedict Arnold at the Saratoga National Historical Park and the United States Military Academy bear neither his name nor his likeness, as a result of his treason. The plaque at the military academy says simply, "Major General. Born 1740."[15]
  • In 2007, in the wake of the double-murder and suicide of former WWE Superstar Chris Benoit, the WWE removed nearly all mentions of him from their website[16], and from future broadcasts and all publications[17]; and despite his matches being available on the WWE Network, searches of his name on the network come up with zero results. That ban was briefly broken in 2015.
  • In 2008, two engraved bricks on the "Wall of Fame" at Liverpool's famous Cavern Club were controversially removed because they bore the names of two members of the music industry who have since been disgraced by sexual scandal: singer/songwriter Gary Glitter and record producer Jonathan King. In their place, a metal plaque was installed which simply stated that the names had been removed (albeit without actually identifying the men).[18]
  • The names of Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne were erased from all Egyptian monuments after they were deposed in 2011.[7]
  • Convicted child rapist and retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was edited out of a mural at Penn State University, and replaced with a blue ribbon. Famous coach Joe Paterno also had a statue of him and a backdrop removed, along with the record of his victories from 1998 through 2011 (from a head coaching career spanning from 1966 to 2011) vacated (Paterno does, however, remain on the same mural from which Sandusky was omitted and the wins were restored in 2014).[19]
  • In 2012, in the wake of child sexual abuse allegations against late disc-jockey and TV presenter Jimmy Savile, his headstone was removed from his grave site, buildings named after him were renamed, and street signs with his name were taken down.[20] The BBC later announced it would no longer show reruns of Top of the Pops hosted by Savile.[21] Subsequent attempts to expunge public memory of Savile have included the vandalism of commemorative plaques and properties that he once owned.
  • In December 2013, the high-ranking North Korean politician Jang Song-thaek was publicly purged from the Workers' Party of Korea and subsequently executed. In the aftermath, documentary footage first broadcast in October was edited to remove all frames with his presence.[22]
  • In 2014, at the beginning of Second Chilean Presidency of Michelle Bachelet, Palacio de La Moneda was ordered to stop coinage of Presidential Medals of Augusto Pinochet (medal collection of every Chilean President) and to destroy its rolls.
  • In July 2014, after artist and entertainer Rolf Harris was convicted of indecent assault on four children, his home town of Bassendean, Western Australia announced that his artwork would be put in storage indefinitely and a plaque outside his childhood home would be dug up.[23] The council had already removed a photograph of Harris from the council chambers. The Guardian wrote "The town [...] has voted to purge itself of the disgraced entertainer, with the convicted sex offender's legacy being all but erased."[24] The National Portrait Gallery, Canberra and National Museum of Australia removed his paintings from display, with The Daily Telegraph commenting that his works "will most likely never be shown again." His wax figure was removed from Madame Tussauds Sydney.[25] At Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market, his image was removed from a mural painting of famous Australians, being replaced by Stuart Wagstaff.
  • In July 2015, WWE removed all references to wrestler Hulk Hogan from its website after eight-year old audio tapes emerged in which Hogan used the word nigger.[26]
  • In the Dominican Republic, official photos of the local church hierarchy were digitally modified, similar to the Yezhov's case in the Soviet Union (see above), to remove the disgraced Józef Wesołowski.[27]
  • October 2015 saw the launch of a proposal in the US to remove from the media all references to the names of mass murderers (beginning 48 hours after the first report of a mass-murder) in order to prevent them from gaining permanent fame while the victims are forgotten.[28] The 48-hour proposed delay before a mass-murderer's name is to be expunged from reportage is intended to provide time to alert the public to the killer, in aid of police investigations.
  • From 2015 to 2017, a number of municipalities in the United States decided to remove Confederate monuments and memorials. This was described by some commentators, both positively and negatively, as damnatio memoriae.[29][30][31]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Eric R. Varner (2004). Monumenta Graeca et Romana: Mutilation and transformation : damnatio memoriae and Roman imperial portraiture. BRILL. p. 2. 
  2. ^ Elise A. Friedland; Melanie Grunow Sobocinski; Elaine K. Gazda. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Sculpture. Oxford. p. 669. 
  3. ^ Geta: The One Who Died Archived December 3, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ The Holy Bible, Exodus, Chapter 17, Verse 14, New International Version.
  5. ^ Egyptian Religion, E.A Wallis Budge", Arkana 1987 edition, ISBN 0-14-019017-1
  6. ^ "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs (Seattle)". 
  7. ^ a b "Erasing the Face of History". New York Times. May 14, 2011. Retrieved May 15, 2011. 
  8. ^ Peter F. Dorman, "The Proscription of Hapshepsut", from Hapshepsut: From Queen To Pharaoh, ed. Catherine H. Roehrig, Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), pp. 267–69
  9. ^ "Varð hér svá mikill máttr at fjándskap, þeim er Þrœndir gerðu til Hákonar jarls, at engi maðr mátti nefna hann annan veg en jarl hinn illa; var þetta kall haft lengi síðan." Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, ch. 56 Archived May 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine..
  10. ^ a b Nigel Cawthorne (1996). Sex Lives of the Popes. Prion. p. 219. 
  11. ^ Grignola, p. 49
  12. ^ Ramsland, Katherine (2005) The Human Predator. The Berkley Publishing Group, New York City.
  13. ^ "Coins & Medals of Imperial Russia: Ivan VI". 
  14. ^ "How do you punish a football team?". BBC News. June 24, 2010. Retrieved January 9, 2012. 
  15. ^ Yusko, Dennis (June 17, 2001). "Infamous Benedict Arnold finally gets some respect". The Houston Chronicle. 
  16. ^ "Superstars". 
  17. ^ "Sheriff: Wrestler Chris Benoit Murder-Suicide Case Closed". February 12, 2008. 
  18. ^ "Gary Glitter Brick Removed". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 April 2017. 
  19. ^ Greg McCune (November 9, 2011). "Scorned Penn State coach painted out of campus mural". Reuters. Retrieved November 10, 2011. 
  20. ^ Finlo Rohrer (November 1, 2012). "Jimmy Savile: Erasing the memory". BBC News. Retrieved November 15, 2012. 
  21. ^ Dan Woolton (November 1, 2012). "Now BBC drops Savile's Pops: Archive episodes are binned by the Corporation". Mail Online. Retrieved November 15, 2012. 
  22. ^ Anonymous (December 9, 2013). "Kim Jong-un's uncle vanishes from documentary footage – in pictures". The Guardian. Retrieved December 10, 2013. 
  23. ^ Penrose, Justin (April 20, 2013). "Rolf Harris's devastated wife says her husband is struggling to cope with strain of police sex abuse inquiry". 
  24. ^ Foster, Brendan (July 3, 2014). "Rolf Harris's home town removes all signs of former favourite son" – via 
  25. ^ "Rolf's art set to fade into obscurity". 
  26. ^ "WWE terminates wrestler Hulk Hogan's contract". BBC News. July 24, 2015. 
  27. ^ "Dominican bishops Photoshop the Vatican's shame away". Archived from the original on June 19, 2015. Retrieved 2015-08-30. 
  28. ^ Tognotti, Chris (October 8, 2015). "Stop saying the Oregon shooter's name". The Daily Dot. 
  29. ^ Boatwright, Mary T. (23 July 2015). "What ancient Romans can teach us about Confederate monuments". The News & Observer. Retrieved 13 September 2017. 
  30. ^ Hanson, Victor Davis (22 August 2017). "Our War against Memory". National Review. Retrieved 13 September 2017. 
  31. ^ Byrne, Patrick (23 August 2017). "Americans channel ancient Rome in condemning Confederate statues". The Hill. Retrieved 13 September 2017. 

External linksEdit