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; in history the practice is seen as long ago as the aftermath of the reign of the Egyptian Pharaohs Akhenaten in the 14th century BC, and Hatshepsut in the 15th century BC.
Although the term damnatio memoriae is Latin, the phrase was not used by the ancient Romans, and first appeared in a thesis written in Germany in 1689.
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 many gods prior to the time, 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 the 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.
Another Egyptian victim of this practice was pharaoh Ay. The campaign of damnatio memoriae against Akhenaten and Ay's 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.
The practice was known in Ancient Greece.
Another example of damnatio memoriae as a punishment in Ancient Greece was the one meted out by the peoples of Ephesus after Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of antiquity. Felons would be erased from history for the crimes they had committed.
In ancient Roman society, "a Roman's house was perceived as an extension of the self, signalling piety to divine protectors and social and genealogical status to the world outside." Similarly, just as the domus would have been seen as an extension of the self, memory was thought of as one of the best ways to understand the self. In a society without much written documentation, memory training was a big part of Roman education. Orators, leaders, and poets alike used memory training devices or memory palaces to help give speeches or tell long epic poems. In Natural History, Pliny writes:
It would be far from easy to pronounce what person has been the most remarkable for the excellence of his memory, that blessing so essential for the enjoyment of life, there being so many that were celebrated for it. King Cyrus knew all the soldiers of his army by name: L. Scipio the names of all the Roman people.
Memory palaces provided an aid for remembering certain key ideas. By assigning locations in their homes for different ideas, poets or the like could walk back and forth through their house, recalling ideas with every step. Memory training often involved assigning ideas to wall paintings, floor mosaics, and sculptures that adorned many ancient Roman homes. The punishment of damnatio memoriae involved altering the rooms, many times destroying or tampering with the art in their homes as well, so the house would no longer be identifiable as the perpetrator's home. This would in turn, erase the perpetrator's very existence.
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 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.
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.
In the Middle Ages, heresiarchs could have their memory condemned. The Council of Constance decreed the damnatio memoriae of John Wycliffe.
The practice of replacing pagan beliefs and motifs with Christian, and purposefully not recording the pagan history, has been compared to damnatio memoriae as well.
Main article: Censorship of images in the Soviet Union
While complete damnatio memoriae has not been attempted in modern times—naming or writing about a person fallen from favour is not subject to formal punishment—less total examples 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 images of the woman disappeared, and historians have no idea of what she looked like. 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, 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 treatment of Chinese politician Zhao Ziyang following his fall from grace inside the Chinese Communist Party is regarded as another modern case of damnatio memoriae.
The destruction of all copies of The Victory of Faith in order to erase Ernst Röhm is considered an act of National Socialist damnatio memoriae. In the end, two copies survived: one preserved in London and one preserved by the Communist government of East Germany.
The term is used in modern scholarship to cover a wide array of official and unofficial sanctions through which the physical remnants and memories of a deceased individual are destroyed.
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).
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