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Damnatio memoriae is the Latin phrase literally meaning "damnation of memory" in the sense of removal from remembrance. It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman Senate upon traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State.



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 had never existed, in order to preserve the honour of the city; in a city that stressed the 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 Ancient Rome, the practice of damnatio memoriae was the condemnation of Roman elites and Emperor after their deaths. If the Senate or a later Emperor did not like the acts of an individual, they could have their property seized, their names erased and their statues reworked. Because there is an economic incentive to seize property and rework statues anyway, historians and archaeologists have had difficulty determining when damnatio memoriae actually took place.

The practice of damnatio memoriae was rarely, if ever, an official practice. Any truly effective damnatio memoriae 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. However, since all political figures have allies as well as enemies, it was difficult 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. Historians sometimes use the phrase de facto damnatio memoriae when the condemnation is not official. Among those who did suffer damnatio memoriae were Sejanus, who had conspired against emperor Tiberius in 31, and later Livilla, who was revealed to be his accomplice. The only emperors that are known to have officially received a damnatio memoriae were Domitian and later the co-emperor Publius Septimius Geta, whose memory was publicly expunged by his co-emperor brother Caracalla, in 211.

Similar practices in other societies

A photograph of Stalin with Sovietmarker commissar Nikolai Yezhov was retouched after Yezhov fell from favor and was executed in 1940.

  • Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus to become famous. To discourage such acts, the Ephesusmarker leaders decided that his name should never be repeated again, under penalty of death.
  • 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 and that this carried forward beyond the grave.
  • The cartouches of the heretical 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten were mutilated by his successors. Earlier in that same dynasty, Thutmose III carried out a similar attack on his stepmother Hatshepsut late in his sole reign. However, only engravings and statuary of her as a crowned king of Egypt were attacked. Anything depicting her as a queen was left unharmed (and the campaign ended after his son by a secondary queen was crowned co-regent), so this was not strictly speaking damnatio memoriae. There is also some debate whether this defacement was Thutmose's doing at all, since most of the damage is estimated to have happened some 47 years into this reign.
  • In Judaism, the curse, "May [his / her] name and memory be obliterated," (Hebrew: ימח שמו וזכרו , yimach shmo ve-zichro) is the worst curse that a Jew can pronounce on another.
  • Adandozan, king of Dahomey in 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. Till today, Adandozan is not officially considered as one of the twelve kings of Dahomey.
  • Marino Faliero, fifty-fifth Doge of Venice, was condemned to damnatio memoriae after a failed coup d'état.
  • More modern examples of damnatio memoriae in actual practice was the removal of portraits, books, doctoring people out of pictures, and any other traces of Joseph Stalin's opponents during the Great Purge. (For example in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.) In an ironic twist of fate, Stalin himself was edited out of some propaganda films when Nikita Khruschev became the leader of the Soviet Union, and the city of Tsaritsyn that had earlier been named Stalingradmarker was renamed Volgogradmarker in 1961.
  • In Argentinamarker, 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". Additionally, hospitals and other public buildings named after him during his presidency were quickly renamed by the Liberating Revolution. Photographs and other representations of the Argentinemarker leader were also prohibited.
  • A similar fate befell jarl Hákon Sigurðarson in 10th century Norwaymarker ; according to Snorri Sturluson, after his death, "So great was the enmity of the Throndhjemmarker 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."
  • In the United Statesmarker, the official portraits of disgraced Marylandmarker governors Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel were absent from the Maryland State Housemarker Governor’s Reception Room for periods of time.
  • Memorials to Continental general Benedict Arnold at the Saratoga National Historical Parkmarker and the United States Military Academymarker do not bear either his name or his likeness, as a result of his treachery.
  • After the disbanding of the Soviet Unionmarker and abandonment of any officially sanctioned ideology, most of the places renamed after Communist personalities and leaders, including entire cities like Leningrad, were restored to pre-union names, or given a different non-socialist name. Additionally, statues of communist heroes like Lenin were removed and/or destroyed (except the one in Moscow, which has been retained for historical significance).

Damnatio memoriae in fiction

Many contemporary novels and films mention a form of damnatio memoriae. Two early examples are the "vapourization" of "unpersons" in George Orwell's 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four ("He did not exist; he never existed"); and the reference to the Egyptian practice in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, in which the Pharoah Seti orders the name of Moses be struck from every building and never mentioned by anyone.

More recent authors who have used damnatio memoriae as a plot device include Milan Kundera in his 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, R.A. Salvatore in the 1990 novel Homeland, Lois Lowry in her 1993 novel The Giver (a version in which the damned name is never given to any new baby ever again), and Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson in their 1999 Prelude to Dune trilogy.

The device has also appeared in the American television series Star Trek: The Next Generation as the Klingon practice of discommendation; as a threat in Ancient Greek and Persian culture in Frank Miller's 1998 comic book series 300 and its 2007 film adaptation; and in the 2004 role playing game Vampire the Requiem.

See also


  1. "Egyptian Religion", E.A Wallis Budge", Arkana 1987 edition, ISBN 0-14-019017-1
  2. 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
  3. "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.
  4. As reported, respectively, in Press Conference statement, April 13, 1995, and the Baltimore Sun, October 14, 1993,,0,134817.story.

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