Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Long History of Damnatio Memoriae and the Destruction of Monuments

Image via Getty.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

After video emerged Monday of protesters toppling and kicking the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, North Carolina, some suggested that such statutes should remain standing because they’re part of our history and heritage. Yet the monuments were mostly erected decades after the fall of the Confederacy and made of flimsy materials, bought from factories that specialized in budget-friendly “racist kitsch.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to reify the myth of the Lost Cause by funding the Durham monument and others like it—precisely because people who lived through the Confederacy were forgetting it or dying.

Monuments are never just benign markers of the past, but the past told according to a particular narrative and made tangible in order to influence collective memory. Images such as sculptures and paintings have been recognized as having special power for millennia, which is why people from Ancient Egypt to modern Iraq have practiced damnatio memoriae, including the ritual toppling and attacking of monuments.

The Latin phrase damnatio memoriae means condemnation of memory. In practice, it could mean everything from destroying sculpted busts and statues to razing castles to violent cannibalism of hated political enemies. It functioned as a political tool to subdue one’s enemies, current and future. In some cases, victors used damnatio memoriae to condemn the souls of their dead enemies to oblivion, blocking them from an afterlife.

Crowds in Ancient Egypt and Imperial Rome sometimes attacked the sculptures of leaders after their fall from power, but they didn’t just pull the representations down—they also disfigured and hid them from sight. Following the death of Akhenaten during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, his monuments were hidden and his name struck from the list of pharaohs. The erasure of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s memory appears to have been inspired in part by his departure from traditional polytheistic religion. While he was nearly lost from history until the 19th century discovery of the city he built for the practice of his religion, the type of belief he instituted spread over time, changed, and flourished: it was an early prototype for monotheism.

Ancient Egyptians wrote curses on red vases and then crushed, burned, pierced, or buried them in order to kill a hated person’s spirit after the death of their body. Romans, on the other hand, didn’t usually seek to erase collective memory of a hated person, but to defame them. Historian Charles Hedrick describes the process as “creating gestures that served to dishonor the record” of the condemned person rather than erase them. In Ancient Egypt and Rome, the spirit was thought to live on after the death of the body in an underworld—provided that it wasn’t annihilated by magic such as the curses used by the Egyptians or defamed due to the Roman damnatio memoriae. It was this second death that many Romans feared most, and the threat of being cast into oblivion after death by a damnatio memoriae seems to have encouraged good behavior.

Even before the assassination of Caligula by his own Praetorian Guard in C.E. 41, the emperor’s statues had to be guarded against constant attacks. Caligula’s reputation has suffered at the hands of hostile contemporary historians (not to mention a 1979 erotic historical drama produced by Penthouse), but he does seem to have legitimately earned enemies among the aristocracy. Following the assassination, his statues were hastily tossed into the Tiber River in Rome, stuffed away in warehouses, and recarved to look like other emperors.

At least one of the many representations of Caligula was mutilated before it was tossed into the Tiber, the eye sockets left empty, creating the illusion of demonic black eyes. The carving out of eyes, noses, ears, and mouths from statues of hated people was not uncommon in ancient Rome. The removal of sensory organs from the depictions was intended to rob them of their power over viewers—important because faithful likenesses in pre-modern societies could convince viewers that even the most certainly dead were still alive. Conversely, a good likeness was thought to render an otherwise powerful ruler vulnerable. It was not unheard of for people encountering cameras for the first time to fear them due to their imagined ability to create lifelike images that could be mutilated or destroyed to cause pain and death to the person depicted. The cross-cultural belief in the power of images led to iconoclasm, the destruction of religious icons, and the destruction of rulers’ likenesses. People literally believed that you could harm the body and spirit of someone just by attacking their image.

Pliny the Younger records that after Domitian’s assassination, crowds attacked bronze images of him like a living being as if blows to the statues could cause bleeding and pain. In the hands of the crowds, Domitian’s sculptural “bodies [were] mutilated, [his] limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire.” Domitian was one of the rare Roman citizens subjected to an official damnatio memoriae by the Senate. Plenty of other emperors, politicians, and citizens were subjected to unofficial damnatio memoriae that could include the destruction of their family homes and death masks and erasure of their images, names from histories, and inscriptions.

The violence done to the statues of Caligula and Domitian (along with those of other hated rulers and politicians in Rome) was intended to mimic the post-execution defiling of common criminals’ bodies, called by historians poena post mortem, a practice that continued in the Renaissance and early modern period. In rare cases, when they committed high crimes against the state such as treason, even high-born nobles and rulers could be subjected to bodily dismemberment like the worst of common criminals. In the memorable opening of historian Lauro Martines’ April Blood, two brothers from the Orsi family assassinated the Lord of Forlì in 1488 and tossed his naked body down into the piazza below. The revolt seemed to be going well until the tide of public opinion turned against them. The brothers fled the city, the lord’s widow Caterina Sforza (who plays a memorable, if ahistorical, role in some of the Assassin’s Creed video games) took power, and the remaining Orsi family members bore the brunt of the punishment.

In the wake of the reversal, the houses of the assassins and their assistants were looted, burned, and razed by 400 men. The Orsi patriarch, the eighty-five-year-old Andrea, was dragged around the public square by a horse three times before being quartered. The old man’s intestines were spilled into the piazza and a soldier overseeing the dismemberment took his heart, likely still warm and possibly beating, and bit into it.

The ritual cannibalism in Forlì resembles Florence’s violent rejection of the Duke of Athens’ rule in 1343 after a conspiracy ousted him from power. As the Duke of Athens attempted to hold back crowds from entering the city’s government palace to assassinate him, he handed over his henchman Guglielmo d’Asciesi and d’Asciesi’s teenaged son Gabbriello to the crowd. Guglielmo was forced to watch as his son was dismembered and hacked into little pieces, then paraded on lances and swords throughout the city. At the conclusion, Guglielmo himself was ripped apart by a crowd so furious that their republic had been temporarily usurped by a tyrant, that they were “animated by bestial fury” and “ate [his] flesh raw.” Upon taking power back from the Duke, the Florentine government ordered all images and mementos of him destroyed. To this day, few records remain from the period of his rule.

We tend to write off violence inflicted on the soon-to-be-executed and corpses as something “crazy” or out-of-control, but it was just as orchestrated for contemporaries and posterity as the razing of homes and attacks on images. Violence, too, tells a story and can condemn the memory of a hated person. Even once buried in the ground, the bones of hated people—hated in their own lifetimes or by people in the future—were not guaranteed rest. Thirteenth-century Florentine Farinata degli Uberti’s bones were exhumed almost two decades after his death, put on trial, and burned due to his supposed belief that the soul dies along with the body rather than living eternally; this heretical view earned him a place Dante’s Inferno, where he rises from a fiery coffin to inquire about Dante’s lineage. If you’ve been to Florence, you likely stood on the foundations of the Uberti palazzo: it was razed when his enemies returned to power and Florentines agreed nothing could ever be built on the land again. It became the main square in the city, the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria.

Long after the blood and bones from post-mortem punishment washed away, deliberate and eye-catching evidence of damnatio memoriae lingered so condemned people wouldn’t slip from memory. When the Távora family in Portugal attempted (and failed) to assassinate King Joseph I in 1758, their family name and emblems were banned by the state before a number of executions. Their lands were also seized by the crown, buildings razed, and the ground where they once stood was salted to prevent vegetation from growing there in the future. In addition, a stone memorial in Lisbon to this day marks the spot where the palace of their co-conspirator, the Duke of Aveiro, once stood, and its inscription enumerates the crimes of the man the Távora family sought to place on the throne.

Similarly, the Venetians erected a column d’infamia on the site of Bajamonte Tiepolo’s razed house after he attempted to overthrow the doge and Grand Council of Venice in 1310. Tiepolo, who escaped into exile, was so distraught by the column that he sent henchmen to the city to destroy it. Later, the Venetians executed doge Marin Falier after he attempted a coup in order to become Prince of Venice in 1355. Eleven years later, the Council of Ten ordered that his portrait in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio should be covered with azurite paint, one of the most eye-catching and expensive pigments in Renaissance art. In addition to covering his image, the Council decreed that an inscription explaining “In this place is the site where Marin Falier was decapitated for the crime of treason” should be added to explain his absence and remind viewers of the cost of plotting against the republic (the drape viewers see now was added later). Damnatio memoriae wasn’t about totally erasing history, but about reminding viewers to dishonor people who threatened the stability of the state and sought to change the government, usually for their own benefit.

In our own lifetimes, the most memorable examples of damnatio memoriae have come from the public removal of statues of leaders representing fallen regimes. One of the iconic images capturing the downfall of the Soviet Union is Lenin’s statue, broken at the knees, aloft in the air with arm outstretched in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991 following the August Coup. The image was later echoed in the 2003 feature film Good Bye, Lenin!, where a statue of Lenin is flown by a helicopter above the streets of Berlin after being removed from its pedestal. Today, many of the thousands of Lenin statues that once stood in the Soviet Union and its client states are scattered in places as random as underwater in the Black Sea and a billiard club in Mongolia. In Vilnius, the pedestal where Lenin once stood was occupied for a month by a giant sand sculpture of John Lennon in 2012. (Lenin-Lennon puns are quite common in the former Soviet Union.)

In 2003, Iraqis and the United States Marine Corps attacked and pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square at the conclusion of the Battle of Baghdad. A live video feed showed the statue bending on its pedestal, pulled down by a chain on its neck to a small crowd that would go on to stomp and decapitate the metal representation of the still-living Hussein. The degree to which the act was staged for media consumption is contested, but to pretend that humans wreck things in the wake of a regime change merely for their own enjoyment is not correct. In the days before live television, people performed similar and even more violent acts for the sake of the history books.

Removing statues is totally in keeping with history, and a relatively lenient punishment when considered against the sorts of things that have been done to condemn the memory of fallen regimes, bad leadership, and failed treason in the past. Pulling down and beating monuments alone is not enough to snuff out an ideology—but it’s a satisfying way to start.

Tracy E. Robey is a beauty and history journalist. Follow her online on Twitter @fanserviced and her website.