Damnatio memoriae


I took Latin because my high school didn’t offer French, and I didn’t want to take Spanish.  Yes, I had to choose one.  I liked the consistent logic of Latin, the declension of verbs and nouns.  The rigid rules on word placement weren’t so rigid (not like German or English), you just had to understand which words modified, and which were being modified.  And I never minded reading the texts.

All Gaul may be divided into three parts, but not according to the Gauls.  And the Ordovici probably called themselves by some different name.  Latin helped me really dig deeply into words and the structure of thought.  It also helped me in botany and biology, history and politics.

But the best thing I learned by reading Latin were the concepts that lasted through the years.  One phrase could create an image completely lacking in common English usage.

Carthago delenda est: Carthage must be destroyed.  A statement added to speech after speech, even when the speech wasn’t about Carthage.  Imagine hearing a speech on waterworks — the need to repair the sewers or fix the fountains — and then hearing the speaker state: “Furthermore, I reckon that Carthage must be destroyed.”  (Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem delendam esse)

What we could do with a similar consistent message!  “Dreiseitl delendus est; Ceterum autem censeo Dreiseitlem delendus esse!”  Of course, we’d do it in English.  But still.  Repetition of a phrase creates a consistent message, and after while it enters into the common culture.

I’m hearing the speeches in my head now.  But wait.  What did Cato mean?  Did he think destroying Carthage would somehow improve Rome?  You betcha.  He saw Carthage as a rival as well as an enemy.  As Carthage became more important (commercially) it became more of a threat.  Perhaps that phrase should be “Pepsi delendus est” and be uttered by Coke. . .  Because it wasn’t enough for Romans to defeat Carthage, they needed to utterly wipe it from the map, sow the fields with salt, and ensure that no Carthago novo would rise from the ashes.

Damnatio memoriae:  To destroy utterly, to remove from memory.  Now, that’s a Roman thought worthy of a great orator.  And it leads me toward what I’ve been thinking about for the past few days.

Cato wanted Carthage utterly destroyed — but we still remember Carthage.  The Roman Senate cursed Domitian and decreed that his name would be removed from memory — and yet, we still remember Domitian.  Maybe not with as much relish as we remember Nero, whose memory was cursed but whose death was remembered. If there were any effective ‘removal from the records’ in Rome, we don’t know about them.  As it should be.

But this is such a compelling concept to me.  While it was the ultimate shame for a Roman to be made insignificant and removed from the common memory, it’s harder for me to imagine anyone remembering most of us.

Who can forget the ‘swearing out’ of Richard Nixon?  Now, he’s someone I’d render insignificant, if I could, but I’m confident he will be remembered.  (He could be mentioned at the same time as Spiro Agnew, and then forgotten.  That would be OK.)

I’d like to make a little list of folks currently living whose names and contributions should be removed from history.  Wouldn’t you?

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2 Responses to Damnatio memoriae

  1. varmentrout says:

    I’m shocked that a historian would recommend deletion of historical knowledge. What is the old saying, often (probably) misused, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? (Santayana) I find the lessons of history, even relatively recent history, important, no matter how distasteful. We seem to have forgotten John Yoo’s torture memos too quickly.

    • sbriere says:

      Ah, yes. I love the concepts of the Romans, but note that those few times Damnatio memoriae was used by the Senate, it didn’t work. Destroying Carthage didn’t remove it from our memories, either.

      I think it’s that aspect of unintended consequences that appeals to me. Most of us — our acts, our goals, our dreams — are forgotten in a few generations. In many cases, they are forgotten in our lifetimes. So is it the person, or the ideas we link to the person, that is remembered?

      We remember Nixon for Watergate. We remember Nero for dismissing Rome’s conflagration. Will John Yoo be remembered or only that someone found a way to justify evil — and if we do remember him, will he be classed with Reinhard Heydrich?

      History is about people but not always about the best of us. Who we would / what we would / remove from the annals of history is what I’m interested in learning. I don’t believe we control what our descendants will remember.

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