Damnatio Memoriae

The ancient romans had an expression for trying to wipe out the memory of someone who had fallen from power and favour - damnatio memoriae.

It was also known in ancient Egypt - and ancient Greece.

We don't think such attempts have ever succeeded - but if they had, we wouldn't know, would we?

When a man called Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus with the aim of becoming famous for it, the authorites in that city ordered that his name should never be repeated again, under penalty of death. This attempt was unsuccessful, however, as illustrated by the fact that we still know his name today.

Some years after the "Heretic Pharoah" Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, attempted to change the Egyptian religion, subsequent rulers attempted to erase all evidence not just of Akhenaten's reign but of an entire generation of Egyptian history, the so-called "Armana period."

Ironically this attempt at damnatio memoriae succeeded in the medium term, the long term, and the very long term, but utterly failed in the very long term indeed!

For well over three thousand years the targets were largely forgotten, making this one of the most successful attempts to rewrite history. But not forever. Because eventually, largely as an indirect result of the attempt to write him out of history, one of the rulers of the period concerned has now become one of the best known Pharoahs, if not the best known, in the whole history of Egypt.

The five rulers from Akhenaten to Ay did almost entirely vanish from known history for a while - with the result that grave robbers searching for treasure did not put those rulers at the head of their target lists. And consequently those tombs were still there for the archaologists to find in the nineteenth and early 20th centuries - particularly that of the fourth ruler of the Armana period, the boy-king Tutankhamun, whose tomb was found almost completely intact in 1922. The treasures of that tomb have made King Tut far more famous today than any of the rulers who tried to destroy his memory.

In our age the practice of trying to rewrite history to exclude those out of favour is particularly associated with Stalin and was brilliantly satirised by George Orwell in his book "1984."

But increasingly a new style of damnatio memoriae seems to be becoming a cultural practice in the West, one not ordered by political opponents or any government agency, but enforced at least as effectively by social pressure.

When formerly famous individuals are convicted of particularly unpleasant crimes, or if they are dead and cannot be prosecuted but overwhelming evidence of their guilt emerges, all sorts of honours and recognition are removed. This is happening at the moment to the legacy of Jimmy Saville with his gravestone removed and dumped in landfill by his own family, two charities named after him closing, and places which had been named after him renamed.

When "damnatio memoriae" was ordered by Senates, Kings or Emperors it was a thoroughly unhealthy thing and an attempt to lie about history.

But perhaps it is a different matter when the pressure to remove honours comes from the public in the face of clear evidence of wrongdoing. At the end of the day, what we are seeing is a withdrawal of the outward signs of public respect and affection - when that respect, put to evil ends by these celebrities, had allowed them to prey on the vulnerable.


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