Friday, July 17, 2015

Damnatio Memoriae

The Romans combined dynastic ruthlessness with a real hankering for gaudy, monumental architecture.  Obviously this caused a few problems.  Once you had banished your Imperial rivals - usually by sending them packing to the shades of the Underworld - you were sometimes stuck with temples, arches, statues and so forth that were still extolling the fine virtues of your previous competitor.

Sometimes a live and let.....well, let them stay dead, attitude prevailed.  Coinage does not seem to have been universally recalled and melted down for instance.  Maybe it would have just been too difficult to do this.  Or maybe the new wearer of the Purple never stooped to handling grubby money and it was sufficiently out of sight, out of mind.

But for the big stuff you could always resort to the "Damnatio Memoriae".

Literally a damnation of the memory of a public figure, this was not officially done as often you might expect.  But it did happen.  And the nastier the spat the more wide ranging the Damnatio. Family problems that got out of hand seem to have been particularly bad.

Consider the family drama of Septimus Severus.

Oh, we have dropped in on this bunch before.  Septimus and his wife, Julia Domna, had a couple of squabbling sons named Caracalla and Geta.  After Septimus died in York  his two sons supposedly returned to Rome where they occupied opposite ends of the palace.  They and their adherents plotted and schemed, quite literally with knives drawn, until Caracalla managed to dispatch his brother Geta.

This is what is called the Arch of the Argentii.  It stands near the Forum Borium or cattle market in Rome near the river Tiber.  Argentii by the way were bankers.  In any case, here we have on one side of the arch Septimus and Julia looking across.  No doubt the sculptor was trying to capture their sentiments...."now boys, you two get along now.  Share your toys.  And the Empire..."


And how did that work out?  Well, on the other side of the arch facing the parents we find:


Caracalla standing next to a chiseled off empty space.  The figure now missing may well have been Geta, but one can't be quite sure.  Caracalla had quite a few people eliminated physically and allegorically,  including the Praetorian Prefect Plautianus and his daughter Plautilla.  Since Plautilla was Caracalla's wife there would be a little extra Damn in that Damnatio one supposes....

Some inscriptions got clobbered quite thoroughly.  This example from Ostia dug out some sort of offending name past any reasonable conjecture:




You just can't tell when you will run across a Damnatio.  When excavating up at Vindolanda we had a day off.  On a visit to the nearby fort site of Chesters we dropped in to their museum.  They have a very nice example of a modius, which is an official grain measure.  Take a look:


The name preceding the word Caesar has been hammered out.  In this case you can still make it out, it formerly identified the Emperor Domitian.

As Emperors go Domitian was not as bad as some.  He was very successful at defending and expanding the borders of the Empire. As to domestic policy his record is the subject of some debate. As is still true in our era it is difficult to tell if he left the State in debt or in the black.

Perhaps the fact that this modius was constructed to falsely give a "light" measurement is some kind of clue.

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