REMEMBERING TO FORGET: Correcting the False History of the Lost Cause in the American South Through Damnatio Memoriae.

AuthorDixon, Alicia

"The point was not to consign the figures in question to oblivion once and for all, but rather to consign them to oblivion every single time one came across their oddly missing presence. (2)"


Upon close inspection, the remnants of Ancient Rome bear many scars, whether inflicted by the elements, new construction and development or careless tourists. It is inevitable that architecture that has survived for more than 2,000 years would bear some physical evidence of its long history. Truly, each mark on the ruins scattered across Rome's seven hills has its own story, but perhaps none are so fascinating as those that the ancients intentionally inflicted on their statues and monuments. To the Romans, the idea of literally cutting someone out of history was very real, through removal, modification or both, of statues and memorials. From inscriptions scratched out or overwritten, to heads sitting on bodies that they obviously do not match, the practice of damnatio memoriae has long outlived its practitioners. (3)

When someone committed a great wrong against the State, the Romans memorialised the shame and censure of those misdeeds through the (possibly counterintuitive) method of destroying prominent memorials to those who committed the crimes. On the other hand, today, many people see removal or changing of public monuments as attempts to rewrite or erase history. This is especially apparent in widely accepted cultural heritage law, both international and domestic, where preservation is central, and destruction is generally eschewed as an evil to be prevented. (4)

However, a look at case law and statutes concerning the Confederate memorabilia that litters modern America, particularly the Deep South, makes it clear that a false history motivates Southerners to cling to Confederate monuments as a way to maintain the ruse of the Lost Cause and sugarcoat the fact that slavery was a driving force of secession. This issue has become especially important in the light of this summer's wave of momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement and censure of institutional racism in the United States. In the wake of George Floyd's murder at the hands of police, some cities have looked to the removal of monuments as an act of solidarity with their Black citizens. (5) In some cases, protestors have taken it upon themselves to tear down monuments to slavers, imperialists, and former Confederates. (6)

These efforts of removal, both official city removals and removals as acts of civil disobedience, have been met with disapproval from many, including cries that vandalism and destruction are never called for. Contrary to the naysayers' outrage at the current wave of removals, if we set our sights on Ancient Rome, it is possible to see that, through removals and modifications, we can bring about correction of a history that has been twisted, rather than erasure of a history that we no longer approve of, by adopting a modern version of damnatio memoriae.

This paper will consider how current law makes evident the lingering impact of the Lost Cause in the glorification of Confederate monuments and why damnatio memoriae may help to set the historical record right, rather than 'erasing history.' Part I will give a brief overview of damnatio memoriae, first discussing its significance to Roman culture, then its relationship to the State, and, finally, how it has affected memory in the two thousand years since the height of the Roman Empire. Part II will elaborate on the myth of the Lost Cause and how it has impacted Southerners' reluctance to allow monument removal, then introduce the modern push to remove Confederate memorabilia from the landscape of the Deep South. Part III will discuss why a modern damnatio memoriae may be appropriate to rectify the changed narrative of the Lost Cause that is furthered by Confederate monuments and address counterarguments to applying damnatio memoriae to the modern issue.


    The practice of damnatio memoriae is simple on its face, but the underlying motivations and processes are complex and sometimes counterintuitive. The practice is, at face value, an attempt, often State-sponsored, to destroy the memory of a person, usually an emperor, who has committed some great wrong against the State--in the case of these examples, the Roman Empire. (7) However, the true power of damnatio memoriae lies in its ability to force people, even today, to remember the dishonour of the person subjected to the practice, not in the Romans theoretically forgetting them. (8)

    Damnatio memoriae creates memory by altering the face of public spaces, either through removal or alteration of monuments to a wrongdoer. (9) The change can be as drastic as tearing down a monument and throwing it in the Tiber or as subtle as overwriting an honorarium on a building with a new inscription. (10) In any case, the absence left where something once stood or was inscribed or painted is pointed and intentional. (11) Through damnatio memoriae, absence serves as a record of shame and censure. This section explores the concept of damnatio memoriae, first through a discussion of the importance of memory in Ancient Rome and the significance of the annihilation of memory, then with information on the state-sponsorship of the practice of damnatio memoriae, and finally with an evaluation of how damnatio memoriae has affected those subject to it in modern study and perception.

    1. Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Memory

      The importance of memory in Ancient Rome is something that a modern person may not initially understand. Of course, even today, people have pride in their name or their accomplishments. We all want to be remembered well. Still, the modern wish to leave a legacy is not central to our identities and our society in the same way that it was central for the Ancient Romans. The concept of being immortalised in popular memory for honour and great deeds was something that was central to Roman identity and to Roman culture as a whole. (12)

      Prominent Romans were everywhere. Generals had arches built to their successes. Wealthy Romans had temples built with their names inscribed upon them. Emperors' statues were displayed everywhere, from public theatres to private homes. There was even an imperial cult, where a current emperor's likeness would stand amongst the best of his predecessors, and where he might hope to be kept and remembered if he had a good enough reign. Whether in war, through mastery of some skill (think Cicero and rhetoric), or by means of political deeds and prowess, a person who did great deeds was not merely remembered, he was worshipped--sometimes literally. (13) Perhaps nothing illustrates this so clearly and immediately as the handful of deified emperors scattered through Roman history. Consider Julius Caesar and Augustus. Both men were deified based on their rules as emperors, and it is not difficult to find record of their ascensions to the heavens. (14)

      While deification is the ultimate form of positively memorialising a certain citizen or figure in the ancient world, damnatio memoriae is essentially the opposite: it does not actually erase memory, but rather enforces the negative memorialisation of the person subjected to it. However, it is important to understand that damnatio memoriae, though saddled with a name that literally translated means 'damnation of memory' or 'condemnation of memory', is not a wholly destructive process, as it is often "generative of literature, art, and monumental construction". (15)

      Indeed, damnatio memoriae is not a single process, but an umbrella term for several overlapping processes. (16) These methods of memory modification could include carving over a face or inscription with that of a person who deserved to be memorialised, scratching out faces and inscriptions, cutting heads off bodies and replacing them with a newly carved visage, removing statues from public places, and even outright destruction, to name a few. Though these processes caused major changes and were obviously intended to strip people of their honour and reputation, the shamed were not truly erased.

      Even today, if you look carefully at a statue of Nerva, you might catch a hint of Domitian lurking just beneath the surface. (17) On a second look, you may even notice a shred of the bust of Nero that the marble first encapsulated. (18) A statue of Commodus might still clearly portray the emperor, but lack his eyes or his mouth, gouged away after his assassination. (19) Visit the Arch of the Argentii, and you will notice the scars left where Septimius Severus had his family scraped away, scars that he opted not to cover for the sake of aesthetics, left to remind the onlooker of the possibility of a misbehaving Roman's disgrace and eradication, right down to their face in the family photos. (20) One way or another, there was always a hint of the disgraced left behind, an echo of glory reverberating through absence that created ghosts intended to haunt the memory of the damned.

    2. Damnatio Memoriae and the State

      Thanks to its clear and powerful message, use of damnatio memoriae sanctions was highly political throughout the history of Rome. Consider the Emperor Domitian, known for executing and exiling treasonous senators. (21) Domitian was eventually assassinated due to the senatorial class's fear of him and his insistence on continuing to punish his equals in class, despite senatorial rulings prohibiting such behaviour. (22) Today, Domitian is remembered as one of the most hated emperors in Roman history, and his legacy was subject to damnatio memoriae after his assassination. Suetonius records that:

      The Senators, on the contrary were so overjoyed, that they raced to fill the House, where they did not refrain from assailing the dead Emperor with the most insulting and stinging kind of outcries. They even had ladders brought and his shields and images tom down before their...

To continue reading

Request your trial