Damnatio Memoriae: Past and Present

An Inscription in the Roman Forum Disguises — But Also Highlights — A Game-of-Thrones-Style Murder

Tondo of the Family of Septimius Severus, with the face of Geta (left) obliterated (Berlin, Antikensammlung). (source)

Why is fratricide in the 3rd century like a bad breakup in the 21st century? Is it the severance of relationships? Is it the divided loyalties that follow? Is it that the words spat during a bad breakup can be as sharp as cutting knives? Perhaps. But the one that became all too apparent to me while gazing up at the Arch of Septimius Severus one hot Roman day was not one of these similarities, but something else entirely.

The Arch of Septimius Severus was commissioned in 203 CE by its namesake in order to celebrate his, and his two sons’, victories over the Parthian Empire. Almost two millennia and a stint as a medieval tower base later, it was still easy to make out the Parthian prisoners, Roman soldiers, and winged Victories warring on the towering arch. Harder to make out in the glare of the Roman sun was the lengthy inscription on the top of the arch itself.

To the emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus, son of Marcus, father of the fatherland, conqueror of the Parthians in Arabia and Assyria, Pontifex Maximus, holding the power of the tribune for the 11th time, conquering general for the 11th time, consul for the third time, & proconsul, and also to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus Pius Felix, son of Lucius, with the power of a tribune for the sixth time, consul, proconsul, [to these fathers of the fatherland, the best and bravest of princes], on account of the restoration of the Republic and the expansion of the Empire of the Roman People due to their outstanding virtues both at home and abroad, the Senate and the Roman People dedicate this arch.

It certainly appeared to be a typical Roman dedicatory inscription. It had it all: a laundry list of titles that the Roman emperor held, remarkably long Roman names, and even the classic and ubiquitous SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome. What could be more Roman than that? All it was needed was a Roman date to puzzle out… right?

Even with the sun in my eyes, I could see that there was something strange about that inscription. The marble looked oddly damaged on the end of the third line and the whole fourth line, but there was still clearly an inscription there. The damage was concentrated in neat rectangles, so it wasn’t that the arch itself had been damaged over time. And hadn’t Septimius Severus dedicated this arch to his two sons?

The altered portions of the inscription.

Turns out that this illustrious monument is a testament not only to the war captured in its reliefs, but to a cold-blooded murder. When Septimius Severus passed away in 211 CE, he left the empire to his two sons, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and Publius Septimius Geta Augustus, to co-rule. With Romulus and Remus as the Roman precedent for co-ruling brothers, a story which infamously founds Rome in fratricide, you’d think he might have thought better of this decision. After an attempt to co-rule in peace, the two brothers, better known as Caracalla and Geta, ended up fighting so viciously that they considered splitting the empire in two (this, seventy years later, ended up happening for real under Diocletian when he split the Roman Empire into an East and West for good).

Their mother Julia Domna pleaded with them to get along and asked them to come meet her to talk things through like grown-ups. The brothers agreed, to their mother’s delight, and went to her rooms. Then Caracalla had members of the Praetorian Guard, essentially the imperial Secret Service, assassinate his brother. In his mother’s lap. Awkward.

Caracalla quickly seized power and promptly began a six-year tyrannical reign that ended just as it had begun: murder. Like a number of emperors before him, he was offed by the commander of his guard, Macrinus, who would be emperor for one whole year before also being killed off so fourteen-year-old puppet Elagabalus could take power. Elagabalus was subsequently, surprise, also murdered by his own guard. But, before Caracalla was murdered and set off this series of unfortunate events, he used his newfound power to kill all of Geta’s friends and to have all mentions of him struck from the record. That is what is immortalized for us today in that odd looking marble.

This is an example of a phenomenon known today as damnatio memoriae, the condemnation of memory. While the ancient Romans wouldn’t have used such a term, the first appearance of the phrase being in a German paper from the 17th century, the practice had been used long before the days of the Severans. It is the total destruction of all records of a person including everything from writings to portraits to monuments or, in Geta’s case, also everyone who knew him. The goal was to erase someone from history, to make it as if they had never existed. In Geta’s case, another peculiar inscription and more vanished statuary can be found elsewhere in Rome on the (non triumphal) Arch of the Argentarii. On an arch once accused of being “afraid” of empty space, the glaring gaps in reliefs depicting the imperial family are all too apparent.

But Caracalla was hardly the first to condemn the memory of someone. Just a little ways into the forum from the Arch of Septimius Severus another instance of damnatio memoriae can be spotted in the House of the Vestals. On one of the statue pedestals, there is an inscription where the name has been struck from the stone. One theory states that she was a Vestal who converted to Christianity and was subsequently condemned by her fellow priestesses. Back in the days of Caracalla, a colossal example of damnatio memoriae would have stood by the Colosseum: the colossus of Nero. After the infamous emperor’s suicide and condemnation by the Senate, his sprawling “Golden House” was covered over in earth, his artificial pond filled and turned into the Colosseum, and his colossus reworked into the image of the sun god.

Ancient monuments and records like those just listed were intended to serve as a public testament to the deeds of a person or people. The Arch of Septimius Severus proclaimed the emperor’s grand victory to the world. The statue of the chief Vestal that would have once stood on that pedestal told the world who she was and what she had done. Nero’s colossus stood testament to how much power and wealth he had wielded, both to the Romans of his day and all those who saw it after. The Roman historian Livy once described written history as holding memories in the same way.

Hoc illud est praecipue in cognitione rerum salubre ac frugiferum, omnis te exempli documenta in inlustri posita monumento intueri; inde tibi tuaeque rei publicae quod imitere capias, inde foedum inceptu foedum exitu quod vites.
There is an exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past: that you can see examples of every possible type placed on a shining monument. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also the things, disastrous from start to end, that you are to avoid. (Ab Urbe Condita, Praefatio)

What serves as our “shining monument” of identity, of relationships, of history today? Sure, literal monuments certainly still retain their function, but a far more mundane way of doing that today is not by inscribing it on a shining monument, but a shining screen. It’s social media. Victories might be smaller now. A promotion at your job hopefully involves fewer risks of getting buried alive than for the Vestal Virgins. Boasting about your wealth is rarely in the form of a colossal statue now. But it’s the same impulse nonetheless.

This being said, why is this fratricide like a breakup? Right before our visit to the Roman Forum where I was struck by that weird looking marble, I was helping a friend through a terrible breakup. They had separated and gotten back together more times than I could count. But she was finally done. While it didn’t quite end in stabbing and murder, it certainly wasn’t pretty. Step one for her after the deed was done? Block her ex on all social media, erase all the messages her ex had sent her, change her profile picture, and delete all pictures of the two of them together. Every good night and good morning text reminded her of him just as the inscriptions celebrating the imperial prince did. Just as every portrait of the Severan family held the memory of Geta’s life, so too did every photo of her and her ex together. She wanted any trace of her ex in her life gone. While far short of murdering everyone who knew she had an ex, a la Caracalla, does it not sound familiar?

Something interesting happened in the days following. Messages from friends who hadn’t heard what had happened seeped in. What happened? Did you two break up? Are you okay? In erasing her ex out of her life story online, it was as if her breakup shone all the brighter. Staring up at the arch I realized that I wouldn’t have wondered immediately about the sons of Septimius Severus had the marble not looked so strange. Would I have noticed the pedestal of the condemned Vestal had the name not been scratched out? Would I have wondered about the lives of those in the Arch of the Argentariii reliefs had that odd empty space not been there? Damnatio Memoriae seeks to eliminate someone from history, but the very act of condemning someone’s memory can make them all more apparent in their absence.

My friend knew she was never going to eliminate her ex from her mind. This world isn’t Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind quite yet. Memories are quite a bit harder to purposefully erase in your head than on social media. But, as she said, it was going to be a lot harder to move on if she had to see that everywhere, every day. The same goes for the Severans. How was Caracalla to rule if the memory of the brutal bloodshed that got him there lingered over everything, literally in the case of the Arch of Septimius Severus? People weren’t going to forget what had happened, but for the Roman Empire to move on it would be easier if they weren’t constantly reminded of it.

There are so many lost voices and stories from antiquity. The stories of enslaved people, the poor, women, and countless others have been lost to the iniuria temporis, the injury of time. But in the case of damnatio memoriae, the purposeful absence of specific people makes their presence all the more obvious. In the lacunae they leave is a memorial, albeit a different one than once stood. So, why is this imperial fratricide like a breakup? It’s the attempt to forget, the shining absence, and the attempt to move on.