Damnatio memoriae is a Latin phrase which loosely translates as ‘condemned to oblivion.’ It was, or given the modern cancel culture perhaps I should say it is, the practice of removing a person’s name from history. Like many Roman practices, it originated in another culture. One of the earliest examples is to be found in the reign of Hatshepsut, who reigned as pharaoh of Egypt in the fourteenth century BC. As ever with modernity, it is seldom that modern.
The purpose of damnatio memoriae was, much like modern cancel movements, to remove every trace of an individual from the record, to make it as though they had never existed. For the Romans, who were by and large obsessed with memory, it was a fate far worse than death.
But, in ancient Rome, much like in modern cities, memory is more than the activity of an individual. It is an object in so much as a statue or inscription reminds passers by of a person or event. In this context, to consign a person, thing or event to oblivion involved a physical as well as mental act. An example of attempted damnatio memoriae can be seen below, where an inscription featuring the name of the Emperor Commodus was removed. Only to have the letters ‘CO’ added back later in paint.
Of course by definition it is hard to know when complete examples of damnatio memoriae took place, because for them to have been successful we shouldn’t know of the name or event. Thus it is hard for historians and archaeologists to say for certain how often the practice happened. But best guesstimates suggest it was a rare occurrence.
This brings us to the present where, in Britain and the US at least, there are moves to obliterate more than a single individual. Rather, the push is to efface hundreds of years and thousands of individuals from the public record.
Olivette Otele has offered one of the more cogent responses to the trend:
My initial reaction as a black person would like to see them down but actually I think that this is not a good idea… What we need to do is have a strong dialogue and talk about these things because if we just remove them people will think that this is the end of racism, discrimination and all these things — and all these things will carry on after the statues have been removed.
In a sense, to allow a mob to pull down the statues and cancel the past is to engage in just the sort of behaviour which has allowed institutional slavery and systemic racism over the centuries: a minority imposing their will over the majority. The democratic solution is to engage in just the sort of debate for which Professor Otele has called. Though perhaps less appealing than direct action now, it would help to ensure we don’t repeat the sins of history. Something which all too easily happens if the past is forgotten once the obvious representations are consigned to oblivion.
Good night, and good luck.