Monday, August 25, 2008

In the days of Imperial Rome, damnatio memoriae was considered to be the most severe means of condemnation a Roman could ever suffer. The sanction of damnatio memoriae removes any indication that the person ever existed in the first place. It would involve deleting their name from all official records. Wiping all identifying inscriptions from their statues and perhaps most significantly, destroying their likeness in portraiture.

The most poignant instance of damnatio memoriae is the Severan family portrait on the Arco degli Argentarii. In 211, Caracalla killed and sanctioned the damnatio memoriae of his brother Geta. The relief has a tremendous gaping space where Geta once stood with his family. That large gaping space is so startling, so unnerving. It shows what it is to be chipped away from antiquity, to be forgotten by the annals of time.

In a contemporary context, it is extremely difficult to appreciate how you could be completely wiped from history. Subconsciously, many of us have an unyielding obsession with personal iconography. This is manifested in our compulsive need to take digital photos in a bid to prove we were there – and what’s more, we looked really great while we were there.

Even the most heinous figures in criminal history could never suffer the fate of a damnatio memoriae. The crimes of these people can never be forgotten. It is just like the ever-infamous police mug shot of Myra Hindley - their image has become potent symbol of pure evil in contemporary culture. Surely such a visceral association is a far more brutal condemnation than to be wiped from history altogether?

But perhaps the punishment of damnatio memoriae taps into another idea altogether. It really just targets our innate desire to be remembered, even if it is in any way, long after we’re gone.

1 comment:

adam said...

What's so interesting about the Hindley thing, I think, is that she is completely defined by that mug shot, and that mug shot (and representations of it such as the Marcus Harvey handprint collage that showed up during the Olympic handover ceremony) always draw condemnation and horror EVEN THOUGH they make sure that it is (understandably and kind of quite rightly) impossible to think of her as anything other than a child murderer. You'd think people who still want her to hang even though she's now dead wouldn't have such an issue with anything that ensured that the dominant reading always reigned supreme. It's like Suffer Little Children, which again says over and over again 'she did this, look what she did, remember their names' (again, understandably and quite rightly). Somewhere under this there is a debate to be had about why we villify women who kill so much more than men - there's a fantastic recent documentary called 'I Am Maxine Carr' about a number of women who've been mistaken for her and how it's affected their lives.
This isn't what you wrote about at all, of course, but there you go. I will also, whilst I'm here, leave a link to your lovely post on The Chain (as you haven't) to make sure people who read you here find you there.