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.