Damnatio memoriae is a modern Latin phrase meaning "condemnation of memory", i.e., that a person is to be excluded from official accounts. There are and have been many routes to damnatio, including the destruction of depictions, the removal of names from inscriptions and documents, and even large-scale rewritings of history.
It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman Senate on traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State. The term can be applied to other instances of official scrubbing; the practice is seen as long ago as the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut in the fourteenth century BC.
In Latin, the term damnatio memoriae was not used by the ancient Romans. The first appearance of the phrase is in a dissertation written in Germany in 1689. The term is used in modern scholarship to cover a wide array of official and unofficial sanctions whereby the physical remnants of a deceased individual were destroyed to differing degrees.
Damnatio memoriae, or oblivion, as a punishment was originally created by the peoples of Ephesus after Herostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of antiquity. The Romans, who viewed it as a punishment worse than death, adopted this practice. Felons would literally be erased from history for the crimes they had committed.
The sense of the expression damnatio memoriae and of the sanction is to cancel every trace of the person from the life of Rome, as if they had never existed, in order to preserve the honour of the city. In a city that stressed social appearance, respectability, and the pride of being a true Roman as a fundamental requirement of the citizen, it was perhaps the most severe punishment.
In ancient Roman society, "a Roman's house was perceived as an extension of the self, signaling to divine protectors and social and genealogical status to the world outside." Similarly, just as the house would have been seen as an extension of the self, memory was thought of as one of the best ways to understand the self. In a society without much written documentation, memory training was a big part of Roman education. Orators, leaders, and poets alike used memory training devices or memory palaces to help give speeches or tell long epic poems. In The Natural History, Pliny writes,
It would be far from easy to pronounce what person has been the most remarkable for the excellence of his memory, that blessing so essential for the enjoyment of life, there being so many that were celebrated for it. King Cyrus knew all the soldiers of his army by name: L. Scipio the names of all the Roman people.
Memory palaces were used to provide an aid for remembering certain key ideas. By assigning locations in their homes for different ideas, poets or the like, could walk back and forth through their house, recalling ideas with every step. Many times, memory training involved assigning ideas to wall paintings, floor mosaics, and sculptures that adorned many ancient Roman homes. The punishment of damnatio memoriae involved altering the rooms, many times destroying or tampering with the art in their homes as well, so that the house would no longer be identifiable as the perpetrator's home. This would in turn, erase the perpetrator's very existence.
In ancient Rome, the practice of damnatio memoriae was the condemnation of Roman elites and emperors after their deaths. If the senate or a later emperor did not like the acts of an individual, they could have his property seized, his name erased and his statues reworked. Because there is an economic incentive to seize property and rework statues, historians and archaeologists have had difficulty determining when official damnatio memoriae actually took place, although it seems to have been quite rare.
It is unknown whether any damnatio memoriae was totally successful as it would not be noticeable to later historians, since, by definition, it would entail the complete and total erasure of the individual in question from the historical record. It was difficult, however, to implement the practice completely. For instance, the senate wanted to condemn the memory of Caligula, but Claudius prevented this. Nero was declared an enemy of the state by the senate, but then given an enormous funeral honoring him after his death by Vitellius. While statues of some emperors were destroyed or reworked after their death, others were erected. Also, historians often wrote about the deposed emperors. Finally, many coins with the images of the discredited person continued to circulate. A particularly large number exist with Geta's image.
Examples of damnatio memoriae in modern times include the removal of statues of Stalin and other Communist leaders in the former Soviet Union. Ukraine successfully dismantled all 1,320 statues of Lenin after its independence, as well as renaming roads and structures named under Soviet authority.
Looking at cases of damnatio memoriae in modern Irish history, Guy Beiner has argued that iconoclastic vandalism entails subtle expressions of ambiguous remembrance and that, rather than effacing memory, such acts of decommemorating effectively preserve memory in obscure forms.