Monthly Archives: December 2016

Damnation

About a month ago I managed to escape from the library long enough to pop into a small temporary exhibit at the  British Museum – Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome. It focuses on the practice of damnatio memoriae, where (mostly) bad emperors were condemned by the Senate, and had their name and likeness removed. In some instances, this was done by one emperor in order to remove a rival. Caracalla’s destruction of his brother Geta’s memory is the most obvious example, and one that featured heavily in the exhibit. But it was also a practice engaged in by the people after to removal of a particularly hated ruler. Pliny the Younger, writing after the damnatio memoriae had been issued for Domitian, said ‘How delightful it was, to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows.’ (Panegyric 52.4-5). As I expected, the collection on display included some re-modelled or damamged portrait busts, a lot of coins that had one face rubbed out, and a few monumental stone inscriptions with lines chiseled out. What surprised me was to see a graffito, imitating a monumental inscription, and bearing the same erasure that a lapidary text would suffer. (The original graffito is not on display, but there is a large reproduction).

 

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Found in a guardhouse of the nightwatch in Trastevere in Rome, the original text says:

CIL VI 3075
Imp(eratore) d(omino) n(ostro) Alexandro III / co(n)s(ule) |(centuria) Auli Terentius / Felix devotus numini / eorum feci(t) sebac{c}i/aria m(ense) Mai{i}o / salvis commanipu/los.
‘To the emperor our lord Alexander, consul for the third time, Terentius Felix member of the division of Aulus, devotee of the protective gods of the imperial family, performed the [night watch] rota of the month of May with all his companions safe.’

The graffito includes what looks like an altar, with the text inscribed on the base, and surmounted with a statue of Victory holding a palm, and busts of Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mamaea, on either side. When Alexander was assassinated in AD 235, this death marked the end of the Severan Dynasty and the start of nearly fifty years of civil wars and upheaval, in which twenty-six of the next twenty-eight emperors were also assassinated. After his death, his memory was condemned. The graffito was then defaced – the images of him and his mother were both crossed out, and his name was struck through in the first line of text. The damage done to the graffito is clearer in a line drawing:

 

20161014_150317

 

Although the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae at the time of his death, this was lifted in AD 238, when Alexander Severus was instead deified. What is particularly interesting about that is that it potentially allows the execution of the damnatio memoriae on the graffito to be dated to a three year period. Furthermore, I find the act of defacing a graffito in this manner unusual in and of itself, and would surmise that it has only happened because it isn’t just a random scribbling, but one that was specifically made to replicate a monumental inscription. I have written about this practice before, but never have I come across a text that was defaced after a Senatorial decree. This, I think, puts a whole new twist on the concept of a damnatio memoriae, and how it was viewed or enacted by ordinary Romans.

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