Damnatio Memoriae

While listening to the sermon yesterday from the associate pastor of our congregation, I was struck by a particular historical confluence between the discussion of the desire of believers to be written in the Book of Life [1] and the behavior of the Romans regarding a particularly fierce punishment known as the damnatio memoriae, where the memory of the condemned was to be obliterated to the greatest extent possible, usually for acts of betrayal of treason. Of course, this particular punishment is not entirely unknown within the Bible, though its enforcement is a matter of implication. It is also noteworthy to examine the difference between what is forgotten perfectly by God and that which is forgotten permanently by the Romans.

In The Bible, we see on occasion references to a perfect forgetting. At least a few of these are worthy of quotation and brief commentary. For example, one of the more encouraging passages of the Bible is Revelation 21:1-7: “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. The shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”” Here we see an example of damnatio memoriae, even if it is not what we would expect as a punishment. What is forgotten, and forgotten perfectly, apparently, is the pain and suffering of physical life, of death and sorrow and misery, by those who have been redeemed and enter into the Kingdom of God as the sons and daughters of the Most High. We all have memories of trauma and pain that we would like to be rid of, and some of us have far more than the usual share of such matters, which is one of the reasons that this passage is so comforting in the first place, in that it promises that at some point we will be able to be unburdened of these matters from our memory, no longer to be haunted by them in the middle of the night or in the midst of a lonely day.

Another curious example of damnatio memoriae occurs in Psalm 103:6-14, a very lovely psalm of David, which reads: “The Eternal executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel. The Eternal is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy towards those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far He has removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Eternal pities those who fear Him; for He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” Here again we see an example of damnatio memoriae that does not seek to obliterate people from memory, but rather seeks to obliterate the memory of our sins from God’s mind. This is curious, in that as an act of mercy God promises to remove our sins completely away from us. This would appear not to only obliterate our sins that have been forgiven from God’s memory, but eventually from our own, so that they would no longer have any more hold of us. This, again, though, is the sort of obliteration that does not seek to destroy people, but rather to destroy the memory of misery and unhappiness and evil once that evil has done its good work of spurring moral growth and repentance to God. While this life itself does not tend to provide such perfect forgetfulness, it does provide a model of how we should behave towards others and ourselves, using our own shortcomings as the fuel for growth and development, and being gracious and merciful with the shortcomings of others, even as we seek to avoid suffering because of them.

In stark contrast to the way in which God condemns the memory of sin and suffering in the world to come, so that it does not trouble believers who have entered into eternal life, the Roman Senate condemned the memory of emperors who during their life were flattered and cajoled but after their death were thought of as particularly wicked: Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Albinus, Geta, Macrinus, Diadumenianus, Helopgabalus/Antoninus, Severus Alexander, Maximin I, Maximus I, Gordian III, Philip I, II, Traianus Decius, Herennius Etruscus, Hostilianus, Aemilianus, Gallienus, Aurelian, Probus, Carus, Carinus, Numerianus, Diocletian, Maximian I, II (Galerius), Flavius Severus, Maximin Daia, Maxentius, Licinus I, Constantine II, Constans I, Magnentius, Maximus II [2]. Some aspects of this list of emperors are worthy of commentary. Among this very fascinating mixture of emperors are some who are known as being monstrous in some way or another (Nero, Domition, and Commodus, for example, are widely reviled in historical memory). Some were emperors who were powerful in life but happened to make some notable enemies (Aurelian and Diocletian), especially for their persecution of Hellenistic Christians. Many other examples, though, were short-lived emperors whose time in the purple was brief and whose memory would have been largely forgotten anyway. Among the indignities suffered by these people were the removal of their name from statues and public marble works as well as the recall and melting of their coins so that no trace of them was to remain. Fortunately for them, of course, none of these emperors, or many of the other lesser figures who suffered this fate, have been entirely forgotten, as the statues that sought to obliterate them from memory itself provided a memory of their actions, and of the deeds that they were accused of.

Memory is a funny thing [3]. Our human memories tend to retain longest and deepest those memories that are the most traumatic and the most painful. Often that which we might wish to escape the most fervently is that which we cannot escape from. Additionally, as ironic as this may seem, the ravages of time are far more effective at obliterating memory than the deliberate action of people to try to wipe people from history through doctoring photos or engaging in show trials and loud denunciations, or engaging in destructive behavior that by its destructiveness points attention to what has been defaced. The decay of creation taking over what has been left in disrepair by mankind, or the impartial ravages of war, are far more skilled at removing the memory of our words and decades than the deliberate attacks of vengeful enemies. That is not to say that what is remembered even under the best of circumstances is accurate and complete, but the very act of trying to attack someone’s memory is itself a sign that the memory itself is significant for some reason. It is very possible that the act of trying to denounce someone’s memory is often done for mere political effect or for the psychological benefit of wishing to punish someone after they are dead (which is a very difficult task, to say the least) than it is done for any kind of just purposes.

Even if we might never warrant official deletion by the powers that be in our nation or any other (if we are fortunate), there are many ways that we can be forgotten. Time itself tends to distance us from that which we thought of as particularly important at one time, and unless we are the sort of people who ruminate over our lives and our memories often and reflect on them, there will be people and incidents that will fade from our memories. At times, we may be more tempted to try to obliterate the memory of others through destroying or avoiding those artifacts that remind us of others, photos and songs and movies and the like, because we wish to forget. Let us, however, strive to obliterate memory as God does, seeking that the pain and the suffering and the evil be removed from us, and not the people themselves, seeing as they are what we are, beings created in the image and likeness of God with our own struggles and our own shortcomings, and as we would wish to be remembered by others for the good that we do and that we are, so let us also extend the same gracious courtesy to others.

[1] See, for example:




[2] http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/romannames1/a/EmperorsErased.htm

[3] See, for example:













About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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