Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History

Alexander Meddings - September 19, 2017

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”. So reads the slogan George Orwell gave his Party in what most consider his magnum opus, “1984”. When it comes to history’s malleability, Orwell didn’t have to go far back for inspiration. He drew on the regime of Josef Stalin, which had little compunction in writing people out of the Bolshevik narrative after their fall from grace. But erasure as a posthumous form of punishment was not a product of the 20th century. The damnatio memoriae (or collective “forgetting”) of figures stretches back as far as human history, with the burning of books, destruction of images and retelling (or rewriting) of histories.

This article looks at the practice as it applies to Roman culture. Their attack on the memory of someone who disgraced their community is known as damnatio memoriae or “the damnation of memory”. It’s not a term the Romans used themselves. The decree passed in the Senate desecrating someone’s name and image was called abolitio nominis (the abolition of one’s name). But the term damnatio memoriae is useful for us as it effectively covers all the practices it entailed—banning people from grieving for the deceased, removing images or portraits of the dead, destroying anything they might have produced, and eradicating any physical legacy they might have left. Let’s look at how they applied this condemnatory practice during the late Republic and early Empire to various political figures who fell from grace.

The Gracchi

Roman history has no shortage of famous brothers. Most famous are the city’s legendary founders, Romulus and Remus. You might imagine their feral upbringing at the teat of a she-wolf did something to bring them together. But a sibling squabble over a wall and the delimitation of their respective cities’ borders brought their partnership to an untimely end in an act of fratricide. There is, however, a lesser-known (but far more cooperative) pair of brothers who can be more firmly rooted in history than legend: Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
Eugene Guillaume’s “Les Gracques” (The Gracchi) 1853. Wikimedia Commons

The Gracchus brothers—or Gracchi as they’re commonly and collectively known—were particularly progressive politicians. Active during the second century BC, they represented the interests of Rome’s poorer citizens as Tribunes of the Plebs. Amongst other things their plans focussed on redistributing land more evenly among Roman laborers rather than allowing the rich to monopolize it all for themselves, revising military conscription laws, and providing a state-offered grain ration. The Gracchi’s manifestos won them the love of the masses. But it also earned them the hatred of the powerful.

The Gracchi can be credited with setting in motion a series of civil conflicts which ultimately led to the civil war of Julius Caesar and the rise of the first emperor, Augustus. This wasn’t just because of their reforms and willingness to challenge the status quo. It’s because they were killed for trying to do so, and their deaths set a precedent. For as Tribune of the Plebs, they were supposedly sacrosanct, unable to be touched or killed. But for Tiberius Gracchus (and Gaius 10 years later) their enemies conveniently ignored this rule.

Tiberius was killed in 133 BC during a scuffle in the forum. He was beaten to death by a mob armed with wooden clubs who’d had enough of his repeated abuse of the veto. Gaius took up his brother’s cause 10 years later, but his radicalism continued to alienate the elite. Having been declared an enemy of the state (hostis) in 121 BC, he fled atop Rome’s Aventine Hill where, realizing the hopelessness of his situation, he ordered his personal slave to run him through with his sword. But on both occasions the senators weren’t happy to stop with their deaths; they also determined to erase every trace of the Gracchi’s existence.

After their deaths, their bodies were thrown into the River Tiber while thousands of their allies were hunted down and killed in gruesome ways, some sewn into sacks full of snakes. Both of their houses were confiscated by the state and destroyed and their widows were forbidden from mourning them. But rather than forgotten, to the great frustration of the Senate the Gracchi became hagiologised. Shrines and statues to their memory sprung up at the sites where they’d died with people from across Italy making pilgrimages to visit them.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
Bronze copy of the inscription outlining Piso’s memory sanctions: the “Senatus consultum de pisone patre”. Eagle Project

Gnaus Calpurnius Piso

From the illustrious family of the Calpurnii Pisones, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso was your quintessential aspiring Roman politician. He was a close friend of Emperor Tiberius, holding the consulship with him in 7 BC, and went on to receive a prestigious promotion to become governor of Syria in 17 AD. But while he got along wonderfully with the emperor, his relationship was Tiberius’s heir apparent, the dashing young warrior prince Germanicus, was sour. Piso deeply resented Germanicus’s power and influence and the two gradually drifted apart, with Piso officially renouncing their friendship (which I suppose is the ancient equivalent of unfriending him) around 19 AD.

In October of the same year, Germanicus fell sick in Antioch. Many, including Germanicus himself, believed he’d been poisoned by Piso, and his rapid decline and agonizing death only served to confirm this. With the whole of Rome was mourning their darling prince, Piso began acting suspiciously. He was recalled to Rome by the emperor but prevaricated, sending his son on ahead while he spent time wandering around Greece and Anatolia with his army. Ultimately he returned to Rome where he was brought to trial and found guilty. He was then ordered to commit suicide; a sentence he carried out on himself in 20 AD.

We have a remarkable piece of evidence for the memory sanctions taken against Piso: a giant Latin inscription, of which several copies have survived completely intact. Known as the Senatus consultum de pisone patris (the senatorial edict concerning Piso), it decreed that all his portraits, public and private and across the entire Empire, be destroyed, presumably a considerable number given Piso’s political standing. It also forbade his imago (probably referring to his death mask) to be displayed anywhere, even at his funeral as was traditional in Roman funerary practice.

As well as removing his image, the Senate set out to expunge his very existence, not just as a politician but as a member of the respected Calpurnii Pisones family. The edict decreed that women weren’t allowed to mourn him, as they were expected to do when the paterfamilias passed, and Piso’s eldest son was asked to change his name to end his line. Piso’s name was erased from a series of inscriptions, including one beneath a statue of Germanicus in Rome’s Campus Martius. Finally, any extensions he’d built onto his private property were ordered to be destroyed, preventing him from leaving even an architectural legacy.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
Coins showing the removal of Sejanus’s name. Forum Ancient Coins

Sejanus

Calculating, ambitious, and a self-made man of no real aristocratic pedigree, Sejanus was a frightening man to have around if you were a member of the imperial household. Having slept himself to the center of Roman government through an affair with Tiberius’s son’s wife, Livilla, Sejanus began to seriously entertain aspirations to be emperor. After Drusus’s death in 23 AD, he became Tiberius’s trusted partner, essentially second-in-command of the Empire; my socius laborum (partner in labor) as the emperor referred to him. And when Tiberius left Rome for good in 26 AD to let loose his debaucheries living on Capri, Sejanus essentially took on the responsibility of running the Empire.

We’ll never know what happened in 31 AD. Perhaps the paranoid Tiberius grew suspicious of Sejanus; perhaps Sejanus launched a failed coup against the emperor. Regardless, one day in 31 Tiberius had Sejanus denounced in the senate, imprisoned, and promptly executed. As far as Roman executions went his was fairly standard, being led out of prison and strangled. What happened to his body afterward, however, was anything but. For three days his corpse was left out in public where it was beaten by his political enemies, and probably also, knowing the cruelty of the times, opportunistic passers-by. Only after suffering this ignominious treatment was it thrown into the Tiber where it drifted out of Rome and out of history.

Just as the mob didn’t hold back on Sejanus’s corpse, nor did Tiberius hold back in obliterating his memory. An issue of coins, minted during Sejanus’s consulship in 31, was recalled and defaced, removing his name. Look at the image at the top and you can see that the words L. AELIO SEIANO have been scratched away. In one of his letters, Seneca the Younger, writing around 20 years after Sejanus’s death, mentioned a statue of Sejanus that used to be in the Theatre of Pompeii. His use of tense is telling, and it’s probably safe to assume that Tiberius wasted no time in having it pulled down in 31 AD. We can assume through the lack of statues and portraits of Sejanus that it wasn’t the only one.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
Wikipedia

Livilla

Born sometime between 14 and 10 BC, Livilla had close ties to the imperial household through her Julian blood and a series of convenient marriages. But despite being married to the emperor’s son and potential heir, Drusus, Livilla embarked on a raunchy affair with the head of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus. Whether or not they were attracted to one another or had more Machiavellian motives we’ll never know. Sejanus certainly had more to gain by positioning himself closer to Drusus. Livilla’s husband didn’t last long. He died young in 23 AD; officially from natural causes, most likely from poison Sejanus had long been secretly administering to him.

Livilla was certainly involved in plotting against Tiberius in 31 AD. But a letter from Sejanus’s ex-wife warning the emperor of the imminent threat meant that Tiberius was able to move first. He had them denounced in the senate, and Sejanus and his entire family executed. It’s not clear whether Livilla was murdered or committed suicide. But a much later historian, Cassius Dio, gives us one particularly nasty version of her demise. He says she was locked away in a room where, with her mother Antonia Minor standing guard outside, she was left to starve.

The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that early in the year 32 the Senate passed formal sanctions against her memory and decreed that all images of her should be destroyed. This is significant as it makes Livilla the first woman in the imperial family whose memory the Senate voted to officially expunge. The measures were remarkably effective: as the widow of the emperor’s son and the mother of one of his potential heirs, you’d expect an abundance of portraiture. Remarkably little, however, has survived.

No statue types can be identified as Livilla. All we have are a series of cameos which, because of her unique hairstyle (wavy, centrally parted, and tied up in a chignon) we can identify her on. We do, however, have portraits of the imperial family as a whole in which she’s been scratched out. What’s more incredible still is that no inscription bearing her name survives throughout the entire city of Rome.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
The Famous People

Caligula

Caligula’s cruel treatment of the Roman elite meant he was never going to have a good posthumous reputation. Probably through crippling insecurity, he used every opportunity to flex his political muscle and abuse his power over the senatorial class. Inviting them to banquets, he would take their wives to bed only to bring them back afterwards and publically assess their performance. When sycophants suggested they worship him as a god, he delightedly accepted, having them set up a cult to his own godhead.

In 41 AD those around him finally had enough, assassinating the emperor, his wife, and his infant child on his way from the theatre. The assassination caused pandemonium. Caligula’s German bodyguards rushed around in a rage, murdering anyone they came across. The senate called a meeting in which they flirted with the idea of doing away with emperors for good and returning to a republic. But while the senators debated what to do, a sympathetic praetorian guard found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain in the palace and brought him to the praetorian camp where he was duly declared emperor.

Claudius wouldn’t allow the Senate to formally condemn Caligula. But this didn’t mean attacks on his memory—and that of his family—wasn’t severe. Rather than being interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus, he was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent anyone forming a cult around him. The senate ordered that all bronze aes coins bearing Caligula’s image be melted down while many other types were scratched, clipped, or defaced. Claudius also had his and his wife’s names stripped of all their imperial titles in the Fasti (political calendars) and had all images of them either destroyed or removed from public sight and put into storage, including artworks, portraits, and sculptures.

Many statues were re-carved to resemble Rome’s first emperor, Caligula’s great-grandfather, Augustus. Others were taken away and later transformed into statues of Emperor Claudius. Ironically, statues of disgraced emperors like Caligula tend to have survived better than those of good emperors. This is because they were often stored away, and so were kept in a better state of preservation, than those of the good emperors which, being out in public, have long been exposed to the elements and weather damaged. But while some of his statues may have survived more or less intact, the same cannot be said for his notorious reputation.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
“The Death of Messalina” by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse, 1916. Wikimedia Commons

Messalina

You might think Messalina would have learned from the mistakes of Livilla, Tiberius’s daughter-in-law whose failed conspiracy against Tiberius just 17 years before had led to her death and the damning of her reputation. Despite the damnatio memoriae passed on her, there’s no way Messalina wouldn’t have known Livilla’s story from the constant gossip of the imperial household. But hindsight’s a wonderful thing, and as it was Messalina went on to repeat the same mistakes as her imperial predecessor.

Of noble blood, Messalina was the great-granddaughter of Octavia, sister of the first emperor Augustus. She married the future emperor Claudius in 38 or 39 AD, a couple of years before he took power. She had two children with him, Britannicus (named after Claudius’s conquest of Britain) and Octavia. Both would perish under the next emperor, Nero: Britannicus through poison; Octavia, Nero’s wife, by having her wrists slashed before being suffocated in a hot vapor bath.

Messalina’s noble blood didn’t, however, translate to nobility of character. As empress she gained a reputation for sexual insatiability, reportedly competing in a form of sexual Olympics with Rome’s leading prostitute. And winning. In 48 AD she married her lover Gaius Silius while Claudius was out of town and made a grab for power. Their plan failed. The Emperor returned to Rome and re-established himself while Silius and his co-conspirators were arrested and executed. Messalina was briefly detained but ultimately put to death by Claudius’s advisors who feared the emperor might have a change of heart and spare her life.

Immediately after her death, the Senate struck again, just as they had with Livilla after her failed plot against Tiberius. They agreed that, in order to ensure the absolute oblivio, or obliteration, of her memory, they would wipe all traces of her existence. Her name would be chiseled out of inscriptions and her image would be removed, not just from public places but also from private residences across the Empire. Such was the hatred felt towards her that it didn’t stop at that. Coins minted in the Greek provinces that bore her name and image were defaced and many of her portraits were mutilated, vandalized with hammers and chisels until her likeness became unrecognizable.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
Clipped and defaced sestertius depicting the Emperor Nero. CNG Coins

Nero

By the time Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, driving a dagger into his neck in hiding from the Senate and the army in his freedman’s squalid villa, his posthumous reputation was already beyond saving. Not only had he managed to alienate vast sections of Roman society through his shocking incompetency as emperor, his death also brought about the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and resulted in just over a year of brutal civil war— creating precisely the instability an emperor was supposed to prevent.

Declared an enemy of the state (hostis) by the Senate, Nero was subjected to a de facto damnatio memoriae, meaning that while no official senatorial decree was passed to eradicate any trace of his reign from history, his name and images were still attacked, erased, or removed from public view and put into storage. He still had some love among the plebs though. Not only did people long continue to decorate his tomb with flowers, but our sources tell us that the years following his death a number of “False Neros” sprung up around the Empire, believing they could trade in their name for power.

Nero was briefly rehabilitated during the short-lived reigns of two of his successors, Otho and Vitellius in 69 AD, his statues returned to public view. Otho had close ties with Nero, having formerly being married to one of Nero’s wives, Poppaea Sabina, while Vitellius and Nero had been friends with Vitellius constantly praising the emperor’s artistic abilities and encouraging him to give recitals. However, the eventual winner of the Civil War, Vespasian, wasted no time in reinforcing Nero’s damnatio memoriae.

Many of Nero’s statues were re-cut to look like Vespasian, and ease with which this was done wasn’t a great compliment to the young Nero. Vespasian was 60 when he took power—almost double Nero’s age when he died—and we’re told he had an expression that made him look constantly constipated. But it wasn’t just Vespasian’s likeness Nero’s statues were re-carved into. Augustus, Claudius, Galba, Titus, Domitian, Trajan, Commodus; these are just a few of the preceding and succeeding emperors whose statues were cut from Nero.

Another iconic image of Nero underwent alteration after his death. After the Great Fire of 64 AD, Nero commissioned a “colossus”, a giant bronze statue of himself some 120 foot tall, to be erected in the gardens of his Golden House (roughly where the Colosseum stands today and from where it gets its name). After his death, this colossus underwent numerous changes: first made to look like the sun god Sol, it was then recast to resemble Vespasian’s son, Emperor Titus, before becoming Hercules and finally Emperor Commodus.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
An altar dedicated to Sol and Domitian with Domitian’s name erased, 87 AD. Pinterest

Domitian

An able administrator, loved by the soldiery but reviled by the Senate as a tyrant, Domitian’s death greatly divided opinion. The army mourned him deeply, calling on him to be deified and demanding his assassins to be brought to justice. The plebs reacted with indifference while the Senate celebrated with sheer delight. The memory sanctions the Senate launched against Domitian in September 96 AD were particularly severe.

Thronging the senate-house, they denounced his name and reputation in the most vitriolic ways before bringing ladders so they could have all his votive shields and statues pulled down from display and smashed. Finally, they passed an oblitio nominis, requiring that his name be erased from all public inscriptions and all records of his reign obliterated.

We know that Suetonius isn’t exaggerating here for two reasons. Firstly, archaeological evidence in Rome has found little trace of Domitian’s statues of inscriptions mentioning the emperor. In fact, when it comes to his statues most have been re-carved to resemble his successors: Nerva Secondly we have a quote from Pliny the Younger—a lawyer and politician present at the time, thanks to whose letters we know about such events as the eruption of Vesuvius—describing the destruction of Domitian’s statues:

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.”

It wasn’t just in Rome that Domitian’s memory faced all-out erasure. He had been particularly fond of the city of Ephesus, the first emperor to show such favor to the city since Augustus. As well as building a series of aqueducts, extending the city’s boundary, providing tax breaks, he also conferred on the city what was the greatest honor imaginable: allowing it to set up a cult to the emperor. This they did, each temple competing fiercely for pre-eminence. The problem, of course, was what they would do after he died.

His building projects such as the aqueducts continued to function; clearly, there was no point in the people of Ephesus cutting off their nose to spite their face. But when it came to inscriptions, his name was removed. There was still the pressing issue of the temple in Domitian’s honor, of course, but the resourceful Ephesians found a way around this: rededicated it to Domitian’s family, the Flavians, while leaving out Domitian himself.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
A restored inscription on which Commodus’s name–CO–has been erased. Wikimedia Commons

Commodus

Coming to power at just 19-years-old Commodus never had much of a knack for ruling. Rather than presiding over sessions in the senate, he preferred bludgeoning wild animals to death in the arena, or when he was feeling less energetic using them as target practice for archery. Highlights of his reign of terror include making his praetorian prefect dance naked through the palace, changing Rome’s name to “Commodiana” and renamed the months after his honorific titles: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius.

Eventually, and indeed inevitably, he was assassinated, ignominiously strangled in the bath after surviving an attempted poisoning by his wrestling partner Narcissus in 192 AD. The Senate wasted no time in declaring him hostis (enemy of the state), expunging his name from inscriptions, tearing down his statues throughout the city, and reversing some of the more intolerable changes he’d made. Like changing Rome’s name back to Rome.

We have a valuable but rather strange source which, if we choose to believe it, gives us the verbatim senatorial decree listing sanctions against the memory of the deceased emperor. Outraged in its tone, it exhorts for Commodus’s body to be dragged with a hook through the dust; for his statues to be overthrown; for “the memory of the foul gladiator [Commodus] to be utterly wiped away.” The problem with this source is that it reads so badly; too badly I think to be genuine. It’s repetitive to the point of ridiculous and conspicuously lacking in specifics. Nevertheless, it was right about the statues. Images and inscriptions bearing the emperor’s name were destroyed or altered en masse after his death, testament to the vitriol the people felt for him.

For all of his many transgressions, Commodus was actually made a god by his successor, Septimius Severus. It’s unlikely this was done out of any personal admiration; more likely it was a politically appeasing manoeuvre aimed to get the family of Marcus Aurelius onside. But becoming deified did nothing to help his posthumous reputation, and Commodus is still widely regarded as being one of Rome’s worst emperors. Perhaps he would have done well to listen to his fictional nemesis, the husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son Maximus Decimus Aurelius. After all, what he did in life really has echoed in eternity.

Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History
Family portrait of Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and their two sons Caracalla and Geta. Geta’s image was removed after his assassination at the hands of his brother. Ancient Origins

Geta

Cruel, tyrannical, militarily obsessed, Emperor Caracalla was never cut out to be the sole ruler of the Roman world. Then again he was never meant to be. Upon his father Septimius Severus’s death in 211 AD, Caracalla inherited the throne along with his slightly younger brother, Geta. The two had a toxic relationship, however, constantly bickering to the extent they considered dividing the Empire in half; Caracalla ruling the West, Geta the East.

On December 26 211 Caracalla met Geta in a reconciliatory meeting organized by their mother. There he ordered his Praetorian Guard to assassinate Geta, stabbing him fatally and leaving him to bleed out in his mother’s arms. Murdering apparently 20,000 of his brother’s remaining supporters, he then enforced a damnatio memoriae, ordering all images and inscriptional mentions of Geta across the entire empire to be erased and all coins bearing his name or profile to be melted down.

It wasn’t just his brother against whom Caracalla waged a war of memory. At the age of 14, he was made to marry a young aristocrat, Fulvia Plautilla, who for reasons lost to history he passionately hated. Eventually, he was able to charge and execute her father on the conspiracy of treason. He had Plautilla killed soon after, once his own father and controlling influence had died, strangled along with their young daughter while away in exile on Lipari. We know that while Plautilla enjoyed a prominent position in the imperial family (between about 202 – 205 AD) she had numerous portraits commissioned. Many have survived, but have been victims of attacks, chiselling gouging, and water damage.

Caracalla ultimately met the same sticky end as his brother. While away on campaign, preparing to launch a military offensive into Parthia, he stopped off to urinate along the road. He was suddenly approached from behind by a disgruntled soldier whom Caracalla had denied a promotion and stabbed to death. His assassination marked the end of his short-lived dynasty: the man who replaced him as emperor just three days later, Macrinus, was the former prefect of his Praetorian Guard.

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