Earlier today, a totally-not-half-cocked Miami Heat fan defaced a mural commemorating the team's recent NBA championships. Setting aside the painting's relatively poor execution, this absolutely-well-adjusted fan unwittingly tapped into a millennia-old tradition of vandalism known as damnatio memoriae.
The Romans performed damnatio memoriae in the wake of powerful men's falls from grace. Caligula, Domitian, even Nero (to an extent) suffered damnatio, which was meant to be an erasure from the historical record. And yet.
Classical scholars are divided on what a damnatio memoriae entails. Literally translated, "a condemnation of memory," a damnatio has recently been interpreted as a "remembering to forget:" in other words, this asshole should be remembered as an asshole, so let's leave a gaping hole where his stupid, asshole face should be. Here are some examples of ancient damnatio memoriae:
Remember Vitellius? Yes, that Vitellius! It seems that, in his infinite stupidity and lack of historical perspective, he had coinage struck with his own visage on it. Well, if you get your ass ... um ... assassinated in ancient Rome, your currency counts for shit! Here we see that Vitellius' face (left, recto) has been scraped to near-unrecognizeability. Still, though, we all know who should be there.
Here's a fun one. This is a portrait of the Imperial family of Severans. Clockwise from top left: Julia Domna (a very bad lady), Emperor Severus himself, Caracalla (who took over for Severus), and who's that? That was Geta! Caracalla's older brother and presumptive heir to Severus. But guess what? Julia Domna conspired with Caracalla to have Geta poisoned and expunged from the historical record. Yet, he's still there, lurking in the background. In fact, we can still (sort of) read his name on inscriptions found in Rome:
GETAE reads the top line there. Trust me. What is the effect of all of this? Well, at face (lol) value, damnatio memoriae is meant to tarnish the recent legacy of political enemies. Geta didn't necessarily do anything wrong, he just fell on the wrong side of Julia Domna's plans for Rome. In Vitellius' case, he was probably a bit more deserving of a damnatio, seeing as he carried out civil war and the executions of many wealthy Romans. At another level, and perhaps paradoxically, damnatio memoriae helps solidify a person's memory in history. "Let's not fully forget this guy," goes the thinking, "lest we promote someone like him in the future."
This is my favorite damnatio, and we'll end here. This is what's left of a bust of Domitian. You can see that the defacer has taken care to cut the head into quadrants. We dug this thing out of the ground near Rome's Fiumicino airport and reassembled it. It's still clearly Domitian, but we're missing the final quarter of the portrait.