The past few years have delivered a slightly alarming number of think pieces, essays, and Twitter quips drawing parallels between American decline and the “fall of Rome.” Though it’s often delivered in jest, the comparison isn’t without merit: an empire, stretched beyond its ability to effectively govern, straining under the weight of its own hubris and mythology; a republic that ceded control of its future to a solitary executive; a government that at first turned a blind eye and was later powerless to stop pandemics and famine. Rome seems to stand as a cautionary tale. Whatever you think of the claim, with the Senate trial of former President Donald J. Trump looming, there’s a relevant lesson we can learn from Rome’s example. The empire was at times obsessed with trying to remove unpopular or corrupt leaders from the public record after they were no longer in power. But their attempts to do so show us that if we truly want to erase the legacies of bad leaders, we might be better served by holding them to account rather than by simply trying to eradicate them from public consciousness. A systematic and transparent legal process accomplishes what simple erasure cannot. We need to confront their records in order to forget them.
In ancient Rome, after a particularly woeful leader or other public figure died, authorities could initiate a process called damnatio memoriae—condemnation of memory—which essentially expunged that individual from the historical record. The term itself is not ancient, but it is used by scholars to denote this systematic practice of, well, cancellation. From destroying, decapitating, or recarving statues, to chiseling names from inscriptions and stamping out coinage, to holding public bonfires to destroy documents and portraits, by many accounts the Roman people delighted in exacting the ultimate punishment on failed leadership: erasure.
In the specific case of a “bad emperor”—and they appear to have been in ample supply—acts of damnatio could take multiple forms. After death, whether natural or otherwise, leaders who had seriously violated legal and social norms were denied public cult—divine status—by the Roman Senate. Such a decision meant no memorials would be built in their honor (sorry, no imperial library, Commodus), and further, any buildings constructed for such purpose during their lifetimes would be deconstructed or put to another use. Likewise, the imperial markers of their reigns were hidden, buried, destroyed, or altered. Pay close attention to the Roman busts the next time you are able to visit a museum: If the proportions of the profile seem a little “off” you might be looking at a Caligula recarved into an Augustus.
Beyond removing physical evidence of a condemned individual, loyal family, friends, and slaves often found themselves executed, exiled, driven to suicide, or on the less gruesome side of the spectrum, compelled to change their family name. Even these secondary individuals were not immune to a de facto form of damnatio—one especially memorable example is a statue of Julia Mamaea, mother of Emperor Alexander Severus (222–235 A.D.), with Mamaea’s face kicked in, presumably at an inflection point after her son’s term in power had ended. The goal of the damnatio of friends and family was to expunge all social connections to the deceased.
You might already detect the connections between Roman damnatio and our current moment. In ancient Rome, damnatio often led to the reversal of unpopular imperial decrees, echoed today in the near-record number of executive orders signed by newly elected President Joe Biden, many of these aimed at reversing Trump-era policies. There’s Trump’s permanent suspension from Twitter and other social media sites, an erasure that continues into the built environment of our cities where local leaders have sought to remove Trump’s name from buildings throughout New York City and elsewhere. Notably, well before New York canceled his contracts, the Trump Organization began quietly removing the Trump name from certain properties, and even from employee uniforms, likely realizing that the association is no longer universally good for business. Trump’s retreat to Mar-a-Largo resembles something of an exile—the island of Capri was a preferred choice for Roman banishment—and indeed, with his neighbors hoping that he’ll find refuge elsewhere, the term “exile” feels apt.
But in their zeal to remove certain public figures, the Romans inadvertently preserved and elevated the mythology of many of the same people they damned. Occasionally, suppressing the memory of incompetent or villainous figureheads even encouraged emulation by sycophants and imitators. The erased became martyr figures. Further, as a practical matter, portraits and sculptures hidden under lock and key away from public view had a funny habit of surviving antiquity. In his book Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture, Eric R. Varner confirms that a number of images of Caligula that were warehoused “in secure locations” are “astonishingly well-preserved.” Similarly, when statues were simply buried instead of smashed or burned, they were often (re)discovered by excavators centuries later, now as even more prized and rarefied finds.
This is precisely the opposite of the intended effect of damnatio: the miserable becoming the iconic. Emperors like Nero and Caligula, both having received damnatio, rank among some of the best-known figures from antiquity. This is due in part to historians, both ancient and modern, being unable to resist the temptation to amplify the alleged criminality, debauchery, and excesses of the condemned to a point beyond context or credulity. Tales of Caligula naming his horse a senator or Nero’s persecution of the early Christians—neither true—represent a rewriting of history that has only served to cement their legends.
The Romans’ failures here teach us that, in periods of political strife, the erasures of damnatio alone are not enough to achieve collective catharsis. While renegotiating public spaces and social memory is essential, the simple elimination of symbolic reminders is not enough to remove the harm done by terrible leaders and their supporters. It is better to put a mirror to these figures—and to ourselves—through a transparent legal process that exposes fact, challenges extremism and “deep state” conspiracies, and demands consequences for malign behavior. This was a hard-won lesson for postwar Germany and one that some might argue this country never learned in the aftermath of the Civil War. In place of erasure plain and simple, we need historians to write soberly about this time, to serve as witnesses and describe what has taken place in concrete terms and why. Rather than burying them, we need a view of our leaders—the good and the bad—somewhere in the vast space between damnatio and hagiography, that space we call reality.