April 16, 2017

Damnatio memoriae

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The Latin in the title is a modern construction, but it describes a fairly common way that Romans would (to borrow from Orwell) push memories down the memory hole, including even former Emperors:

In the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin didn’t just defeat his political enemies – he purged their memories from existence. Photographs were altered and history texts changed to eliminate any trace of those who stood against him, a practice that inspired George Orwell to write 1984. But Stalin was far from the first leader to erase his enemies. The ancient Romans, too, tried to erase people from history – even Emperors.

A new show on now at the British Museum explores the use of memory sanctions against Roman emperors and their families in antiquity. It also evaluates the physical treatment of objects deemed “pagan” or heretical in the Christianized empire of Late Antiquity.

But what was the point of “damnatio memoriae“? And can you ever fully expunge someone from the historical record?

A Basanite bust of Germanicus that has a series of cuts around his ear, a shorn nose, his right ear chipped away and a cross etched on his forehead. The bust is on display now at the British Museum. (Photo by Sarah E. Bond)

The British Museum is currently displaying an exhibit on ancient memory sanctions called: “Defacing the Past: Damnation and desecration in imperial Rome.” It is a fascinating look into the ways in which we interact with objects as a proxy for the actual person. It is also a look into what ancient historian Harriet Flower has called the “art of forgetting.” Although such sanctions are often called “damnatio memoriae,” this is a modern Latin phrase and thus a construct that did not in fact exist in antiquity. Use of the term suggests a monolithic way in which Romans could legally damn the memory of a disgraced or unpopular Roman emperor, when in fact there was no one term for such sanctions or even a fully systematized procedure for it. What we have today is instead the material remnants of various senatorial, imperial, and ecclesiastical decrees — as well as a number of personal choices.

Sanctions against the commemoration of a person could take many forms in ancient Rome and can be traced back to the Republican period. The dictator Sulla had the statues of his rival, Marius, pulled down. He also banned the display of wax imagines carried in funeral processions. We are told by Plutarch (Caes. 5) that the nephew of Marius, Julius Caesar, displayed these wax casts of Marius’ face for the first time in the funeral for his aunt Julia in 69 BCE. Julia had been Marius’ wife and was Caesar’s aunt. The disgraced general and his consorts were earlier declared hostes (enemies) of the Roman state, but their memory was clearly not forgotten. The absence of the imagines under Sulla had in fact always been conspicuous, rather than a tactic that led to the erasure of their deeds or memory.

October 2, 2015

Marcus Porcius Cato – the man who almost stopped Julius Caesar

Filed under: Europe, History, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Freeman, Lawrence W. Reed talks about one of the last few Republicans in the Rome of Julius Caesar’s ascendance:

In the estimations of many historians, two men hold the honor as the most notable defenders of the Roman Republic. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one. Marcus Porcius Cato, or “Cato the Younger,” was the other.

Since there was a “younger,” there must have been an “elder,” too. Cato the Elder was the great grandfather of the younger. Both men, separated by more than a century, were influential in public office. Think of the elder as the social conservative, concerned in his day with preserving the customs and traditions of Rome. The younger was one of history’s early libertarians, interested more in personal and political liberties because he believed that if they were lost, nothing else mattered. It is this second one to whom I refer in the balance of this essay as simply “Cato.”

By the time of Cato’s birth in 95 BC, the Roman Republic was long in the tooth. Founded four centuries earlier, it had risen from obscurity to political and economic dominance in the Mediterranean. Rome was easily the world’s wealthiest and most powerful society. It wasn’t a libertarian paradise — slavery was a part of its makeup, as it was even more brutal everywhere else — but Rome had taken liberty to a zenith the world had never seen before and wouldn’t see again for a long time after it finally fell. The constitution of the republic embodied term limits; separation of powers; checks and balances; due process; habeas corpus; the rule of law; individual rights; and elected, representative legislative bodies, including the famous Senate. All of this was hanging by a thread in the first century BC.

Cato was just five years of age when Rome went to war with its former allies in the Italian peninsula — the so-called “Social War.” Though the conflict lasted just two years, its deleterious effects were huge. The decades to follow would be marked by the rise of factions and conflict and local armies loyal to their commanders instead of the larger society. A “welfare-warfare” state was putting down deep roots as Cato grew up. The limited government, personal responsibility and extensive civil society so critical to the republic’s previous success were in an agonizing, century-long process of collapse. Even many of those who recognized the decay around them nonetheless drank the Kool-Aid, succumbing to the temptations of power or subsidies or both.

Before the age of 30, Cato had become a supremely disciplined individual, a devotee of Stoicism in every respect. He commanded a legion in Macedon and won immense loyalty and respect from the soldiers for the example he set, living and laboring no differently from day to day than he required of his men. He first won election to public office (to the post of quaestor, supervising financial and budgetary matters for the state) in 65 BC and quickly earned a reputation as scrupulously meticulous and uncompromisingly honest. He went out of his way to hold previous quaestors accountable for their dishonesty and misappropriation of funds, which he himself uncovered.

Later he served in the Roman Senate, where he never missed a session and criticized other senators who did. Through his superb oratory in public and deft maneuverings in private, he worked tirelessly to restore fealty to the ideals of the fading Republic.

August 28, 2012

What can Caesar’s Gallic War commentary tell us about Afghanistan?

Filed under: History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:10

According to this reading, lots and lots:

I finished Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War this weekend […] and a few things struck me:

a. The successful Roman counterinsurgency campaign in Gaul took eight years.

b. The enemies against which Rome fought were not a unitary actor, and neither were Rome’s allies.

c. Rome’s allies one summer were often Rome’s enemies by winter. And visa versa.

But the two things that made the biggest impression on me were the following:

d. Caesar was the commander for eight full years, and he enjoyed similar continuity among his subordinate commanders.

e. Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions — most especially the Tenth — that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.

With Caesar’s commentaries in mind, I read Doug Ollivant’s lament about Gen. Joe Dunford. Gen. Dunford will be the fifteenth commander of NATO-ISAF in eleven years of combat in Afghanistan and the ninth U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Each of his subordinate commanders have rotated on an annual basis. Gen. Dunford — who is, by all accounts, an excellent officer and highly respected by his peers — has never served in Afghanistan.

The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.

H/T to Tim Harford for the link.

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