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damnatio memoriae and Confederate statue destructions today

Jen Trimble (Stanford; AIA Ridgway Lecture)
Saturday, March 2, 2024 - 2:00pm
DEN 112 and over Zoom (registration details below)
In recent years, Confederate and other statues are being removed from public space—sometimes violently torn down and destroyed.  For the ancient Romans, these events would have looked very familiar.  A hated Roman emperor could have his statues torn down in an orchestrated spectacle of fury and rejection.  Modern scholars term this damnatio memoriae, “condemnation of memory”.  In this lecture, I compare and contrast recent statue destructions with ancient Roman practices of damnatio, in order to understand both more fully.

Similarities include the power politics and honorific purposes of both Roman and Confederate statues when they were initially installed in public space.  Another striking similarity is the shared emphasis on physically disgracing and degrading the hated statue: defacing, pulling down, splotching with paint, dragging through the streets.  An important difference lies in who organizes and authorizes these spectacles.  In Ancient Rome, damnatio was usually a top-down directive from the new ruler, which authorized and encouraged spectacular violence by the crowd.  In the modern US and other countries, recent statue destructions have been more bottom-up and populist in their nature.  The authorities have also been removing statues, but in a very different way, with great care—although with no less absolute an outcome, the permanent removal of that figure from public space.

In the longer-term, we are in a jagged, messy transition from positive to negative heritage.  Statues initially erected to honor certain persons and ideas are now rejected as still-potent symbols of unacceptable ideologies.  This process finds echoes not only in Ancient Rome but also in post-Communist Russia and other countries that have undergone major ideological changes and now have hated or simply irrelevant honorific monuments to cope with.  As this transition continues, the question arises of what to do with the removed statues and what different answers might mean.  Should such statues be moved to a less prominent public place or into private collections, or is there an ongoing public obligation to see them more permanently disposed of?  Is leaving such statues in place an adequate solution, as long as they are given new labels and signage that strives to counter their honorific origins?  Should they continue to be displayed, but in their most recent condition, e.g., knocked over and covered with paint?  Should they be permanently broken up or melted down, and physically erased in that way?  Some of these outcomes were practiced by the Romans; each of them has different effects and resonance in modern American contexts.