Damnatio Memoriae…Again!

I wrote the original post some five years ago, trying to place within context the desecration of memory I saw taking place. Many Americans were judging historical figures based upon our modern ethos and condemning them for not acceding to our modern expectations. Now five years later, I see the renewed and continuing desire of the American public to rectify past mistakes and injustices (a good thing) by erasing the memory of said mistakes (a very bad thing).

What mistakes are we talking about? For one, certain people attempting to desecrate the memory of particular men who strove to create and establish the United States of America. They do this by examining these men’s lives under a microscope and only illuminating their flaws and fail to take the whole individual. Here are a few examples:

George Washington. This man owned slaves. For some people today, the mere fact that Washington owned slaves makes him the devil incarnate. I will not try to refute the hypocrisy of a man fighting for liberty yet participating in slavery. Yet, do we condemn his memory and the many contributions he made to the founding of this nation for his mistakes? This same man, had enough integrity to walk away from the presidency after two terms.

To further illuminate the subject, consider that Abraham Lincoln issued this statement in a debate with his opponent Stephan Douglas, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”(1) President Lincoln, the man who “freed the slaves,” did not believe in racial equality. Does this negate the efforts he made to end the institution of slavery in the United States?

Let’s turn to another hero: Martin Luther King Jr., was an alleged womanizer.(2) Don’t believe me? Please see the links at the end of this post and read for yourself. Even if he did have extramarital affairs, do we condemn the memory of such a hero in the black community and to the civil rights movement for his possible infidelity? If so, then we must also condemn Franklin D Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and many more men who helped build and lead this country, yet who failed in their marital vows.

These men, and many others, were mere human beings. They possessed both virtues and flaws. They made some great strides in helping our country succeed during difficult times, all the while making some great blunders and unforgettable, and seemingly unforgivable, mistakes.

In the current, supercharged and emotional climate filled with the outpouring of anger and outrage, we must be cautions and reserve judgment lest we allow the ignorance of fools to rob us of our memory and our shared history.

Take the whole man. Don’t leave anything out. Let’s stop worshiping them as heroes, but also not forget to honor them for what good they’ve done for our nation. No hero worship, but also no Damnatio Memoriae.

I’ve included in this post the original post from 2015.

Original Post 2015

Memory is one of the most important ways history influences our world. The way in which we remember events of the past can shape our perceptions of present and future events. The historical manuscripts, artifacts, statues, and buildings that our collective history is based upon also influences our cultural identity. The destruction of the same aforementioned articles and structures would rob us of part of our identity.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States has been copied and reproduced over and over again. It appears in textbooks, and is readily available online, so why do we take such care to preserve the original. Many in this nation have not nor will ever make the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. in order to view the original. The loss of such a document would not endanger the nation of being reabsorbed into the British Empire any more than Canada or Australia would. So again I ask: why is the original document so important to the people’s collective memory? Those who wrote the document are long since gone and buried, but we as citizens of the United States base our identity on the “inalienable rights” found within the document. We assert our claim on the God-given rights outlined in the document, including “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Another, not so pleasant, example is Auschwitz Concentration Camp, a site that depicts one of the most heinous acts and depressing periods of human history. Whether complicit or not, the preservation of Auschwitz is an embarrassing reminder for the German people of one of the darkest periods of their history. They pass this memory on to their children, and their children’s children. So why preserve such a site, when it casts such a black shadow on the people? Why not destroy it and erase the embarrassing mistake from memory?

During the Roman period, the Senate or emperor could order the removal of a public official from memory for the good of the empire. Modern historians call this damnatio memoriae, which literally means “condemnation of memory.” This included the total erasure of the person’s name from public documents and faces from statues and other visages. The Romans were not unique in wanting to destroy the embarrassing memory from their history. Every culture has tried to cover up or erase the painful and embarrassing events from their history in order to promote consensus and maintain national pride. This is unfortunate because we often learn most from our mistakes. The memory of mistakes like the Holocaust is paramount to future generations. We must realize that we cannot fix the mistakes of the past, but we can prevent them ever occurring again.

Vigilance against evil sometimes requires knowing what to guard against. Tyranny, mass murder, genocide, and a world at war came from Nazi Germany. The demand for equal rights and representation led to the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. The memory of those time periods, passed down from generation to generation, can prevent the reoccurrence of such evils, but only if we don’t shrink from the pain and embarrassment and embrace our heritage whether good or bad. Fight against the destruction of history and memory or we may be doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes.

As a final note, in my studies there remains only one individual in all of human history who is us worthy of worship. He possessed no flaws and made no mistakes. His name is Jesus Christ.


(1) “Mr. Lincoln and Negro Equality,” New York Times (December 28, 1960) https://www.nytimes.com/1860/12/28/archives/mr-lincoln-and-negro-equality.html

(2) “Sealed FBI audio tapes allege Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with 40 women and watched while a friend raped a woman, a report claims,” Business Insider, (May 2019) https://www.businessinsider.com/fbi-tapes-allege-mlk-watched-rape-2019-5

Published by RSGullett

R. S. Gullett is a proud alumni of Stephen F. Austin State University and currently teaches United States history at a community college in Houston, Texas. As a historian, he loves to mingle the historical with the fantastical and places an emphasis on faith in all his writing. His faith in Jesus Christ is very important to him and this often becomes evident in his writing. He is not perfect, nor does he pretend to be; but hopes that sharing his faith might inspire others to give their hearts to Christ. He and his wife currently live in Houston, Texas.

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