Damnatio Memoriae

We don’t often venture to comment on the news here at Downie Towers, but current attempts to erase the name of Jimmy Savile from public display put me in mind of this:

Bronze Roman corn measure
Bronze Roman corn measure (‘modius’) found at Carvoran. Now in Chesters museum near Hadrian’s wall.

The focus is somewhat awry, but that’s not why you can’t read the top line of the lettering. It’s been deliberately defaced. The name that’s missing is that of  the emperor Domitian, a vicious tyrant  who by the end of his reign was so paranoid that he had polished walls installed in his galleries so that he could see the reflection of anyone trying to creep up behind him.  Nonetheless, he was murdered.  Afterwards the senators “even had ladders brought and his shield and images torn down before their eyes and dashed upon the ground; finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated.”

You can read the rest of  Suetonius’s marvellously gossipy biography of Domitian here. And there’s a better-focused photo of the modius here.

10 thoughts on “Damnatio Memoriae

  1. Thank you. Falco gives him a poor character but I hadn’t read Suetonius before, which I will remedy. Bit of a Jekyll and Hyde with a few good points among the rest. Maybe shows the consequences of being abused as a child?

    1. Hi Tony. I’m sure we could have a fine time psychoanalysing the weirder of the Roman emperors! Surely someone must have attempted this somewhere?

      Domitian’s older brother Titus seems to have turned out all right, but he didn’t live long enough to fulfil his promise. (Or to be corrupted by having too much power, maybe?)

  2. Ruth, you’re probably right about Titus…wasn’t it Lord Acton who said “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Quote a few Caesars started off quite well and then went bad. And I agree, Suetonius is a really good read. He’d have made a great tabloid journalist!

    1. Yes, I could see Suetonius as a tabloid journalist… although he made sure his emperors were safely dead before he dished the dirt on them. Come to think of it, if the prime minister had the power to have journalists’ heads cut off, they might be a little more circumspect!

  3. fascinating. yes, marcus didius falco does not seem too fond of domitian…! that aside, thank you, ruth, for the wonderful link to seutonius’ work. just saw these comments in my email queue and wanted to join others in saying that i cannot wait for book 5, which you can now pre-order on amazon in the states for its january release. also, any plans for any speaking engagements here? come to nyc, ruth! all best,


    1. Indeed, Linda – Falco is a man of great discernment!

      I really hope you enjoy book 5 – it should be out on 8 January.

      I’d love to come to the States one day and meet some of the friends of Ruso that I’ve got to know over the internet. Although since, as Salman Rushdie says, “meeting a writer is always a disappointment”, perhaps it would be wiser to remain distant and mysterious…

  4. Linda, Ruth is being too self-effacing. As someone who has spent time with her working in the mud at the Whitehall Roman Villa, (well more accurately she’s been in the mud, I’ve usually been just outside it!) I can say that she’s fun to be with. You’re right to think you’d enjoy meeting her.

      1. Isn’t it a bit excessive, Ruth, to inflict so much of the Whitehall footage on your readers – taunting them given that it seems unlikely there will be another major dig? Or is it a way of promoting the famous T-shirt competition which includes Alan the Librarian from Monticello NY?

      2. Quite possibly, but it’s more interesting than what I usually do (scowling at a computer for several hours a day).

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