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Damnatio Memoriae

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 211, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus died towards the end of the 18th year of his reign, at the city of Eboracum, (the modern York), during a military campaign against the Caledonians, as the Romans called the inhabitants of Scotland. He had come to power in a fairly brief spasm of civil war in 193, which historians call “the year of the Five Emperors”; the Wikipedia entry on this topic helpfully begins with a note that says, “Not to be confused with the year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) or the Year of the Six Emperors (238 AD)”, since civil wars became something of a habit in the Roman Empire.

Having reached the throne himself by violence, Septimius was evidently very concerned to ensure that there would be a smooth transition of power when he died. To this purpose, he made his elder son Caracalla his co-emperor in 198, and bestowed the same honor on his younger son Geta in 209. Thus, on his death, there would in effect simply be one less emperor, and the two sons would continue to rule together. The contemporary historian Cassio Dio (155-235 AD ca.) reports that on his deathbed, Septimius’ final admonition to his sons was, “Be of one mind, enrich the soldiers, and disdain all other men,” claiming these to be his exact words. (Roman History, 77.15.2) We may safely assume that Septimius knew very well that his exhortation to “be of one mind” was a necessary one, because the two had apparently never gotten along. Within less than a year, Caracalla had Geta assassinated.

The sudden absence of his brother from public life presented Caracalla with what we would now call a publicity problem. For some years, inscriptions and images all over the Empire had celebrated Geta in the company of his father and brother, participating in their rule and achievements. For example, in 205, the brothers shared the consulship, an office which had lost much of its power, but none of its prestige; all official acts of that year would therefore have been dated “in the consulship of Geta and Caracalla.” Two years earlier, a massive triumphal arch was erected in the Roman Forum to commemorate Septimius’ crushing victories over the Parthians on the Roman Empire’s eastern border in 194-95 and 197-99, the dedicatory inscription of which mentioned Geta in his own line.

Caracalla therefore declared a “damnatio memoriae” of his brother, a “condemnation of his memory”, whereby it became illegal for there to exist any mention of Geta. And thus, thousands of images and inscriptions throughout the Empire were mutilated to remove all reference to him. I once saw an inscription in Ostia in which the abbreviation “AUGGG”, meaning “tres Augusti – the three Emperors”, had its last letter scratched out to turn it into “AUGG – duo Augusti.” To this day, one can still see very clearly in the inscription on Septimius’ arch that the line which originally contained Geta’s name was sawn out, turned around and pushed back into place, adding the words “optimis fortissimisque principibus – the best and mightiest princes”, referring to Caracalla and his father. (The original words can still be seen on the reverse inside the arch’s hollow attic.)

Seen below are the arch of Septimius Severus, and a closer view of the inscription mentioned above. (Images from Wikimedia Commons, first by Jean-Christophe Benoist, second by Wknight94, cropped; CC BY-SA 3.0)

The famous antiquities collection of the Berlin Museum contains a round painted wooden panel known as the Severan Tondo, of unknown provenance, a portrait of Septimius Severus, his wife, who was called Julia Domna, and their two sons. In obedience to the decree of damnatio memoriae, the face of Geta was scratched out. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

In 216, attempting to copy the glory of his father’s military triumphs, Carcalla began a new campaign against the Parthians. In April of the following year, as he was relieving himself by the side of a road, he was stabbed to death by one of his own bodyguards, who was disgruntled at having been refused a centurion’s commission. The assassin was himself killed almost immediately, and Caracalla was succeeded by a general who had conspired at the murder. Ut salutas, ita salutaberis.

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