Arguably the most well-known attempts to manipulate public memory are those of the ancient Romans. Government decrees known as damnatio memoriae would attempt to destroy visual depictions of emperors or public figures who were deemed unworthy of being part of the community: their names would be scratched out from inscriptions; their portraits reworked on frescos; and coins bearing their image would effaced.
For the Greeks and the Romans, being forgotten was a real risk. In Greek mythology, Achilles chooses between a long happy life of anonymity and a short glorious life that will lead to eternal renown. Being remembered was about immortality. As Harriet Flower has written, damnatio memoriae was the most severe punishment that the Roman legal system could impose upon a person, but it served a kind of positive role. It both eliminated the person from the Roman collective memory while simultaneously allowing that person’s family and everyone else to continue life as normal.
What’s interesting about all of these examples of monumental effacement is just how ineffective they were. Those who were sentenced to historical anonymity were important: generals, senators, and monarchs. The attempted erasure of their memory just draws attention to the absence—we can still see the places where the Emperor Domitian’s name was removed. We know about the removal of statues of Pompey, Nero, and Caligula. We know about these ancient figures despite the other powerful individuals and groups that tried to erase them. As Bond puts it, “destroying statues has always happened and we continue to know about these people in the historical record. Thus, it is not ‘destroying history’.”