Presentism or Damnatio Memoriae?

Students at Yale want John C. Calhoun’s name removed from one of their residential colleges, and at Princeton protesters demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be taken off many of the university’s memorials.  Even Bryn Mawr has not been immune to this latest wave of intolerance for our forebears, although students here must have had to search a bit before they discovered that M. Carey Thomas was no better than anyone else in her time and demanded that her name be removed from the college’s Thomas Great Hall.  (In any case, this being Bryn Mawr, the students promptly apologized and submitted a revised and more reasonable set of demands.) In a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education, James Livingston makes a good case against the kind of moralistic presentism that underlies these demands to repress the past.

Comments on the Chronicle post, however, rightly point out that Livingston elides an important distinction.  There’s a difference between studying the past and memorializing the past—between trying to understand John C. Calhoun’s support for slavery and states’ rights and putting up a statue of John C. Calhoun.  In the absence of any other context, a statue or other memorial constitutes an implied endorsement of the person commemorated.

The Romans understood this distinction very well.  Their history is full of examples of damnatio memoriae, the practice of erasing portraits, cutting names out of inscriptions, melting down statues, and retooling coins.  The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a good example: a marble block with an inscription to Domitian on one side and a carved relief on the other.  After Domitian’s death the Roman senate decreed damnatio memoriae, the inscription was chiseled off, and the block was reused as part of a monument to the emperor Trajan.  The emperor Caracalla reigned as co-emperor with his younger brother Geta from A.D. 209 until 211, when he murdered Geta and ordered his portraits erased and his name obliterated from inscriptions.

Both these examples illustrate two important characteristics of damnatio memoriae.  First, Only the powerful can perpetrate it.  The senate could condemn Domitian’s memory because they had the power to do so (and because the new dynasty didn’t object); Caracalla could blot out visual reminders of his brother because . . . well, because he was the emperor.  Second, it is seldom successful.  Damnatio memoriae doesn’t correct the record of history.  It exacts posthumous vengeance or covers up guilt.   We can read about Domitian and Geta because Romans like Tacitus or Cassius Dio commemorated them in their histories.  More recent examples, from Stalin’s elimination of the purged Lavrentiy Beria from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to Penn State’s removal of convicted pederast Jerry Sandusky from a campus mural, suggest the same two-fold dynamic: powerful interests insist on the removal of a disgraced person’s name and image in an attempt to blot him from memory.  Removal makes the person memorable.

What, then, of those students at Yale and Princeton?  Can what they are doing be called classical damnatio memoriae as well as moralistic presentism?  The students themselves are not powerful, but by the very fact of being at places like Princeton or Yale they belong to a privileged class, and their demands express an influential strand of ideology in universities.  And they are unlikely to succeed in removing all evidence of the forebears they hope to condemn.  If they gain their demands, though, they will certainly make themselves and their allies feel better, until the long swing of history arcs back, and they appear as much part of their time and place as Caracalla, Calhoun, or M. Carey Thomas.