Sunday, June 22, 2008

Damnatio Memoriae tu Geta?

One of the more fascinating aspects of being in Rome and getting to see art from the Republican and Imperial periods, is that there are many figures who have been excluded. For example, I have not seen a single bust of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix. Busts of Sulla do exist. There is a bust of the dictator in the Glyptothek in Munich, but I have not seen any here in Rome. At the National Museum of Rome, I was able to see a series of three busts including one that must be similarly rare.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I was assigned to read about this fella, the emperor Septimius Severus for a seminar that I took at WIU. He is the one with the arch in the Forum. He is also known for being the first emperor to be born in Rome's African Province. He was known for cleaning up corruption in the senate, but doing so by turning Rome into a thinly veiled military dictatorship. Septimius had two children; one became the emperor Caracalla and the other was named Geta.

Not surprisingly, there are busts of Caracalla in almost every major museum in Rome. I think I have photographed four or five of them at this point and this picture is from the same room in the National Museum of Rome as the Septimius bust above. After the death of Septimius Severus, Caracalla came to power with his brother, Geta. They were within a year of the same age of each other, although Geta was the younger of the two. After less than a year of sharing power with each other, Caracalla had his brother and most of hist brother's family and supporters killed. He then had the senate order a "damnatio memoriae" or damnation of Geta's memory. The order meant that all public records of Geta's existence, especially including monuments like busts, had to be destroyed. The order aims to enact governmental auto-amnesia.

So, when I saw this bust, which is labeled "Geta?" by the museum, I was fascinated. At first, I thought it surprising to see a bust that could possibly be Geta at all because it was theoretically ordered destroyed. Then, I had to wonder if since it was Geta's memory that was damned, perhaps this bust which does not bear an inscription labeling it "Geta" did not have to be destroyed. In any case, the African features and brotherly resemblance present in the bust's face do seem to make a compelling case for this being Geta Severus.

It is interesting to see this process of purposeful forgetting at work in Rome. We certainly have modern equivalents that seem less pernicious such as striking evidence from the record in a courtroom, but we also have some less benign habits of forgetting collectively. It is easy to forget (heh, irony) statements like George HW Bush's at the end of the Gulf War "By God, we've kicked the Vietname Syndrome once and for all!" At the time, George C. Herring wrote an insightful article about the statement in Foreign Affairs (1). He pointed out the effort that has gone into remembering Vietnam in the United States as a self-inflicted defeat.

Of course, the effort that goes into remembering events in a particular way as a society will come as no surprise to scholars of public memory, but to see it at work all the way back in ancient Rome lends a historical view to the process that grounds it as one of the basic behaviors of collective government. That is, to the things governments have sought to control throughout history (territory, violence, loyalty, etc.) collective memory can be added. It is also interesting that the Ancient Romans could at least be legally honest with what they were doing. They had a process and a declaration for purposeful forgetting; it did not happen surreptitiously.

Further on in the National Museum, I ran across an exhibit of mosaics from the one of the Severus Family's villas. A plaque there explained that the villa was identified as the Severus's because Geta's name was etched onto the pipes of the plumbing. I guess some shit isn't worth digging up for the sake of forgetting.

1. George C. Herring, "America and Vietnam: The Unending War," Foreign Affairs (Winter, 1991): 104.

1 comment:

Adam said...

So what you're saying is that we get to geek out together to Roman history once you get back into Joliet?