The Art of Forgetting by Harriet I. Flower

Book Review by Lindsay Powell

In the days when Stalinism ruled Albania it was not uncommon to see official photographs in public buildings with faces scratched out. If you asked who the person was Albanians knew to respond 'who? I don't see anyone there'. So it was in Roman times. In this important study Harriet L. Flower explores the ways in which the Romans treated the persona non-grata in life and death.

Harriet L. Flower is professor of classics at Princeton University where she currently introduces graduate students to current methods and debates in Roman history and historiography. She has made a particular study of rites and rituals, such as the use of wax ancestor masks, associated with funerals. This new study examines the formal ways in which Roman culture expunged the memory of discredited individuals in public life and political culture.

Prominent people in the ancient world, like celebrities and public figures today, worried a great deal about their reputation and being forgotten (oblivio). Flower argues that the Romans “saw memory (memoriae) as if it were a discrete space, filled with the monuments, inscriptions, portraits, written accounts, and other testimonies to the life of a Roman citizen (in most cases and elite male)” (page 267). Memoriae served to keep the names and reputations of individuals alive in the public and private domains. Sanctioning the disgraced was institutionalised through a process of damnatio memoriae which took the form of “destruction, modifications, erasure of texts and monuments” (page 268). Each generation found new ways to do so to establish its agenda in the present day and place itself within the long continuum of history. This central thesis is cogent and well argued in The Art of Forgetting and presented with a wealth of examples.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One covers the Roman Republic and its Greek precedents. Romans defined their place in society by their family ties. The earliest sanctions were against family members. A Roman without a connection to his family lost his identity. Flower cites the case of Marcus Manlius, a fourth century BC hero who fell from grace, which resulted in the patrician Manlii banning the praenomen Marcus for other family members. As the Republic developed and borrowed ideas from its Hellenic neighbours, sanctions were imposed on a larger scale and became more formulaic, culminating with the dictatorship of Sulla in the first century BC. He had Marius declared an enemy of the state (hostis), accorded honours to his own ancestors while denigrating the names and reputations of his living enemies, and recrafted the Roman story to position himself as a divinely inspired dictator. Calling for sanctions, however, could backfire upon its advocate. Cicero often requested that his rivals should be sanctioned, only later to find himself the victim of the proscriptions of Marcus Antonius and Octavianus.

Part Two covers the Principate to Antoninus Pius. Flower makes an important observation that Augustus used memoriae to serve the regime's own ends, displacing some individuals so that its approved heroes and figures gained prominence. Old memories of the antique past were refashioned or forgotten and new memories were created and promoted, all to position the princeps as the leading citizen and saviour of Rome. Managing memory was a key propaganda tool in legitimising Augustus' rule in his revived Republic. Under his sucessors’ trials for treason (maiestas) became the primary means of asserting control over his rivals. Senators had a deep-seated fear of such an accusation, for to be found guilty of treason, as in the case of Cn. Calpurnius Piso, the penalty of banishment amounted to social as well as political death. Flower notes these punitive sanctions were applied to the emperors themselves – hence damnatio memoriae was used by the respective successors for Caius (the last Julian), Nero (the last Claudian) and Domitian (the last Flavian).

What Flower calls “memory battles” took place as new imperial dynasties sought to impose their new order on their extinct predecessors. This might take the form of a law (for example the lex de imperio Vespasiani declaring Vespasian the legitimate successor in a grand lineage expurgated of its discredited Caesars), a political play (Seneca's Octavia performed just months after Nero's suicide), or a formal speech (Pliny the Younger's Panegyric praising Trajan and excoriating Domitian). In effect these actvities 'reset' the mood of the times. The exception was Antoninus Pius. He chose, and imposed on the reluctant Senate, the mandate not to defame the memory of Hadrian after his death. Flower ends her book with him as the successors of the Antonines – the Severans – used military power to impose their orthodox world view.

The book is a cultural and political history, but on another level it is a curious catalogue of Rome's fallen and damned. Its motley cast of characters includes the traitors Spurius Cassius and Manlius Capitolinus, the two Gracchi brothers, the poet Cornelius Gallus, the founder of Lugdunum Munatius Plancus, Tiberius' favourite Seianus, Drusus the Elder's daughter Livilla, Claudius' wife Messalina, and the usurper emperor Vitellius, to name but a few.

The book runs to 400 pages. Of these 65 pages are devoted to notes, and 40 to a bibliography leaving 283 for the narrative. There are 75 black and white figures – mostly photographs of inscriptions – which add meaning to the text. The treatment is highly academic, but Flower's writing style is accessible and the examples she cites are interesting enough to take the reader on the curious journey into an unfamiliar aspect of the ancient mind.

Lindsay Powell is the author of Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania). His latest book, Germanicus, is due for publication in 2012. He divides his time between Austin, Texas and Wokingham, England.

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