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5.0 out of 5 stars Memory sanctions in ancient Rome, 8 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture (Studies in the History of Greece and Rome) (Paperback)
Harriet I. Flower is professor of classics at Princeton University. Her book about "damnatio memoriae" in ancient Rome is based on a wide range of ancient literary sources, archaeological objects, and modern scholarship. Since "damnatio memoriae" is a modern term, she does not want to use it. She prefers the term "memory sanctions" (preface).

At first such sanctions were only used against persons who were already dead, but when Sulla returned to Rome in 82 BC, they were also used against persons who were still alive (pp. 86-98). During the Republic they were only used against men, but during the Empire they were also used against women (chapter VII). The sanctions used depended on the time and the place as well as on the persons involved. Here is a list of sanctions that could be used in order to destroy the image of a prominent person in ancient Rome:

* Public statues of the person could be removed, re-carved or destroyed
* Public inscriptions, which mentioned the person, could be erased

* The person's house could be destroyed
* The person's assets could be confiscated

* The person could be executed or forced into exile
* The person's family could also be directly punished

Many public inscriptions were only partially erased, and this fact often allows us to reconstruct what is missing. A typical case appears on the front cover of the book and inside the book on page 238, where the caption reads: "Inscription from a bridge with erasures of Domitian and of M. Mettius Rufus, Coptos, Egypt, AD 90/91."

In my opinion, a caption like this should present the whole inscription in the original language (Greek or Latin) plus an English translation. Unfortunately, HIF never does this.

According to HIF, it is important to use the correct terminology when we are studying this topic. But she forgot to follow this rule when she chose the title of her book. The title is unfortunate: the Romans did not forget; rather they decided that a man or a woman did not deserve to be remembered in public anymore.

The time frame of this study is the Roman Republic (chapters III-V) and the Roman Empire until the first years of Antoninus Pius (chapter VI-IX). Her decision to stop shortly after Hadrian's death in AD 138 is unfortunate, because it means the Severan and the Theodosian dynasties are not covered, and her reason for stopping at this point in time is not convincing: "The new sanctions of the Severan age belonged to a very different chapter in Roman history and reflect a changed world" (page 281).

Every new dynasty can be said to reflect "a changed world," so this argument does not mean much. If she can cover three different dynasties, plus the Republic, why can she not cover four or five?

[Read about the later dynasties in Annelise Freisenbruch, The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars chapters 7-9.]

HIF got some good reviews. On the back cover of the paperback version from 2011 there are brief excerpts from two reviews of the hardcover edition published in 2006. The Historian said: "An engaging survey of Roman history," while Choice said: "Closely argued and aptly illustrated."

I agree with the positive reviews. This is in many ways a good book. Using memory sanctions as a starting point HIF is able to bring a new perspective on well-known events such as the case of Tiberius Gracchus (133 BC), the case of Gajus Gracchus (121 BC), and the case of Cicero and Catilina (63 BC).

But there are some flaws, as I explained above (the captions, the title, and the time frame), and there is more. I have to mention a few points which bother me:

(A) On page 35 when talking about "the honors of the king" she adds the Latin word "honos." But the traditional Latin word for honour is "honor". Since she uses the plural here, the correct Latin form would be "honores." Besides, this passage appears in chapter 1 - about memory sanctions among the Greeks - so there is no reason to introduce Latin concepts here.

(B) On page 144 she mentions some boundary markers from the Tiber set up by the consuls C. Asinius Gallus and C. Marcius Censorinus. On some of them the name of Asinius was erased and later restored. How many? On this page she says: "Of twenty-two extant boundary markers with Asinius' name erased, ten have had his name reinscribed." But in the notes (page 320, note 90) she says: "Of a total of twenty-two extant boundary markers, all but one have Asinius Gallus' name restored in an erasure." So which number is correct: Ten or twenty-one?

(C) On page 169 she mentions a female member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: "Livilla was no more than a diminutive form of the name Livia." But in almost every other case she calls her "Livi(ll)a." This way of writing the name may be funny the first time, but after ten or twenty times it is not funny anymore!

(D) On page 218 she mentions a Roman province in the east which she calls "Judea." I know some English and some American authors use the form Judea, but the Latin or Roman name of this area is "Judaea."

Flaws such as these are unfortunate, and I am surprised to find them in the paperback version published five years after the hardcover edition. But in spite of these critical remarks my conclusion is that HIF has written a valuable book about an important topic, which deserves a rating of five stars.
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