Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Curse of Memory: how the first Christian emperor erased his family from history

The greatest punishment in Roman law was not the death penalty, but the damnatio memoriae: a mix of a death execution, the seizure of the person’s property, and the removal of all traces and memory of his life. Such a sentence implied that statues of the condemned person could be destroyed, his face would be erased from paintings and his name could be erased or blotted out from written documents, coins and even from the stone inscriptions in monuments.

Many of the “evil” emperors such as Caligula, Domitian or their relatives (such as Livilla, the daughter-in-law of Emperor Tiberius, and Geta, the brother of Emperor Caracalla) suffered damnatio memoriae sentences. Above and below I show pictures of a stone pillar in Spain where the name of Emperor Domitian was erased after his death and a portrait of the Severus imperial family where Caracalla’s brother Geta was erased from the painting. I also show a cameo portrait of Livilla, daughter-in-law of Emperor Tiberius, who was executed in 31 AD because of accusations that she had conspired with her lover Sejanus to kill Emperor Tiberius and take over the imperial throne. Also, Livilla’s own mother accused her of having poisoned her husband (Emperor Tiberius’ son) and that perhaps her children were the result of adulterous liaisons. The Senate removed all mentions of Livilla after her death, so there are no absolutely certain portraits of her, but some scholars think that this cameo fits her description and could be a rare portrait that survived the harsh legal sentence.

The term damnatio memoriae was actually created in the 16th century by the German legal scholar Christoph Schreiter in a thesis of 1689. In practice the Romans applied several different measures to reach the joint effect that the condemned individual would lose all the honors of being a Roman citizen and its memory. For example, the removal of all the written inscriptions of the name of the condemned was a sentence called the abolitio nominis. For the Romans the removal of memory was the opposite of the Apotheosis, which represented the glorification of a deceased person (such as an emperor or empress) to divine honors. Since Roman society stressed the importance of honor, respectability and fame, then erasing one's memory was the most severe punishment of all.

The Roman emperor who became perhaps the biggest user of the “curse of memory” sentence was Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. In particular Constantine I applied the damnatio memoriae to several of his family members who at certain point aroused his anger or stood in his path to power. While Christianity is a religion that values forgiveness, apparently such teachings do not preclude erasing the memory of your enemies and relatives. Perhaps if one simply forgets their hated memory, then it is not really necessary to forgive them at all.

Constantine lived one of the most turbulent periods in history, since those were the decades in which Christianity was on the point of being either the largest minority religion of the Empire or its major religion. This was a breaking point at both the political and social levels. At the political level the Empire was divided among four co-emperors and each one resented the power of its colleagues. Each single emperor was waiting for a moment of weakness from its rivals in order to invade its territory and stripe away his powers. Constantine started as the weakest of the co-emperors, being in charge only of Britain and Gaul. These territories were weak in terms of economic resources and armies, and were also continuously threatened by invasions of Scottish and Germanic tribes. Therefore Constantine was the weakest of the four co-emperors and the most likely candidate to be humiliated and eliminated from the political scheme. However, Constantine and also his eldest son Crispus were extraordinarily good generals. Constantine won wars against each of his co-emperors which had much larger armies and stronger navies. Even if Constantine was not known today as the first Christian emperor, he would certainly be remembered as a general of the same importance as Caesar or Alexander the Great. Below I show a picture of myself and my twin brother in front of Constantine’s bronze statue in York, England, where he was first acclaimed as Emperor in 306 AD. In the next few years Constantine would often receive messages and ultimatums from his co-emperors asking him to resign himself to a lower imperial role. However, in less than twenty years Constantine would have taken over all the territories of his rival co-emperors and by 324 AD he was the complete master of the Roman Empire. In 337 AD Constantine was planning a big war against the powerful Persian emperor Shapur II, justified as a crusade to protect the Christian followers in the Persian Empire.

At the social level the Roman Senate and its old aristocratic families now realized the traditional pagan cults were irrelevant to most of the population and were only practiced at official ceremonies which no one cared about. Think of those boring speeches that politicians give nowadays on TV and then no one remembers a single sentence in the next day? Well, that was how the top pagan priests felt like around 300 AD. Besides Christianity other sun religions such as Mithraism were now popular all over the Empire and clearly the traditional Roman paganism was withering away rapidly. Traditionally, Rome was a state with complete religious liberty (as long as its religious supporters did not defy the imperial laws and paid their taxes). One could even think of Ancient Rome as a “market of religions”. There were temples of all sorts of deities standing side by side. One could go worship a snake fertility god or go listen to an Egyptian cat-goddess speak through a statue (with a hollow space inside where a priest or priestess could hide and speak). Others would participate in the mysteries of obscure eastern religions with different grades of tests designed to evaluate their worshippers’ worth as they climbed the orders of their religion. It was during Constantine’s adolescence that the main Roman Emperor Diocletian launched the greatest persecution of Christians during Roman history. Most of the stories of Christian martyrdom come from this time period. Some estimate that the Diocletian’s persecution could have made around 3,000 victims, which was a significant number by Roman standards (although much less than the 20th century religious and political conflicts).

Constantine lived through turbulent times, therefore he hit his adversaries as hard as he could even if these were close family members. Constantine first applied a damnatio memoriae to his father-in-law (and also his step-grandfather), the old co-emperor Maximian. Actually, Constantine had good reasons for such a measure. Constantine had treated well his father-in-law and given him some powers with his army, but a few months later Maximian decided to rebel and support his own son against Constantine. After this Constantine quickly won against Maximian and forced him to commit suicide. However, some years later, after Constantine had won the war against Maximian’s son, the co-emperor Maxentius, he re-habilitated Maximian’s memory and gave great honors to his deceased father-in-law. Later Constantine started a war against his powerful co-emperor in the East, Licinius, who was also his brother-in-law. After Constantine and his eldest son Crispus won several large scale battles, he became the undisputed master of the Roman world and issued a damnatio memoriae against Licinius, accusing him of killing the families of other co-emperors and of the persecution of Christians. Modern evidence shows that Licinius in fact supported Christian rights, had a Christian wife and may even have been a Christian himself, therefore Licinius was a victim of Constantinian propaganda.

Just two years after Constantine became master of the world, he ordered the execution of his eldest son Crispus by “cold poison” and a damnatio memoriae against Crispus, his wife and his only grandson. This must have been a big surprise to all of the world, since Crispus had been a good and reliable general of Constantine and was his only adult son, therefore his most plausible future heir. One month later Constantine also ordered the execution of his own wife, Fausta, by an “overheated bath” and her damnatio memoriae. Fausta was the mother of three male children and one daughter of Constantine, therefore again this must have been a hard decision. Also, Constantine had Fausta in high esteem and had given her the divine honors of Augusta just three years before. Below I show a coin with Crispus image and a bust of Fausta.

Historians speculate that the death of Crispus and Fausta are related, but no one knows exactly how since the “curse of memory” erased historical records that would have been essential for our understanding. Crispus was Constantine’s son from a previous marriage, therefore Fausta was only his step-mother. Ancient historians Zosimus, the anonymous work Epitome de Caesaribus, the 8th century fiction Passion of Artemius, and the 12th century scholar Joannes Zonaras, say that Fausta wanted her own children to become the future emperors and told Constantine that Crispus wanted to rape her or begin an adulterous affair. In this possible version of the story Constantine orders in rage the execution of his eldest son and after one month realizes that Fausta lied and kills her too. However, other historians point out that an “overheated bath” could indicate an attempted abortion and therefore a possible adulterous affair between Fausta and Crispus which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. Significantly, Fausta’s sons later became Roman Emperors after Constantine’s death and none of them tried to rehabilitate their mother’s reputation, therefore this points out that they believed her to be guilty of something.

There is, however, a third possible explanation of this story. An article by historian Patrick Guthrie in 1966 suggests that Constantine ordered both deaths on political reasons. Constantine wanted to build a dynasty for his children, but that created difficulties in managing their ambitions. Therefore he orders the death of Crispus to prevent his ambition and remove a threat against the three sons of Fausta. Then he orders the death of Fausta as a signal to his other children and relatives that Constantine is firmly in the grasp of absolute power and that he would not hesitate to kill anyone if he deems it necessary. While this explanation may sound a bit off, we must remember the ancient world often had harsh struggles for power. The previous rulers of the Seleucid or Ptolemaic empires often had to order the deaths of their siblings to keep power. Also, many Roman emperors before Constantine and also his Byzantine successors often ordered the imprisonment and death of husbands, wives and sons, in order to keep their power. Therefore it is not impossible that Constantine himself feared treason from inside his own family. Whatever happened the erasing of memory leaves a lot to our imagination for solving this mystery novel.


  1. Mα τον Αγιο Κωνσταντινο....

    1. Ακριβώς αυτό σκέφτηκα!!!

  2. Υπάρχουν πολλοί "άγιοι" με βαρύ ποινικό μητρώο στη Χριστιανοσύνη. Δυστυχώς!

  3. Hi Carlos. I really enjoyed this discussion. It relates to a coin I picked up a few years ago. It is a coin of Licinius, but you can't tell it because the coin has been so badly defaced by scratches. At the end of this comment I’ve attached a link to look at the coin. The central question for the numismatist is whether or not these scratches occurred in antiquity or in the present day. The scratches on Licinius’s face are made in a back-and-forth manner. It's not the result of a single random shovel strike; the scratches are localized and intentional. The scratches also show the same green patina that affects the entire coin. In other words, the scratches were made in antiquity. The reverse of this coin is untouched, suggesting that whoever scratched this emperor’s face had an animus against the emperor; the rest of the coin is untraumatized. While it is impossible to know for sure, I believe that this defaced coin reflects the damnatio memoriae issued by Constantine against Licinius. That may be a romantic reading of a beat-up old coin, but we do know that coins of Caligula, Domitian, and Geta were all defaced following their damnationes; thus, it may not be surprising to find a coin similarly defaced for Licinius. Here’s a link to the coin: