Caracalla Erased Hated Brother’s Memory Using Damnatio Memoriae
We’ve all had issues with family at one time or other. But the lengths taken by the Roman emperor Caracalla really take the biscuit. To ensure he would never again be reminded of his younger brother Geta, he used a tactic which has been defined in modern times with the Latin damnatio memoriae.
When Emperor Septimius Severus died during his failed conquest of Caledonia (modern-day Scotland), he left the Roman Empire in the hands of his sons Caracalla and Geta. “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men,” are said to have been his last words, a final appeal for them to be good to each other and rule as joint emperors. His elder son, Caracalla, was having none of it.
Caracalla had become co-emperor with his father in 198 AD, enjoying the power of being second-in-command. Septimius Severus promoted the image of his Severan Dynasty as a happy family working together to rule the empire. But when he promoted his youngest son Geta to augustus, forging a ruling trio in 209, their sibling rivalry came to a head.
After their father’s death in 211, the two brothers were unable to meet without the presence of their mother, Julia Domna, and that of an armed escort. In true fratricide fashion, Caracalla arranged peace talks and had Geta murdered in his mother’s arms. Nice.
Not content with killing his brother, Caracalla decided to have his memory erased in what has, since the 17th century, been dubbed damnatio memoriae. This “condemnation of memory” included the removal of Geta’s image from portraits, imperial inscriptions and images, including on the Arch of Argentarii. Most famously, a painted panel of the happy Severan family, including Septimus Severus, Julia Domna and their sons, includes the obvious removal of Geta.
Painted panel known as a tondo, depicting the happy Severan family including Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and the erased face of Geta, who suffered after his brother pronounced a damnatio memoriae. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)
This damnatio memoriae was actually nothing new, with examples existing from ancient Egypt, such as the erasure of Akhenaten the heretic king. In fact, according to Discentes, “around half of all Roman emperors received some form of the condemnation.”
In ancient Rome, those who were deemed to have acted against the interests of the empire were treated as enemies and purged from history. In a culture where statues acted as symbols of state power, being forgotten was the ultimate penalty.
Nevertheless, in Notes in the History of Art, Lauren Hackworth Peterson has argued that the victims of damnatio memoriae were “condemned” rather than “forgotten.” In other words, these acts “redefine our perceptions” and therefore our memory.
This trend continues today. From the #MeToo movement and its cancel culture, to Black Lives Matter advocating for the removal of public statues and symbols of racism, damnatio memoriae can draw to attention injustice, and serve as a lesson for future generations.
Top image: Geta Dying in his Mother's Arms by Jacques Pajou. His death at the hands of Caracalla has been remembered due to the subsequent use of damnatio memoriae to erase him from public memory. Source: Public domain