A case for Damnatio Memoriae?

A case for Damnatio Memoriae?

by Hugh Andrew
article from Friday 16, January, 2015

SOME YEARS AGO I saw something in Algeria that shook me then as it still shakes me now. It was a Roman monument, prominently placed, heavily inscribed. In the middle of the inscription a name had been very carefully chiselled out, excised from memory. That name was of a Roman legion that had revolted. 

Across Algeria in town after town that name had been carefully removed from any spot in which it had been inscribed. Damnatio Memoriae – the damnation of memory, the ultimate punishment. But of course the Damnatio is not about forgetting. It is about remembering. It is about the Empire saying ‘Enough’. For the sake of honour, for the sake of pride, the shame of what that legion, that Emperor, had done is so great that they must be publically ‘forgotten’. ‘forgotten’ so they can be ‘remembered’ in every public place in which their name occurred by its very deliberate excision. It was a punishment used sparingly but with overwhelming effect. Of Emperors only three suffered it – Domitian, Geta, and Maximian. But sparing use made makes its power all the more devastating. Hence the shock, even today, of seeing it on these monuments.

We can learn much from Rome and it seems to me that this is a concept we could use. It is a sanction more powerful than any jail term, than any article. It is an elimination from memory. There is no recourse and no appeal. The shock to our society of its administration is a condign and powerful one. In our financial crisis should not both RBS and HBOS have suffered a ‘Damnatio’, their names eliminated in shame at what they did?  Do we not think that those smug executives who wriggled and twisted in their excuses and whose greed bankrupted a country would feel a chill when they knew that to their children, their childrens children and so on through time, the organisation which they had run and in their day strutted across like preening peacocks, had been struck from memory? 

Roy Medvedev’s powerful inditement of Stalin is called ‘Let History Judge’. Then let it make that judgement. Our legal system has judged none of these people as they have broken no obvious law, nor can we judge institutions as the law pertains to the individual lawbreaker and not the collective crime. Someone not something did it. What an image it would be for all time if the board of RBS was summoned in front of the cameras and given the tools to remove its name and its identity from its headquarters while we watched. And as they chipped and chiselled there would be those sitting behind desks in the City of London thinking with a chill shiver ‘There but for the grace of God….’

But there is another institution today that is shaming Scotland, another where time has come to say ‘enough’. And that is the incarnation that calls itself Rangers Football Club. It is of course possible, it should and must be possible, for an institution to suffer some calamity and then recover. In the realm of football it looks as if Heart of Midlothian is a shining example of rebirth from the ruins of the past and an acceptance that hubris and folly lead to catastrophe. Hearts is a club that has learned its lesson, about prudence, about community, about burgeoning and growing talent and about much else besides. But in Glasgow there is barely a day on which some new bizarre story, some other piece of dodgy dealing flows from Ibrox. I make no criticism of the fans who have suffered much and lost much in their support of what was a great club, I make no criticism of the staff, many of whom have given selfless service for many years only to be made redundant. 

The tale of Rangers current agony has now gone on for year after year. Am I the only one who cringes in embarrassment at each new story? Am I the only one who seriously questions the role of our footballing authorities who seem to be able to tolerate just about anything that flows from Govan even if it flies blatantly in the face of their own edicts? 

People predicted the death of Scottish football without Rangers. Instead of which its clubs have stared into the abyss, sorted themselves out, cleared their debts and at last are creating teams that are challenging and exciting to watch. For teams such as Hamilton and Inverness to have achieved as they have done is a tribute to resource and good management at all levels. For those of us who remember the New Firm to see the rebirth of Dundee United and Aberdeen brings back memories. For too long Rangers and its support had been seen as the solution to avoid facing up to the problems of Scottish football. It turns out that it is now the problem. To its supporters I simply say what you supported is no longer there. It is a mere shell. It is time we said ‘Enough’

At the end of the Lord of the Rings ‘.. rose a huge shape of shadow, … filling all the sky….even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away’ . It is time that wind blew over Glasgow.



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