Thursday, May 5, 2011

Photos Be Damned

Roman coins with Sejanus's name erased after his execution

Amid the clamor for the release of the photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse – or perhaps video of the corpse-in-making – it might be noted that, to paraphrase Wilde, "the only thing worse than having one's death photos released, is not having one's death photos released."

Which is to say, let's let the Romans do something for us. In ancient Rome, there was a policy called damnatio memoriae, meaning "damnation of memory." If you were executed and this policy was passed upon you, it meant that every trace of your existence was wiped clean from the city. In a world where honor was the most important facet of being a citizen, this was a heck of a way to ruin your legacy. To render someone so unimportant as to warrant no physical remembrance of them was to dismiss all they did in their life on their route to ignominious death.

One of the most famous recipients of damnatio memoriae was Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a soldier and member of the equestrian class who rose to be prefect of the Praetorian Guard and the right-hand man of the emperor Tiberius until his runaway ambition finally tripped him up. He was not an easy man to conquer, having finagled matters so that he was as good as running the empire. He could arrange all the political downfalls he wanted, but was himself untouchable.

Until he got touched. When Tiberius finally received credible word of the threat Sejanus posed, he used craftiness of a sort Sejanus might have instigated to create confusion – sending a series of contradictory letters to the Roman senate that made those who supported Sejanus start to think otherwise and those who hated and feared him feel emboldened to act. A few more feints were made so that, soon after, Sejanus entered the senate thinking he was going to receive the sort of official power that might make him ruler, and was instead arrested.

As it happens, his death was public – that was the modus operandi of the time and since it was an easy matter to sweep up all his remaining supporters and dispose of them as well, it made for a convenient purge and impromptu public holiday.

The Romans, however, were long-term thinkers. They knew that what mattered most in the end was how a person was remembered. Someone who was honored, like the emperor Augustus, could be deified. But someone who had brought dishonor to the state could be expunged, completely removed from memory. To any decent citizen, this was the greatest punishment of all.

Thus was Sejanus wiped from record – his statues and coins destroyed, his name crossed out of papers. Obviously, enough existed here and there for historians to piece together the story, but it didn't do anything to make anyone think better of him, or want to emulate his means of gaining power.

Osama bin Laden wanted glory too. He wanted to establish and govern an empire, one that would be in the hands of his family for generations. He would have liked to have been honored after death, especially if he had been considered a martyr. Photos of him in death might satisfy morbid curiosity, cynical uncertainty, or the desire to shore up triumphalism. But for those so inclined, they could also create sympathy and a touchstone for a new movement. So while it would be historically irresponsible – to say nothing of impossible – to go full Roman and erase all evidence of his existence, we should definitely add a little dash more of "damn" to his memory by not viewing the evidence.

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