Erasing History? Um, History is Full of Torn-Down MonumentsHistorians in the News
tags: ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, statues, monuments
In the wake of protests against deeply entrenched racism, statues of slave traders and Confederate leaders are being torn town and toppled both in the U.S. and abroad. The dismantling of Confederate statues in this particular moment are not spontaneous acts of destruction; they follow decades of debate and peaceful protest about the significance and messaging around the public display of symbols of the Confederacy. Some, however, worry that the removal of public monuments will equate to the erasure of our collective history.
None of this is anything new. As University of Iowa historian Sarah Bond has written, the practice goes all the way back to antiquity—to the Romans, the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Assyrians.
Moses was so angry about the Israelites building the idolatrous Golden Calf that he broke the two tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments were written by God. He then burned the calf to ashes, and made the Israelites drink them.
In the realm of politics, as early as 2700 B.C., statues of ancient Near Eastern Kings included inscriptions that cursed anyone who dared to desecrate their image. It was almost a rite of passage for conquering rulers or representatives of new dynasties to try to eliminate loyalty to their predecessors through the erasure of visual reminders of their reign. In the 15th century B.C. the architectural legacy of Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled as regent for her stepson Thutmose III, was systematically dismantled by their successors Thutmose and Amenhotep II. According to Kara Cooney, in her book The Woman who would be King, “Thutmose III’s craftsmen were instructed in how best to annihilate these statues… so they could break the link between Hatshepsut and the kingship.” This program of rewriting claims to power included removing images of Hatshepsut from monuments, reliefs, statues, and cartouches as well as omitting her name from the official list of Egyptian rulers (including, of course, the one produced by Thutmose III himself).
Arguably the most well-known attempts to manipulate public memory are those of the ancient Romans. Government decrees known as damnatio memoriae would attempt to destroy visual depictions of emperors or public figures who were deemed unworthy of being part of the community: their names would be scratched out from inscriptions; their portraits reworked on frescos; and coins bearing their image would effaced.