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Sic semper tyrannis: Domitian, damnatio memoriae and the Imperial Cult at Ephesus

Abigail S Graham

While the removal of a tyrannical figure, historically and in the modern world, is often the portrayed as a formal process, the events that follow, particularly regarding the desecration of public monuments tend to be less ‘formal’ in nature.  After the death of Domitian, Suetonius records both the formal decree of abolutio nominis by the Senate in Rome (Domitian, 23) as well as differing responses to the news: the insouciance of the Roman people, the loyal revenge vowed by Domitian’s army, and joyous trashing of his monumental shield and statues by senators. Even within Rome, the reaction to the death and defamation of an emperor varied considerably. As recent studies of damnatio memoriae in sculpture and inscriptions have shown, the systematic application of a process across the Empire could have substantial variations, not only in its meaning but in the reaction of the ancient audience. How did the Ephesians, citizens of a provincial capital which had blossomed under the Imperial patronage of Domitian (including extended asylum boundaries for the Artemision, a new aqueduct and the grant of neokoros status) respond to the Senate’s decree?

This paper, which presents a case study of erasure and recarving in Ephesus after the death of Domitian, provides a unique illustration of damnatio memoriae as a process within a specific historic and monumental context. The aim of this paper is to explore the nature of damnatio memoriae at Ephesus as a process and a monumental act that was witnessed by all members of society.   Beginning with a brief background of Domitian’s munificence in the city, the analysis will   examine consistencies (and inconsistencies) in the process: the removal of names, the reinscribing of some texts (including the hands evident in this process) and the significance of location in the monumental context.

Was the erasure of a name, like the murder of a proscribed individual, an act that was carried out by a specific individual or was it a monumental ‘free for all’ for anyone with a chisel.  Domitianic inscriptions from different contexts (the theatre, the Embolos and the State Agora) and with different functions (building and statue dedications, waterworks, boundary markers) will be compared and contrasted to form a greater understanding of this process at Ephesus.  Having considered the process and the product of erasures, the paper will conclude by considering the monumental impact damnatio memoriae, particularly regarding the perception of the emperor and the Imperial Cult at Ephesus.

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Roman Politics and Culture

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