Tuesday 28 September 2021 6:30 am

Ancient Rome taught us a lesson in destroying our digital footprint

Frances Forbes-Carbines has an MA in Classics from the University of Bristol and has worked for the British Council, CulturAll Journal and Historic England

During the Roman empire, former emperors and elites had their image destroyed from the public memory through vandalised statues or even removal of names from official documents. The practice was known as Damnatio Memoriae or the condemnation of memory.  The images of former emperors and elites were vandalised or their names removed from official records.

A confidante of the Roman emperor Tiberius, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, had his statues desecrated and his name obliterated from all public records after a failed conspiracy to overthrow the leader in AD31. This happened on a prolific scale: around half of all Roman emperors received some form of condemnation, according to archeological records. 

We now live in a largely digital world: most information is stored and accessed by us in digital form; we focus on automating operations; we speak with no small degree of reverence about AI and data analytics and things being “in the cloud”. In this brave new digital world, public memory of elites can be bolstered and even created through online repositories of news and op-eds, long after the figure in question is no longer in power.

These digital identities are the statues of today and the consequences for politicians can be disastrous. Take Donald Trump’s eventual suspension from Twitter or the proliferation of memes of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface. 

Much like the state-sanctioned desecration of image or “condemnation of memory” issued by the Romans, digital condemnations can completely change the narrative of a figurehead and alter their legacy. This erasure can also be found in academia. It has been the genesis, in many ways, of the so-called “culture wars”, with professors losing out on research projects or museum gigs if they stray into the “wrong” territory.

Can we ever have our very own “damnatio memoriae”? In 2014, Google created the “right to be forgotten”, after a ruling of the European Court of Justice. But people whose deeds and misdeeds are considered “in the public interest” are carved out of this right. Tech giants will “keep information about them available for historical purposes” if they are “still in the public eye”. 

As is often the case, the first lesson is an acceptance of the circumstances beyond our control. As Mary Beard writes in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, “the politics of regime change had a major influence on how each emperor went down in history”. Leaders in power “reinvented” the history of their forebears to serve their own interests, she says. 

In the Roman example, ostracising public figures in the history books often had the adverse effect of making their absence all the more present in the public consciousness. In our own modern world, the heads of state we wish we could forget (Donald Trump, anyone?), tend to live the longest in our collective memory. Trump’s legacy was one of conflict, his online presence sowed digital divisiveness which has already outlived his own Twitter account. 

According to some neuroscientists, there is now a new class of memory cells which might mean we forget people we see on screen, rather than in real life, quicker than those we interact with. So, perhaps there is hope yet for those who wish to be forgotten. But a better tack would be relinquishing control over our future images. Insisting people remember to forget us, might just be a sure-fire way of keeping our presence in place. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.