LAST month, a Cairo court ordered that images of the ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and his wife, Suzanne, as well as their names, be removed from all “public squares, streets, libraries and other public institutions around the country.” Posters and portraits of the Mubaraks are ubiquitous in Egypt. Squares, sports fields, libraries, streets and more than 500 schools bear their names.
This mandated erasure is meant to serve as closure for the Egyptian people after three decades of Mubarak rule. But will it help them heal and move forward? For precedent and possible implications of the ruling, we should look to antiquity.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead directs those traveling to the underworld to confront the demons that guard the gates by telling them, “Make a way for me, for I know you, I know your name,” before continuing on their journey to the afterlife. Names in Egyptian culture have an innate power, and can be a means of control. When the pharaoh Akhenaton tried to institute his own brand of monotheism, he had the name of the rival god Amon stricken from monuments throughout Egypt.
Like gods, rulers were also vulnerable to such erasures. Queen Hatshepsut, a prolific builder who was a regent for her stepson, Thutmose III, was almost obliterated from history after he ascended the throne in the 15th century B.C. Thutmose, and then his son Amenhotep II, systematically removed her image from monuments, reliefs, statues, cartouches and the official list of Egyptian rulers, perhaps in an effort to underline their own legitimacy.
Egypt wasn’t alone in this. The destruction of images by government decree in the Roman world is called “damnatio memoriae.” Such a decree meant that the name of the damned was scratched (oftentimes conspicuously) from inscriptions, his face chiseled from statues and the statues themselves often abused as if real persons, frescoes of his likeness painted over, his wax masks banned from being paraded in funerals, coins with his image defaced, his writings sometimes destroyed and his wills often annulled.
Romans saw it as a punishment worse than execution: the fate of being forgotten. It was suffered by numerous ignominious emperors of Rome in the early empire, and, even in the later empire, it was a mark of great disgrace. After the rebellious Maximian was subjected to damnatio memoriae around A.D. 311, his friend and co-ruler Diocletian was said to be so grief-stricken that he soon died as well.
Excisions like Maximian’s from frescoes and statues can be viewed in the most basic sense as announcements from rulers to the populace about the end of one reign and the beginning of another. But when the populace engages in the destruction itself, it can also serve a cathartic purpose.
According to the historian Suetonius, in the chaos that followed the assassination of the emperor Caligula in A.D. 41, “some wanted all memory of the Caesars obliterated, and their temples destroyed.” The new emperor, Claudius, ultimately blocked the Senate’s attempt to decree a formal damnation of his predecessor’s memory. (Now on the throne himself, he probably wanted to avoid condoning regicide.) Yet Suetonius’ statement indicates that common people wanted the chance to vent their frustrations over Caligula’s corrupt reign and senseless brutality.
The practice of banning images flourished under Christianity as well, though it was used more for revenge, humiliation or the promotion of religious orthodoxy than it was for justice or catharsis. In Renaissance-era Florence, damnatio memoriae was imposed on political enemies of the Medici. The Byzantine Church was known to remove heretics from patriarchal diptychs, and unpopular popes in the Roman Catholic Church were removed from the records by their successors.
Obviously, much of this destruction failed in its purpose. Today we still know the names of Maximian and Caligula. Thutmose III and his son did not strike Queen Hatshepsut from the annals of history. Statues of her remained, and centuries after her death, the Egyptian historian Manetho was still able to write about the female pharaoh. Just a few years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art put many of the remaining depictions of Hatshepsut on view in an exhibition.
The history is not exactly parallel to today’s Egypt. Mr. Mubarak and his wife are still living, and their images are more likely taped to walls than carved into obelisks. Nonetheless, by ordering the public removal of the Mubarak name and images, the Egyptian courts — much like Egyptian pharaohs and the Roman Senate — have set a precedent. Instead of establishing a clean slate, it may well serve to perpetuate the mistakes of the past.
It’s hard not to see echoes in the new regime of Mr. Mubarak’s own repressive practices. Egypt’s interim government has already demonstrated a level of intolerance for free speech — for instance, by jailing the 25-year-old activist Maikel Nabil Sanad for “insulting the military establishment.”
The Egyptian courts would have been better off following Claudius’s example and resisting a ban on the Mubaraks’ images. Instead of enforcing it, Egypt should allow individuals and institutions in possession of the former president’s likeness to decide for themselves whether to keep it. It is one thing to be allowed to deface an image, and quite another to be ordered to do so.
The ancient world also knew something about how difficult it was to break free from the past. Sculptures and carvings were sometimes recycled; after one emperor’s face was obliterated, the stone could be recut into the likeness of the new one. Sometimes that new ruler was an improvement on the old: for instance, the tyrannical emperor Domitian was transformed on reliefs into Nerva, who renounced his predecessor’s methods.
But likely more often, the opposite was true: the ruthless emperor Caracalla had his brother Geta murdered, and then had a damnatio memoriae declared, ordering that Geta’s inscriptions and images be erased throughout the empire.
Perhaps it is best that the people of Egypt be spared this forced amnesia and be allowed to retain some memories of their former president. Erasing the crimes of the past doesn’t help us avoid them in the future.
By Sarah E. Bond, a lecturer in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.