The Week

November 29, 2015

‘Damnatio Memoriae’

Julio Cortez, AP Images
One of the most curious artifacts in the University of Pennsylvania’s vast Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is a marble block, broken in two places, that was once part of a monument to the Emperor Trajan. The block’s carved figures have seen better days — the most prominent soldier is missing a big chunk of his chin. Even so he’s compelling to look at — resting his weight on one hip, with an arm raised to hold his spear. You might never bother to look at the back of the block, where an earlier inscription has been all but obliterated. On purpose. With a chisel.

The museum has had the block since about 1910, soon after it was unearthed in Italy, but efforts to read the inscription were stalled by the block’s installation against a wall with the soldiers facing out. A 1960s renovation moved it to the middle of a room, allowing Kenneth D. Matthews, then the museum’s director of education, to "spend many evenings" examining the inscription "by dint of a flashlight in a darkened gallery." What he was able to piece together and translate was an inscription that begins, "To the Imperator Caesar Domitian Augustus, son of the deified Vespasian, victor in Germany, Pontifex Maximus, holding the power of Tribune for the fifteenth year, holder of twenty-two military triumphs" — and so on through 11 lines of adulation.

If the name Domitian doesn’t ring a bell, Matthews says the emperor was "at first self-assertive yet scrupulously fair" but later "became a frightening autocrat" who insisted on being addressed as a god. (He also completed the Colosseum, among other projects.) He ruled for 15 years before he was assassinated in the year 96 by "a well-organized group of palace conspirators." The Senate came together for a special meeting, Matthews writes, and decided that "His statues were to be destroyed and his name erased from every inscription throughout the empire."

Matthews was primarily interested in this particular inscription because its details could help date the sculptures on the other side, carved when the marble was reused in an arch dedicated to Trajan. But Matthews pauses to note that the "accomplishments of a 15-year reign and 45 years of life were recorded here for posterity — then obliterated with violent precision."

Which brings us to whether students should ask colleges to remove from their buildings the names of people whose accomplishments are not unblemished. This would presumably include any number of slaveholders, including Washington and Jefferson, plus Confederates like Lee. But along with the current focus of protests at Princeton — Woodrow Wilson, who resegregated the federal government — wouldn’t you also want to consider a whole class of industrial titans merciless in their dealings with their employees as well as their competitors (Carnegie, Frick, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt)? And to bring us up the present, how about the possibility that a new student center at the University of the District of Columbia might be named for the late Marion Barry, the civil-rights leader and longtime District of Columbia politician whose drug arrests became staples of local news coverage?

The list of problem names could, presumably, go on and on, depending on whether you’re going to include misogynists, anti-Semites, homophobes, everyone who helped confine Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II, and the financiers behind the mortgage bubble that preceded the recent recession. Must the donor whose name is on a classroom or faculty office withstand all scrutiny? What about someone whose name is on a campus bench? A seat in the concert hall? Who will do the scrutinizing? Scrutiny by sit-in seems inefficient.

That’s not to trivialize the concerns of Princeton students (above) who want Wilson’s name removed from Wilson College and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. But one could argue that working to make sure that people currently on a campus treat everyone else with genuine respect would be more productive than starting down the slippery slope of arguing over what parts of history deserve rewriting — which may be harder, in any event, than learning from history what you ought to watch out for in the present. More than 1,900 years after the Roman Senate voted to have the emperor’s name and image erased throughout the empire, there Domitian still is, undeterred, staring out at us from his own Wikipedia page. (Read more about the Princeton protests here.)


Meanwhile black students continued to protest on many campuses across the country last week, taking advantage of the visibility the demonstrations have enjoyed in the weeks since black football players at the University of Missouri decided to support a graduate student’s hunger strike there. At each of the affected institutions, protesters have listed demands for changes, most of them necessarily specific to the institutions.

But the Internet’s ability to disseminate smart, thorough protest tool kits offers demonstrators a range of up-to-the-minute suggestions, like flash mobs and "projecting a message or video onto the side of a building at night." There are also media checklists, including both "Advance calls to reporters pitching story/giving background/spin" and "Just before calls to reporters and editors," sample action agendas, and suggested chants (Call: If [Insert School] don’t get it? Response: Shut it down! Call: Shut it down? Response: Shut it down!).

What really sets this generation’s protests apart from those of earlier decades, though, is a suggestion that a group’s leaders convene after an event to "conduct a plus/delta activity, where you weigh in on what went well about the action, and what can improve."

Every Campus

As candidates for president, governors, and no doubt many of your Facebook friends debate whether Syrian refugees should be admitted to the United States, social media are spreading news of an unusual campaign begun by Diya Abdo, an associate English professor at Guilford College, in North Carolina. Called Every Campus a Refuge, the campaign "calls on every college and university around the world to host one refugee family on their campus grounds and to assist them in resettlement."

The campaign’s website reports that Guilford "will house and assist in the resettlement of a Syrian refugee family." But a North Carolina state representative, John Blust, said to Fox News that the idea involves "too much risk to the safety of the community." He added: "The chance of a horrific incident happening will be greatly enhanced if we allow people to come from Syria and relocate here in this community."

Ms. Abdo sees refugees’ plight differently. "What happened in Paris and in Lebanon is heinous, it’s terrible, and it creates fear," she told The Washington Post. "You can transform your fear into hatred or transform it into empathy, kindness, and compassion."

Plus All This …

Kilian Community College, in South Dakota, will close following the spring semester. The president, Mark Millage, cited "new, local initiatives, along with the external competitive landscape," in explaining the decision. … Washington College, shuttered for more than a week after a missing student’s parents warned that he had taken a gun from their house, said it would reopen after the student, Jacob Marberger, 19, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a Pennsylvania park. … A group in New York is pushing to create a $2.4-million memorial to 146 workers killed in a 1911 fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory (at left), on the upper floors of a building at 29 Washington Place. The building still stands, housing biology and chemistry laboratories for New York University, which supports the memorial plan.

Lawrence Biemiller writes about a variety of usual and unusual higher-education topics. Reach him at