Fans of classic films may remember the dramatic moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” when the old pharaoh, Sethi, exiles Moses and commands that his name be stricken from all monuments across the kingdom. “Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet, stricken from all pylons and obelisks, stricken from every monument of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of men for all time.” While this kind of extreme erasure was rare, it was practiced by many ancient cultures. Modern historians have termed the practice “damnatio memoriae.” While statues and memorials were the usual targets for defacement, the practice sometimes extended even to coins bearing the name or image of the person to be removed from memory.
In ancient Egypt, several controversial rulers, including religious reformer Akhenaten and female pharaoh Hatshepsut, were removed from memorials and sculptures after their deaths. The practice reached a peak in Roman culture, especially during the Imperial era.
It’s difficult to know who actually carried out the defacements; officially, the Roman Senate would make a pronouncement condemning an emperor or other individual. However, these actions were usually undertaken when a new emperor arose by acclamation or military support. Outside of the main areas of Roman culture, such defacement may have been carried out by soldiers or other officials. In a few reported instances, crowds of civilians swarmed the street to tear down statues of particularly despised rulers.
The size of the Empire, in fact, is why few coins suffered such treatment, though they were one of the primary symbols of any given emperor. One of the things that binds a nation and culture together is a common currency that can be relied upon across the nation. Defacing coins could lead to questions about their legitimacy as currency, causing coin shortages and economic crises. The simplest answer was for the new emperor to issue new coins with his image as quickly as possible, and put them into circulation across the empire, primarily via payments to the Roman legions.
In the rare cases when coins were defaced, it was usually on the obverse of the coin, where the portrait and name of the emperor were found. However, in a few extraordinary cases, the damage was done to the reverse of the coin.
Project Curator of Roman Provincial Coins at The British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals, Dario Calomino, states, “Some coins struck in Emesa in Syria (modern Homs […] had the image of the altar of the local sun-god Elagabal defaced with an X. We do not know who did this and for what reason. This may have been a way in which opposition to this cult was expressed. But sometimes coins were also mutilated for ritual purposes; they were offered as a gift to a divinity in a sanctuary, and in order to do this they were previously de-monetised, i.e. marked and mutilated to signify that they were no longer official currency, but tokens of devotion.”
Defacement of coins did not always originate from Roman decree, though. In some Iron Age coin hoards from what is now Bulgaria, new Celtic designs have been minted over Hellenistic and Roman coins. These Celtic designs were produced in a time of intense battle between Roman and Celtic forces; the effort of minting over coins indicates a strong rejection of Roman culture in its entirety.
It’s impossible to know just how successful any efforts at damnatio memoriae were; completely successful erasure would be undetectable by historians. It’s likely that none were completely successful, given the difficulty of such an endeavor. Many contemporary historians wrote about the emperors who ruled during their time, and coins in particular give us long-lasting records. Even the despised Caligula, whose records underwent the most extensive erasure known, remains one of the best-known Roman emperors in history. Several Caligulan coins have had his name filed down or hammered out, yet remain recognizable.
Even the smallest and most ordinary coin can bear a historical record that thousands of intervening years cannot erase.