Adfectatio Regis

As research for a story, I've been reading The Art of Forgetting, about classical Roman practices for sanctioning the public memory. Historians generally lump them together under the heading of damnatio memoriae, though the Romans themselves seem never to have formalized them under any such name. Most examples come from the Imperial era; the Republic furnished only three precedents, and two of those are historically uncertain. One of figures ostensibly consigned to oblivion may have even been fabricated, in part to justify what amounts to zoning changes on the Capitoline.

Real estate aside, the principle function of those early sanctions may have been to reinforce the Republic's wariness of kings. Rejection of autocracy was the basis for early Roman political development, and cultural exhortations against kingship helped maintain the populace's commitment to the republican form of government. For that purpose, it whether Cassius, Maelius and Capitolinus actually existed matters less than that stories about them gave the Romans a model for dealing with the crime of adfectatio regis, "striving for kingship." The civic myths provide examples of political actors so inimical to the res publica that even their memory was subject to sanction.

Reading this, it struck me as odd that our own republic has no clear analogues. Even the most obvious candidate, George III, barely registers in the public memory. (Perhaps we've been too successful at sanctioning his memory.) There are, that I can think of, no distinctly American historical figures that fit the bill. It's possible that early American rhetoric leaned on Biblical precendents -- the Exodus pharoahs, Nebuchadnezzar, King Herod, and so on -- but if so, they no longer seem prominent as civic warnings. And besides, the more genial Protestant view of Judean kings like David and Solomon would tend to make the warning more equivocal.

Public discourse relies on exemplars to provide a common political argot. In the absence of such exemplars, certain topics become intangible, and difficult to discuss. In this case, the result, it seems to me, is a lower level of public vigilence against the hazards of adfectatio regis.