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Imperial Succession as Imperial Damnation

A republic ensures the transfer of power through constitutional rules. How does an executive-ruled state transfer power? What is its constitution?

The Roman ritual practice of damnatio memoriae was intended to wipe the name of the offender from the scrolls of history — not to mention his face (imago)! — and not just emperors. Aelius Sejanus had his name scraped off Tiberian coins also bearing his name. This powerfully prefigures Woke cancel ceremony, which has become as ingrained a rite in Anglo-America as in ancient Rome.

As late antiquity began to blend into Byzantine, imperial succession became somewhat more stable — at least in terms of rite and ceremony. The civil wars of the 3rd-5th centuries threatened to destroy the entire empire. What was left of the empire — its much richer eastern half — moved in a different direction. The original imperial protocol: Rooting any violent transfer of imperial power in extravagant public theater — ritually delegitimating the overthrown emperor by damnatio memoriae — was effectively replaced by a relatively non-violent protocol for constitutional succession. The problem of damnatio memoriae, however dramatic as political theater — and however intimidating to rival factions — was that it had the unavoidable side effect of making the violent overthrow of any emperor the constitutional norm.

Hence, ritual blinding came into high fashion. Slicing off the nose was also tried on Justinian II. While blinding kept an emperor from leading his army, being rhinometos (the slit-nosed) in no way limited executive action. A golden nasal prosthesis, after all, works wonders

Much later, during the reign of the Empress Zoë (1025-1050) — who had one husband killed and another blinded — Byzantine imperial politics went Julio-Claudian for a time.

However, from the mid-11th to mid-15th century, deposed emperors were increasingly simply exiled to a secure monastery where they became monks. The worst that was done to deposed emperors was ritual blinding — now without incision — accomplished using a heated metal plate held close to the face. Red hot, it would burn out the optic nerve. This was not always successful. In the case of John IV, who was blinded at 11 by the usurper Michael VIII, still retained some sight. Moreover, the usurper's son, Andronicus II, as emperor visited John, seeking forgiveness, and John was later formally recognized as a saint by the Church. Clearly, Late Byzantium was getting soft.

Woke America today is made of much sterner stuff. As with the early Principate, we topple and disfigure statues with joyous abandon and wipe our historical palimpsests clean every day. We live in a realm of perpetual and daily damnatio memoriae.

Like the imperial constitution, too, damnatio imperiae is essential to the constitutional transfer of power. The emerging protocol of succession requires the erasure of the former emperor's presence, à la exile for life from social media. Also, disgraced potentates like Andrew Cuomo are ritually monasticized like a "retired" Byzantine. Mr. Trump’s damnatio memoriae is his banishing from public media — to hyperboria, at the ends of the earth.

America's "Roman road" offers a couple messages. First, our boisterous integration of damnatio memoriae into politics suggests that a new constitutional frame for the transfer of power has been established. This both amplifies and intensifies our quadrennial power struggle by forcibly injecting ritual public shaming and punishment into the event. Stigmatizing and punishing losers as "unlawful" (damnatio — condemned) pushes politics closer to the existential edge.

Second, the politics of damnation is working its way into the legal system. When it is fully incorporated into application of "the law" — as Blue is attempting to do with a January 6th Commission, plus Federal court packing — this will mean criminal judgment at the heart of what was once ordinary politicking.

Overthrown emperors will all face more than excommunication: they will increasingly face prison or perhaps just a distant monastery.

Whatever we see (or wish to see) — the Afghan humiliation highlights starkly the gnawing symbiosis between Imperial America at home and its outward-facing imperium in the world. An emperor-centered, and yet immobilized, post-republican constitutional order is aggressively agitating instability — within us and throughout the world — that has the potential, at any moment, to veer from its orbital path and spin out of control.

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