That Time Someone Burned Down A Wonder Of The World To Become Famous


Model of the Temple of Artemis of Ephesus — Picture By Zee Prime, Wikimedia Commons

Killing and destruction for fame isn't a modern illness

“At some point during our not so distant past, the conditions surrounding being famous changed…With fame there are hassles that some say come with the territory, but where did anyone sign on to the idea that if you do very well you will be at risk of being killed for it?”
— Gavin De Becker, “The Gift Of Fear

Crowds gathered and watched in stunned disbelief as the flames enveloped the building. Its destruction had been thought utterly impossible, but it was unfolding before their very eyes.

The Temple of Artemis, which had stood in splendor for hundreds of years turned into a charred fragment of its former glory. The huge building made of marble was thought to be impervious to a fire of this nature, yet the structure crumbled. However, the news of the fire paled in comparison to the method of destruction.

An arsonist destroyed the temple, which modern readers will know as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Moreover, the perpetrator handed himself over to the authorities without a fight — he didn’t even bother to hide. As he was questioned about his crime, the arsonist said he did it in order to become famous.

Since I noted the building was one of the ancient wonders of the world, you get the idea this event happened a long time ago. The temple burned in 356 BC, so you’d be right on that account. However, I’m sure you can’t help but notice how modern the motive for the arson was.

How often have we in recent times watched a school shooter commit savagery in order to get a manifesto read? How often has a celebrity stalker killed or hurt a famous person in order to get attention? The words said by Gavin De Becker above likely ring true in your mind.

We seem to think these are modern problems, which just started appearing in the internet age. However, they’re older than this. Moreover, society has been attempting to deal with these issues for countless years without success.

In fact, the saying “Herostratic fame”, which means fame sought by any cost, comes from the ancient act of arson mentioned above. The man who committed the act was said to be Herostratus, and the ancients attempted to wipe his name away from history.

The Temple And Its Destruction

Reconstructive plan (Temple of Artemis) 1877 — John Turtle Wood [Public domain]

Simon Whistler at explains the temple was 377 feet long and 180 feet wide. The ceiling was supported by 127 dazzling white columns made of marble. However, there were also many support beams made of cedar. Being an ancient wonder, these supports were soaked in scented oils.

Whistler points out the ironic idea that a structure made of marble was burnt down. Just remember the cedar support beams mentioned previously. Having had a family home made from cedar which burned down, I know just how flammable this material is. According to Whistler, it wasn’t really that hard to burn the temple down.

Herostratus made it past the guards and set multiple oily rags on fire and they did the rest. Whether any one was killed in the blaze is left unmentioned. But when a fire claims a building about the size of an NFL football field, it would be a miracle if someone wasn’t hurt.

David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim in their book The Intellectual Devotional: Biographies, mention little is known about the arsonist except he was young. They also point to the fact the criminal carefully picked the target. It was a structure larger than life, so it would get him the attention he wanted. The authorities also made an example out of him: torturing him and publicly executing him.

However, there was still an issue after the arsonist’s death. His memory may inspire copycats or other fame seekers. So, the Greeks erased the perpetrator's name under punishment of death. Anyone mentioning his name would be executed. The ancient Romans call this Damnatio Memoriae or “condemnation of memory”.

A Horrific Punishment Of Erasure

In our modern mind, the torture and execution might sound like a terrible punishment. However, in the ancient world, removal from memory was its own type of horror. In her article “The Roman House as Memory Theater”, Bettina Bergmann explains the importance of memory in a society where the majority of the populace is illiterate.

Moreover, she explains memory training was also part of the standard education of the elites in Roman society. If you’ve ever heard of the mental training mechanism of a “memory palace”, that was developed by the Romans. In order to belt out long speeches or recite an audience’s favorite epic, a good memory was a necessity and rewarded in those days.

There’s evidence of Damnatio Memoriae being used as punishment in the Greek and Roman world. There are also famous instances in Egypt where pharaoh's names are struck out of records as well.

Perhaps the most well-known being Akhenaten, who not only had his name removed, but had his face removed from his Sarcophagus. In more modern times, Joseph Stalin had Avel Enukidze removed from photos of upper Soviet leadership after he was executed.

The Modern Herostratus

“I liked him a great deal and knew I could never have him, and if I couldn’t have him neither could anybody else. I’ve always wanted to be in the limelight. I wanted attention and publicity for once. My dreams have come true.”
— Ruth S., statement given after she shot the baseball player Eddie Waitkus in 1949, Gavin De Becker, “The Gift Of Fear”

Security expert Gavin De Becker’s book is chalked full of people willing to kill or injure to achieve fame. He believes this is a modern problem driven by media bringing popular icons closer than ever before.

However, it’s not as new as most think. He finds his first example of this behavior occurring in 1942 during the rise of Frank Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra 1943 — Picture By John T. Burns [Public Domain]

At a performance in the Paramount Theater in New York, an audience of mainly young women went crazy. Sinatra and his band were greeted by screaming fans who left their seats. Some said his concerts resembled riots more than performances. In fact, Sinatra and his band got scared at points when they were nearly mobbed.

In 1944 when Sinatra came back to the same theater again, they prepared for the phenomenon. 450 policemen were brought in to try and control a crowd of about 30,000 who gathered to see the crooner. Unfortunately, an event happened that foreshadowed many modern Herostratic events. De Becker describes it in his book as follows:

“During the engagement, an eighteen-year-old named Alexander Ivanonich Dorogokupetz stood up in the theater and threw an egg that hit Sinatra in the face. The show stopped, and for a moment, a brief moment, Sinatra was not the star. Now it was Dorogokupetz mobbed by audience members and Dorogokupetz who had to be escorted out by police. Society had not learned to deal with this, and still hasn’t. Dorogokupetz told police: ‘I vowed to put an end to this monotony of two years of consecutive swooning. It felt good.’ Saddled with the least American of names, he had tried to make one for himself in the most American way, and but for his choice of a weapon, he would probably be as famous today as Frank Sinatra.”

The modern ritual of killing or damaging for fame started way before the internet or widespread television use. We can even find a famous example in ancient Greece.

As De Becker mentions, we also still haven’t found a way to deal with it. Although after years of running a security firm and protecting high profile clients he has some ideas. They sound a little familiar.

Dealing With Our Arsonists

According to De Becker, mass killers and those willing to destroy to get famous often study the work of similar people.

They’ll watch how others did something they’re thinking about and learn from it. If killing a bunch of people got someone in front of cameras or a manifesto read, that’s the route to go.

De Becker’s cure for this is a form of Damnatio Memoriae. He recommends the media not share the name or picture of the person committing the crime. If any mention of the person is given, it’s to be in a way which couldn’t glorify them. If possible, authorities should try and make the person look like the biggest loser possible.

De Becker’s whole idea revolves around the idea of copycats watching the event. If this person is put in the most pathetic light possible, or even erased, it takes away kindling for the next fire. Obviously, this would be difficult today with a free press and present speed of information, but it sounds logical.

But Damnatio Memoriae had mixed results after the temple burned. We still know Herostratus’ name as he wished for when he lit the fire. However, it was effectively banned for years. The only reason the name is known is because foreign historians chose to record it much later. As far as we know, no copycats burned anything else down after that event.

So, a modern cure may be found in the past. We may not remove the face from a Sarcophagus but blotting it out on screen might be good enough. Although nothing may be enough when someone is willing to destroy a wonder of the world to become famous.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

Bucks County, PA

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