Way back on July 21, 356 B.C.E., a man named Herostratus deliberately set fire to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. The Temple of Artemis was a beloved architectural marvel that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Herostratus did not try to evade capture for his heinous act. He openly bragged about his crime. His name became synonymous with a particular type of fame-seeker still very prevalent today.
Ephesus was one of the great Hellenic cities situated on the coast of Asia Minor. The Goddess Artemis was the city’s patron deity, and her breathtaking marble temple (the first in the world) was larger than a football field.
A temple to Artemis had stood on or near that spot since 800 B.C.E. The Ephesians loved their Goddess and her sacred temple so much that when St. Paul came a-calling four hundred years later preaching the Gospel he barely escaped with his life.
Enter Herostratus — a guy so desperate for fame he’d do anything to achieve it. He clearly wasn’t messing around, because he went whole hog and set fire to one of the most revered structures in the ancient world.
When the people of Ephesus saw the smoking ruins of the temple, Herostratus made certain they knew that he was the guy responsible.
The motive behind Herostratus’ seemingly senseless act of arson was recorded by the historian Valerius Maximus, “so that through the destruction of this most beautiful building his name might be spread through the whole world.”
To make sure Herostratus did not get his wish, the punishment for his arson was two-fold: execution (why commit a crime you knew you’d be executed for? You get to bask in your notoriety for — what? A few days? ) and a little something called damnatio memoriae.
That second penalty was no doubt far more appalling to Herostratus. Damnatio memoriae, or “damnation of memory,” literally meant that all traces of the person being punished were removed from history.
This meant that Herostratus’ name was stricken from all official records, and the mention of his name was forbidden, either by word or in writing, on pain of death. This was to deny him his lust for fame and glory.
Along those same, but a bit less drastic lines, in March 2019 the New Zealand Prime Minister wouldn’t give the perpetrator any free P.R. in the wake of a mass shooting in her country. She refused to speak his name publicly, apparently well aware of how crushing a blow that would likely be to the culprit.
In spite of the risk, Herostratus’ name and heinous act were recorded by the historian Theopompus. His name lived on as a term to describe someone who commits a crime for the sole purpose of the resulting notoriety. The term Herostratic fame means “fame at any cost.”
Another modern example of someone who became herostratically famous would be Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon in 1980.
In his own words, this was Chapman’s sole purpose for gunning down the much-loved musician: “the result would be that I would be famous; the result would be that my life would change and I would receive a tremendous amount of attention.”
Chapman was just in it to be a “celebrity.” If he had to murder a real celebrity to get there, so be it. That’s a classic Herostrat in action.
So, despite the Ephesians’ best efforts, Herostratus’ name not only lived on but achieved immortality.