Herostratus’s insatiable, almost feverish craving for the hyperreal – the exaggerated simulations and imitations of reality, rather than authentic reality itself – drove him to an abject act of destruction of something beautiful and beloved. It is also a hunger uniquely emblematic of the postmodern condition, where reality has given way to hyperreality and simulated experiences have replaced authentic meaning and purpose.
Herostratus and the modern ‘Erostrati’ became obsessed with and driven by that hollow, hyperreal hunger.

Three thousand years ago, seeking a new home, Athenian colonists arrived along the endless shores of the Ionian coast. Believing they were guided by the goddess herself, they stopped at a place where the air flickered with the aura of Artemis, the virgin huntress. They settled upon the shores of what would eventually become known as the city of Ephesus*.

And so, with calloused hands and prayers, they began to erect a temple in her honor – colossal and eternal, built of marble brought with great toil from distant quarries. So inspired were the Athenian architects by their devotion that they ingeniously set the construction upon a lofty plateau, rendering it resilient to both floods and earthquakes. The temple took centuries to construct, as a monumental and magnificent stone statue of the goddess watched the builders with her unmoving gaze.

Once finished, the temple became one of the Seven Wonders spoken of by travelers across the entire ancient world. It swiftly ascended to the pantheon of significant cultural and architectural achievements, alongside other man-wrought marvels, such as the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the statue of Zeus Olympios.

Statue of Zeus Olympios.

But every work, no matter how exalted, will one day fall to the mattock of destruction. In the case of the Artemision (Greek: Ἀρτεμίσιον), it was neither an earthquake’s sway, as the builders had feared, nor celestial wrath, as the faithful had feared, but the deed of a single mortal – one disenchanted and wretched soul, known to posterity as Herostratus.

In 356 BC, he set the exalted temple on fire.

The Colossus of Rhodes

Little is known about Herostratus, who, by a twist of fate, incinerated the wonder of the world on the very night when the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great was born in Pella, Macedonia.

Historians conjecture his humble origins, speculating him to have been a lowly slave or the son of one. He eagerly confessed to his abominable deed, driven not by malice, but by the insatiable quest for kleos – the tenebrous allure of infamy and disrepute.

The Ephesian authorities deemed the death penalty insufficient for the gravity of Herostratus’ sin. To truly punish the fame-seeking criminal, it was decided that in addition to death, Herostratus would suffer damnatio memoriae – henceforth, his name would be forbidden, forgotten, never spoken nor written.

Damnatio memoriae, a customary practice in classical antiquity, employed terms like inlaudatus and inlaudabilis to denote ‘a person not worthy of mention or remembrance, never to be named’.

In a twist of fate, as it often happens in life and art, damnatio memoriae often achieved the opposite, preserving rather than erasing memory. Herostratus became more renowned than the talented architects of the temple. Damned by historians from his polis, his legacy endured thanks to Theopompus, a historian from the island of Chios, beyond Ephesian jurisdiction.

The information relayed by Theopompus in his biography of Alexander’s father, Philip II – the History Of Phillip, was later incorporated into the accounts of Strabo and echoed by historians such as Plutarch, Valerius Maximus, and Aulus Gellius.

The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre paid particular homage to Herostratus in a detailed narrative of the same name. Inspired by ancient tragedy, ‘Erostratus’ follows a Parisian named Paul Hilbert, tormented by low self-esteem and impotence, who resolves to grab a pistol and begin randomly killing passersby.

Remains of the Artemision.

Herostratus’s damnation ended up immortalizing him far beyond what he could have imagined in his finite, fated mortal husk.

On one hand, his name has become inexorably linked with wanton destruction and infamy through the ages. Yet on the other, his desperate legacy transcended the calcified ruins of the temple he incinerated; he becomes an archetype, a doomed Ozymandian icon of humanity’s ceaseless hunger to escape the schismatic chasm that divides significance from obscurity, notoriety from oblivion.

He became such a potent symbol of ego and destruction that today sociologists and criminal psychologists now speak of the ‘Herostratic syndrome’.

One wonders – what demon howls from the sundered recesses of the soul to compel one to forsake all morality and immolate society’s loftiest, most exalted cultural and aesthetic achievements? This autophagous thirst for renown, of some type of karmic rematch, has metastasized in our contemporary society. It has morphed into an insatiable, infinitely abyssal drive that threatens to subsume everything that makes a civilization immortal.

In our stratified postmodern world of hyper-ritualized mediated phantasms, where the simulacra have subsumed the real, the answers for this may lie in what we can call the Echoversum – the universe/realm of echoes or the echo-world – where fragmented utterances, erudite discourses and cultural symbols have gone to decay and putrefy after being expelled from the world of the living.

For is not the Herostratic urge quintessentially hyperreal – an obsessive desire for the empty signifiers of influence devoid of true significance? It permeates a culture that has been engulfed in mocking facsimiles that mimic life with unsettling artifice.

Just as the wretched Ephesian’s name persists solely through the textual ruins of damnatio memoriae, do not our era’s disinherited seek to inscribe themselves upon the symbolic destruction of old glories, unknowingly immolating themselves upon the burning wreckage of cathartic glory and infamy alike?

Whether defacing statues in a quest for renewed relevance, or manifesting virtual infamies amidst the ceaseless data-churn, these are perhaps the last pyres of individuation in a world of soulless hyper-commodification.

* Later sacked by the Goths, then destroyed by an earthquake and today its ruins lie in an Anatolia conquered by the Turkish hordes.