À propos … YOLO (YOLARE): ‘to only live once, to do something irrevocably stupid’

Yesterday, my email inbox exploded from notifications coming in that resulted from a tweet written by Caroline Lawrence, which turned out to be immensely popular.

Here is what she posted:

CCtHvhOW8AA7uJKThere are a number of people out there, who think that Horace’s famous carpe diem (‘seize the day’) is a good translation or equivalent of YOLO (in terms of capturing the acronym’s gist).

A rather stronger advocate of the YOLO approach than Horace, however, is Catullus, who at Catull. 5 writes  –

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love, and let us disdain the gossip of those oh-so-very-stern old men ! Suns may set and return again: when the brief light of our time sets once, it is for us to sleep through an eternal night. Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand, then one hundred. Then, when we made it many a thousand, let us lose track, lest we know, or lest someone evil may become envious, as he would be, if he got to learn just how many kisses there were.

Its clearest expression, however, finds the phrase in Silius Italicus‘ epic poem Punica at 15.60-4 (transl. J. D. Duff):

huc aduerte aures. currit mortalibus aeuum,
nec nasci bis posse datur. fugit hora, rapitque
Tartareus torrens ac secum ferre sub umbras,
si qua animo placuere, negat. quis luce suprema
dimisisse meas sero non ingemit horas?

Attend to me. The life of man fleets fast  away, and no man can be born a second time; time flies, and the stream of death carries us away and forbids us to carry to the lower world the things that gave us pleasure in life. Who, when his last hour  comes, does not regret too late that he let slip the seasons of Pleasure?

This passage forms the end of a speech delivered by personified Voluptas–Pleasure, directed at Scipio Africanus – a speech, to which a significantly less fun-filled figure of Virtus–Virtue gets to respond, promising lasting glory through hard, self-sacrificing devotion.

Not much of an advocate for the YOLO style of life on this occasion, Scipio Africanus chooses to follow the path of virtue – just like the mythical Hercules did, when he was given the same choice (a story that Silius shamelessly plagiarised).

But then, as those who study the life and exploits of Scipio Africanus in more detail will know, Scipio in his actions, tactics, and military endeavours in real life (as opposed to Silius’ epic) does not appear to have been consistently averse to ‘YOLO = to do something irrevocably stupid’, either.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Master and Margarita

Today, I had the immense pleasure of seeing one of my most favourite inscribed Latin poems – the epitaph for Margarita (‘Pearl’), a lap-dog, born in Gaul, deceased in second or third century Rome.

Epitaph for Margarita. – Photo: PK (2015).

Epitaph for Margarita. – Photo: PK (2015).

The inscription on this marble plaque, which is preserved and on display in the British Museum in London (CIL VI 29896 cf. p. 3734 = CLE 1175; for the entry in the BM online database follow this link), reads as follows:

Gallia me genuit, nomen mihi divitis undae
concha dedit, formae nominis aptus honos.
docta per incertas audax discurrere silvas
collibus hirsutas atque agitare feras
non gravibus vinc(u)lis unquam consueta teneri
verbera nec niveo corpore saeva pati:
molli namque sinu domini dominaeque iacebam
et noram in strato lassa cubare toro.
et plus quam licuit muto canis ore loquebar:
nulli latratus pertimuere meos.
sed iam fata subii partu iactata sinistro
quam nunc sub parvo marmore terra tegit.

Roman sculpture of two dogs. – Image source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/images/ps302917_l.jpg.

Roman sculpture of two dogs. – Image source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/images/ps302917_l.jpg.

In translation:

Gaul sired me, the shell of the rich sea gave me my name: the honour of that name is becoming to my beauty. Taught to roam unexplored woodlands with courage and to chase hirsute game in the hills, unaccustomed ever to be restrained by heavy harnesses or to endure savage beatings with my snow-white body: for I used to lie in my master’s and my mistress’s lap and mastered the art of resting wearily on a spread-out blanket. Even though I used to be able to express more than I was entitled to with my inarticulate mouth – that of a dog! –, no one feared my barking. But I have already met my fate, stricken down during ill-omened whelping – me, whom earth now covers under this little marble plaque.

Margarita (‘Pearl’).

On the right-hand side, there is a palm leaf incised as an element of decoration.

The inscription has been beautifully laid out (using aid lines) and carved – only in the penultimate letter of the final word tegit (‘covers’), the stone cutter originally made a mistake (writing teget instead of tegit, which he then tried to conceal by giving more emphasis to the I subsequently):

Detail of the Margarita inscription. – Photo: PK (2015).

Detail of the Margarita inscription. – Photo: PK (2015).

Unsurprisingly, this inscription has received a lot of scholarly attention.

Scholars and amateurs alike were taken by the affectionate way in which these Roman dog-owners (who remain nameless) talked about their pet. The allusion to the epitaph of the Roman poet Vergil in line 1 (Gallia me genuit, ‘Gaul sired me’, following the model of Mantua me genuit; see the learned article by Irene Frings on this topic [in German; available for free here]) was duly noted.

The way in which the epitaph humanises the animal has been discussed, alongside considerations as to whether or not the poem might be parodistic or not (as is often the case with animal epitaphs: see the recent discussion about the Greek epitaph for a pig, beautifully presented by Mary Beard on her blog).

For me and my current research project on the Latin verse inscriptions (Carmina Latina Epigraphica) as ‘poetry of the people’, however, the inscription offers an interesting different perspective on Roman society as well – a much more disturbing and less romantic view than that of those who simply focus on the fondness of the language and the bond between the dog and their owners (which I do not wish to deny by any means).

The inscription, as I said, is a decent-sized marble-slab (61 x 50 cm), beautifully prepared and carved. Margarita was an imported animal from Gaul (it is unclear as to whether this is where her owners picked her up or whether they bought her in Rome as an imported animal). In addition to being a lap-dog, she served as a hound for animal hunts, roaming woods and hills.

In other words, she almost certainly was a costly, precious item owned by a wealthy aristocratic family – a family that would engage in pastimes such as hunting and keeping precious imported pets for display purposes.

During the high empire, however, Rome’s aristocracy hardly ever commemorates itself in verse epitaphs – it was decidedly a poetic form a member of the lower classes (and in Rome even more so than in provincial settings).

In that regard, the ways in which the dominus (‘master’) and the domina (‘mistress’) have humanised the animal are becoming even more interesting – including the fact that they describe themselves with terms commonly associated not only with the Roman household as such, but with Roman patronage (styling themselves as the patrons and masters of their underlings).

Just like a patron might describe the untimely loss of a precious slave (see, for example, the epitaph for the short-hand writer Xanthias from Cologne, discussed here, to mention but one parallel), Margarita’s masters, too, mourn the loss of animate, valued property – and not just that of a delightful companion.

The fact that they do this in verse is not only to be explained with a reference to the literary commonplace of animal epitaphs – this dirge is not ‘just’ a semi-humorous reference to a common genre (a much more appropriate example for that would be the epitaph for Hadrian’s horse, which I mentioned in my blog last week).

As much as we ourselves may be inclined to think that honouring the dog with a poem is something extraordinary, one must adapt a Roman frame of mind to appreciate the implications of this choice. The humanisation of Margarita does not at all raise her to the same status as her owners claim for themselves: she remains the dominus‘ and the domina‘s cherished servant, and it is just that what is expressed through the poetic form as well.

Does that, in turn, mean that slaves and freedmen / freedwomen, when honoured by their masters through a verse inscription, barely reached the same status as that of a dog in ancient Rome – underdogs in the truest meaning of the word?

A disturbing thought indeed – but a thought that need not hold any universal truth.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Poetic Dreams of Flight

The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 has been on my mind quite a lot recently.

Previously, on occasion of a similar incident (namely that of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370), I have published blog posts about the horrors that relatives of crash victims must go through – whether they know what became of their nearest and dearest or not.

The reason as to why this particular incident has been on my mind even more than previous incidents may have to do with the fact that this particular crash feels as though it happened a lot closer to home. I also have the distinct feeling that I, too, have flown on the same route with the same airline.

As a (fairly) frequent flyer I felt the need to remind myself of the many amazing aspects about modern day air travel – neatly summarised by Louis C. K. in a short segment that is available in the following clip (if strong language upsets you, this is not for you – you’ve been warned!):

Dreams of flight are as old as humankind, they say, and (like Louis C. K.) classicists will be quick to refer to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus to support that claim.

My personal favourite, however, is a short Latin verse inscription from Pompeii – a graffito discovered in the Casa degli Scienziati (CIL IV 1538 = CLE 43 cf. p. 853):

Quidam cum peteret alas . . .

When someone desired wings . . .

Resembling the opening of an Aesopic or Phaedrian fable, this little line – deliberately left open-ended by its writer (following the fashion of a common ‘in-joke’ at Pompeii) – to me is a delightfully mysterious expression of the universal dream to break down the barriers of our human existence and to imagine what could lie beyond.

How does this imagination continue? What is the quidam‘s fate? Will the wish come true, and will it end well? What would the writer have done with wings? What would we do? What would I do?

The graffito remains silent.

But it  invites us to think about it.

To think about what flying is about.

The speed of flying, for example, that is alluded to in an epitaph for Borysthenes Alanus, Emperor Hadrian’s horse – an inscription discovered in Apt/Apta in the province of Gallia Narbonensis (CIL XII 1122 cf. p. 823 = CLE 1522):

Borysthenes Alanus
Caesareus veredus
per aequor et paludes
et tumulos Etruscos
volare qui solebat
Pannonicos in apros
nec ullus insequentem
dente aper albicanti
ausus fuit nocere
vel extimam saliva
sparsit ab ore caudam
ut solet evenire
sed integer iuventa
inviolatus artus
die sua peremptus
hoc situs est in agro.

Borysthenes Alanus, the imperial steed that used to fly across water and swamps and the Tuscan hills – no wild boar, when pursued by him, dared to harm him with its white tooth!  – spraying his saliva from his mouth to the tip of its tail, as it commonly happens, in unbroken youth, with his limbs intact, deceased at an appropriate age, he now lies here in this field.

The imperial veredus, a light, quick horse, as the paradigm of flying – quick, hardly even touching the ground with his hooves: one gets a sense of the adrenalin and excitement that the emperor must have felt when riding his horse (which he named after the river Dniepr).

And then there is the dizzying height to which one gets to soar so easily when flying – a height also imagined in an early Christian epitaph from the city of Rome as the destination of the soul (CIL VI 32000 cf. p. 4800 = CLE 734 = ICUR I 307 = ILCV 60 add.):

Consul in egregiis bis senis fascibus auctus
magnus ab Insteiis – gens inclyta – Pompeianus
istic terrenos terrenis sedibus artus
reddidit inque sinus summi genitoris apertum
aethera pervolitans levibus se sustulit alis.
caeloq(ue) et terris placida sic pace repostus
felix luce nova saec(u)lorum in saecula gaudet.
femineo sed victa animo et miserabile dulci
germano divulsa dolens fratremq(ue) requirens
Paula soror tumulum dedit et solatia (!) magni
parva tulit luctus, tristiq(ue) heu pectore ‘salve
perpetuumq(ue) vale, frater carissime’ dixit.

A (sc. suffect) consul honoured with twelve outstanding fasces, the great Pompeianus of the family of the Insteii – a famous family indeed! – has returned his worldly limbs here to a worldly residence and, fluttering across the sky towards the welcoming bosom of the highest father, he has soared with his light wings. Thus put to peaceful, pleasant rest in heaven and on earth, he rejoices, happily, in new light in all eternity.

Overcome, however, by female spirit and pitiful, tormented in pain over her sweet brother, longing for her brother, Paula, his sister, has dedicated this tomb, gaining little solace for her great mourning, saying, with a sad heart (the pain!): ‘Greetings, and farewell forever, dearest brother!’

It is hard, of course, not to think of the sheer evil of a mind, poised to destroy not only itself, but 149 other, innocent people with him – taking away their control over their own lives, letting them die in full awareness of what dire fate to expect.

A horrendous thought – reminding me of one of the most peculiar Latin epitaphs that has survived from the city of Rome herself (CIL VI 26011 cf. p. 3532 = CLE 1063; image here):

Scita hic sit(a).
papilio volita(n)s
texto religatus
aranist: il(l)ei prae-
da rep(e)ns, huic
data mors su<b>i<t>-

Scita lies here.

A fluttering butterfly was caught in a spider’s web. The latter obtains quick prey, the former – death.

For those left behind, however, it may be a lot more wholesome and comforting to consider that, never mind how horrendous the fate of their beloved, they died while living through one of the oldest dream of humankind – the dream of flying like a bird.

Birds that died prematurely, however, are a reason to mourn even for the gods, as an epigram of uncertain authorship and age suggests (CIL IX 5922 adn. cf. p. 690 = CLE 1517):

Ereptam volucrem Cupido luget.
non est quod putat hic inesse lector,
sed vitam leget hic brevem puellae:
crescebat modo que (!) futura pulcra
multorumque amor, excidit et omen.

Cupido mourns a bird that has been snatched away.

In here is not what the reader thinks there is, but he reads about the short life of a girl: she who was just growing up to be a future beauty and to be beloved by many, died together with her fate.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Here lies (insert name here), or: Why reading beyond a quotation is a really good idea

There is an old theory, originally proposed by René Cagnat in 1889 and widely believed by classical scholars, that in the Roman world there were manuals for the use of professional stone cutters and the like, providing them with model texts – stencils or templates, so to speak – for their use on ancient tombstones.

The thinking behind this is as obvious and simplistic as the evidence for these manuals is scarce:

  • There are a good number of cases in which the same texts (usually: a poem) has come to light on several inscriptions for different individuals in diverse parts of the Roman empire – unless one is to believe in a fantastic (and repeat) case of coincidence, something must have facilitated knowledge of such model poems.
  • Plutarch‘s work on the Pythian oracles mentions the use of poetic manuals for quick composition of poems for the use of mountebank diviners.
  • Unlike their literary counterparts, the poets of the Latin verse inscriptions are preconceived to be inferior, uninspired, and generally useless at their job.

One could argue against the entire range of false or problematic preconceptions here, but I will keep that for my forthcoming work on the Carmina Latina Epigraphica as ‘the poetry of the people’.

Instead, I would like to demonstrate a particularly interesting case of the ways in which prejudice and problematic aprioris work.

Robert Ireland, in Martin Henig’s Handbook of Roman Art (Oxford 1983, p. 221) presents the following, rather curious case:

Conventional texts could be extracted from collections of ready-made formulae: verses identical save for the names of the deceased (which often fail to scan) re-appear in metrical epitaphs from different parts of the Empire, and one artist made the careless but revealing error of copying his pattern-text unmodified on to the stone: HIC IACET CORPVS PVERI NOMINANDI – that is, roughly, ‘HERE LIES THE BODY OF (a boy: put the name in)’.

Hahaha, what a dunce that artist was, right? Am I right? Boy, he didn’t even get that pueri nominandi meant ‘insert name here’.


Now, as classical scholarship, too, seems to work with collections of ready-made formulae for uncritical regurgitation sometimes, it is of little surprise that Ireland’s comment was recycled subsequently.

Maureen Carroll, for example, in her study Spirits of the Dead. Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe (Oxford 2006, p. 106),  writes (with explicit reference to Ireland):

In many cases the components of epitaphs will have been taken by the letter-cutter from ‘manuals’ or collections of formulae or books of poetry. This is the only explanation for the inscription from Annaba in Algeria that reads: Hic iacet corpus pueri nominandi (Here lies the body of a boy, name to be inserted). The letter-cutter followed the manual quite literally ‘to the letter’, without noticing that he was to insert a specific name in the space provided.

Except, the letter-cutter actually didn’t.

What neither Ireland nor Carroll (nor, for that matter, most of its other recent interpreters, such as Alison Cooley, Jane Stevenson, and Jonathan P. Conant) have done is something astonishingly obvious: to check what the inscription actually says.

Interestingly enough, its published text reads as follows (AE 1931.112 = CLE Zarker 48):

Hic corpus iacet
pueri nominandi:
o benedicte puer,
paucis te terra
diebus infantem
tenuit celiquae (!)
in regna remisit:
propterea es
natus ut ca-
peres tanta

Here lies the body of a noteworthy boy: oh blessed boy, after but a few days earth has taken possession of you again, still an infant, and sent you to the realm of heaven: you were born so that you obtained such wealth – reborn [or: … that you, Renatus, obtained such wealth].

The point of this inscription is completely straightforward (as so far only R. P. Hoogma appears to have noticed in a review [available here on jstor]) – it is another case of nominative determinism, a playful reference to the boy’s name Renatus and its original meaning ‘reborn’.

Moreover, one ought to take into account that the text, as transmitted, actually almost scans as an hexameter line (Zarker suggested that it consists of five metra instead of six) i. e. that it can hardly be regarded as altogether defective: note that line 4 (propterea … renatus), too, has some metrical issues in the ut caperes bit.

In conclusion, nominandi is not a case of an ancient version of ‘N. N.'; in fact, it is quite the contrary:

First, It is a playful reference to the fact that the boy’s name will still be mentioned later on in the inscription.

And secondly, it is an expression of reverence to the boy (‘noteworthy’), in the same way in which nominandus nominanda has been used in other inscriptions as well (cf., for example, CIL VIII 5906 = ILAlg II 2.7054, Inscr. Aquil. I 805 = IEAquil. 466, and – related – CIL VI 15969).

In short, the paradigm of those who have used this text as evidence for the existence of manuals with pre-fabricated texts-to-be-inscribed, is in fact a highly personalised text, written for a special person – a little boy called Renatus, who died only a few days after he was born.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

What’s in a name: A Short and Poetic Story of Nominative Determinism

The Classicists-List, a listserv for those with an interest in Classical Studies and Ancient History (both rather broadly conceived), never fails to amaze me for the rather – shall we say – peculiar exchanges that ensue every now and then.

Among the more epic examples must feature an exchange that took place last week and eventually found its calling in a debate about the question as to whether one ought to translate ancient names, whenever writing for a non-specialist audience (archived on this page – look for the threads ‘Throttling research’ and ‘True Names’).

To me, translating ancient names and titles etymologically seems to be an exercise in futility – and to ponder it, in extenso, a waste of precious time of the kind that would only ever seriously be discussed in my own profession.

Would chemists, when writing for a broader audience, seriously even for the fraction of a second consider translating foreign technical terms (instead of adding an explanatory footnote, if feeling generous) – and, say, call helium ‘sunny stuff’ or neon ‘new stuff’?

I think not!

And why should they.

That being said , it would be mistaken, however, to dismiss out of hand this issue, only because it seems of little personal relevance or because it does not immediately resonate with one’s own conceptions and world view.

Of course, it is impossible to assess the idea of nominative determinism – i. e. the idea that everything is an aptronym (or, as the more classically inclined tend to put it, nomen est omen)in its relevance for the ancient world.

As far as ancient Rome is concerned, a great deal of interesting literary material has already been collected and discussed in a useful little volume ‘What’s in a Name‘, edited by Joan Booth and Robert Maltby.

Nominative determinism is not just a literary pastime, however.

There are several Latin inscriptions, too, that utilise the etymology of personal names for playful purposes, deriving a deeper meaning from what at first appears to be ‘just a name’ – reconceptualising, in a way, the fact that parents often choose their children’s names carefully and with some thought (though there are exceptions to that rulenot exactly a modern phenomenon, by the way).

So, after venting my spleen, I give you a selection of five Latin verse inscriptions that, at least to some extent, undermine my own general attitude, namely that translating ancient names generally is a pointless exercise:

1. CIL II 3256 cf. p. 710. 949 = CLE 1196 = HEp 18.193 = AE 2009.626 (Vilches/Baesucci: Hispania citerior; photo available here)

[- – -] Cassius Crescens h(ic) s(itus) e(st) [- – -].
[tu qui] praeteriens nostro remora[re sepulcro],
[ia]m festinato lumine pauca l[ege].
[Cre]scens hic ego sum: fueram [spes magna parentum].
quod non adcrevi nome[n inane fuit].
[o]mnis amor patriae populi m[e voce secutus],
hunc mors praecipuum testi[ficata meast].
[n]obilis ingenii virtus virtuti [loquelae],
cum pietate pudor non tem[eratus erat].
[ha]s laudes tumulo nostro pa[ter ipse notavit],
[i]udice quo solo mors m[ea morte caret].
[qu]od via finitimast mul[tis haec scripta legentur]:
[t]u me praetereens (!) ne [violare velis].
[no]minis (?) e numeris [- – -]
[iam q]uia legisti dic d[- – -].

… Cassius Crescens is buried here …

You, walking by, sojourn at our tomb, read a little, with your hasty eye. It is me, Crescens [= ‘Growing’], here: I was the parents’ great hope. As I did not get to grow up, my name was useless. The love of my fatherland and my people has followed me, in its entirety, with its voice, and my death is testimony to this distinction. The gift of my noble disposition was not tarnished by my gift of speech, and neither was my bashfulness  by my sense of duty. My father himself has noted these praises on my tomb, through whose judgement alone my death becomes immortal. As the road is nearby, the writing will be read by many: as you pass by, do not wish to violate … the name … from the poem (?) … as you already read, say …

2. CIL III 3146 = CLE 1160 (Osor/Opsorus, Dalmatia)

Felix haec visa est nascendi lege puella,
quot (!) non est miseros tum sortita Lares.
sed legem fatis Parcae dixere cruentam,
primus natalis condat ut ossa sua.
cognomen pater huic fuerat natale daturus:
abstulit atra dies una cum corpore nomen.

‘Lucky’ [= felix] seemed this girl by birth, as she, on that occasion, was allocated an anything but wretched home. But the Fates spoke bloody law over her destiny, so that her first birthday would have to bury her bones. Her father had given her the cognomen upon her birth: a gloomy day took the name away together with her body.

3. CIL VI 5534 cf. p. 3417 = CLE 1035 (Rome)

Calliste mihi nomen erat
quod forma probavit. annus
ut accedat, ter mihi quintus
erat. grata fui domino, gemino
dilecta parenti. septima [l]anguen-
ti summaque visa dies. causa
latet fati, partum tamen esse
loquontur (!), sed quaecumque
fuit, tam cito non merui.

Cornelia Calliste [= ‘the most beautiful’] was my name, confirmed by my appearance. If one added one year, I had been thrice five years of age. I was welcome to my master, beloved by either parent. Lying ill, the seventh day was also my last one. The reason for my fate is concealed, they say it is just how one is born, yet I did not deserve it so soon.

4. CIL VI 19007 cf. p. 3523 = CLE 247 = CLE 562 (Rome; photo available here; transl. E. Courtney, with additions)

D(is) M(anibus)
Geminiae Agathe Matri dulcissimae.
Mater nomen eram mater non lege futura,
quinque etenim solos annos vixisse fatebor
et menses septem diebus cum vinti duobus.
dum vixi lusi sum cunctis semper amata.
nam pueri voltum, non femine, crede, gerebam,
quam soli norant Agathen qui me genuerunt,
ingenio docili forma pulchra ac veneranda,
rufa coma tonso capite posttrema remisso.
convivae cuncti nunc mi bona pocula ferte
diciteque ut semper meo corpori terra levis sit.
nec parvae doleat requiem mei perqua(m) Faventius,
nutritor plus quam genitor <q>ui solam amavi<t>
est mihi nam mater pater et praecesserat olim
nec doluit casum, soror est et matris Amoenae
tristis et ipsa meae mortis quos cuncti parentes
solando vitae dulci retinete precantes
ne dolor augescat seu maeror tristis abundet.
qui legitis, t<o>tum nomen si nosse velitis,
noscetis Geminiam Agathen, quam mortis acerbus
eripuit Letus teneramque ad Tartara duxit.
hoc es<t> sic est aliu<t> fieri non potest hoc ad nos.

To the [Spirits of the Departed of, PK] sweet Germinia Agathe Mater [= ‘Mother’, PK]. My name was Mother, though I was not destined to be a regular mother; for I shall disclose that I lived for only five years, seven months and twenty-two days. While I lived I played games, and everyone always loved me, for, believe me, I looked like a boy, not a girl, and only my parents knew me as Agathe. I had a docile temperament, a pretty appearance which evoked respect, red hair let down at the back with my head cropped. Bring now auspicious beakers to me, all you guests, and pray that the earth for ever rest light upon me. May Faventius, rearer rather than father, who loved me alone, not grieve overmuch at the repose of my little body. For I have a mother, and my father had long ago gone before me, not sorrowing at my fate; there is also my dear mother’s (or Mother Amoena’s) sister, she too grieving at my death. Consoling them hold them back, all my relatives, for pleasant life, praying that their pain not grow and their bitter grief overflow. If you who read would like to know my full name, you will recognize Geminia Agathe, whom premature death snatched away and left her tender form to the underworld. That is it, that is how it is, it cannot happen otherwise; this much for us.

5. CIL VI 22102 cf. p. 3527 = CLE 92 (Rome)

Q(uinto) Marc[io – – -].
have dulce nobeis nome[n atque omen gerens]
Stephane vitae nostrae [dum vivis decus]
vere choronam te a(c)cepi [et mox perdidi]:
Moschis tua te salutat et D[iodorus tuus]
et blanda dulcis pupa delic[ium tuum]
et quem tu tuis manibus nu[per sustuleras puer].
o fatum infelicem qui te n[obis abstulit].
have casta coniunx et m[ei serva memoriam].
have mi Diodore amice frat[erque et parens],
nam et amici officia et pietat[em implesti patris].
have pupa blanda, anima m[ea, tuque have puer]
quem nuper pararam ut hab[erem heredem nominis].

To Quintus Marcius …

Greetings, Stephanus [= ‘Crown’], name sweet to me and presage of my life, for while you lived I took you as adornment, a real crown,and soon I lost you: your Moschis is greeting you, and your Diodorus, and the sweet, adorable little girl, your sweetheart, and the boy, whom you only just recently lifted up with your hands. Oh dreadful fate that took you away from us!

Greetings, chaste wife, preserve the memory of me. Greetings, my Diodorus, friend, brother, and parent, for you have fulfilled the role of a friend and done the duty of a father. Greetings, adorable little girl, my life, and greetings to you too, boy, whom I only just recently obtained, so that I would have someone to inherit my name.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Shedding Some Light on the Eclipse

Exciting times for stargazers: there will be a solar eclipse on Friday, 20 March 2015, the first UK-wide almost-total solar eclipse, as it has been pointed out.

High time for me to dig into my beloved Latin inscriptions and see if they have anything interesting to say about such events, I thought – especially as the usual UK cloud layer will make it almost impossible for me to see the eclipse… displacement activities and such…

The short story: there does not appear to be any relevant mention of this phenomenon.

The long story: some think there is … and this is where it gets interesting:

In 1989, Géza Alföldy published an article in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (77 (1989) 155-180; freely accessible here), in which he discussed a stone inscription from Nursia (Norcia).

According to Alföldy (pp. 160-7), the text of this inscription ought to be read (and translated) as follows:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

Gaius Torenas, member of the Aniensis voting tribe, gives this to Hercules Victor as a gift, lest the cut-off light of the sun buries the moon.

Previously edited in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL IX 4599), the inscription had not attracted any significant attention.

Following Alföldy’s proposal, however, that the inscription was, in fact, a unique epigraphical reference to a solar eclipse, things got a lot more exciting all of a sudden.

In a direct response to Alföldy’s paper, Manfred G. Schmidt (equally in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 80 (1990) 183-4; freely accessible here) suggested the use of [i]nferat (‘buries’) was problematic, as the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (ThLL) does not record a metaphorical use of this term; moreover, on the basis of Alföldy’s published drawing, the second letter of [i]nferat was open to debate.

Consequently, Schmidt argued that [a]uferat (‘steals’) was a more plausible solution, equally covered by the traces of letters on the damaged stone surface, suggesting that the text was not, in fact, evidence for a solar, but a lunar eclipse: ‘the cut-off light of the sun’ thus becomes the shadow of the earth – and that cut-off light of the sun then is imagined to be asked to refrain from stealing the moon.

Finally, Schmidt suggested that the text might be a (somewhat distorted) borrowing from a literary poet – an idea that led Paolo Cugusi (in the second edition of his Aspetti letterari dei Carmina Latina Epigraphica, pp. 385-6) to suggest that the text quo ne Lunam | [a]uferat Solis | [l]umen sectu[m] could represent the verse type of a scazon (which, in turn, makes one wonder what literary poet would possibly have written about an eclipse, solar or lunar, in scazons).

In addition to Cugusi, another important student of Latin epigraphy, Marco Buonocore (Carmina Latina Epigraphica Regionis IV Augusteae. Avvio ad un censimento, GIF 49 (1997) 21-50) accepted Schmidt’s view, giving its first line as T(itus) Torenas Anc(- – -) – reverting to the earlier reading of  Anc(- – -) where Alföldy had explicitly documented An(iensis) and (re-)introducing a third option for the dedicant’s first name (earlier editors before Alföldy had read Lucius or Titus).

Alföldy, without taking any notice of Buonocore’s readings, returned to this matter once more in an article that appeared in a German conference volume which had resulted from a gathering that discussed the issue of solar eclipses in the ancient world (H. Köhler – H. Görgemanns – M. Baumbach (Eds.), “Stürmend auf finsterem Pfad …“. Ein Symposion zur Sonnenfinsternis in der Antike (Heidelberger Forschungen 33), Heidelberg 2000; Alföldy’s contribution on pp. 99-111).

In this contribution, Alföldy respectfully rejects Schmidt’s idea of a lunar eclipse, and he does so primarily on the grounds of his observation that the remaining traces of the second letter of the opening word of line 4 ought to be read as an N rather than a V – documenting his claim with a new drawing as well as a photo (adding that there is not enough space on the stone for A to be the first letter of line 4).

Somewhat less compellingly, Alföldy also disagreed with Schmidt’s view that the inscribed text ought to describe the astrophysical processes behind a lunar eclipse rather carefully, arguing that the dedicant’s invocation of Hercules’ help is a clear sign of a lack of understanding of the principles of natural science.

Finally, Alföldy repeated his claim that [i]nferat should be taken in its common epigraphical meaning of ‘to bury’.

From the excellent photo that is available at the EDR – Epigraphic Database Roma, I have no reason to challenge Alföldy’s reading of the inscription:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

What I am wondering, however, is as to whether the inscription’s wording and imagery have been fully understood.

My starting point is the observation that the phrase lumen inferre is, in fact, attested in literary Latin. Two (loosely related) instances stand out in particular:

  • Cicero, Hortensius 24.4 uses the phrase nam hoc est in tenebras exstinctum lumen inferre, ‘for that is like illuminating darkness with an extinct light’, for those who wish to clarify ambiguity with ambiguous words.
  • Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 5.12.8 uses the phrase in rebus uero apertis argumentari tam sit stultum quam in clarissimum solem mortale lumen inferre, ‘to seek an argument in matters that are perfectly obvious, however, is just as stupid as to illuminate brightest sunlight with a source of artificial light’.

Both passages are of particular interest, as they involve the idea of light and shade as well as that of different sources of light.

As a use of the Latin verb inferre (taking the reading for granted at this point) happens to be attested with a plain accusative of direction (ThLL s. v. infero, p. 1374.60 ff.), this might give the entire inscription a whole new meaning.

It is now entirely thinkable that, albeit on the basis of Alföldy’s text, Schmidt’s interpretation was indeed the correct one, for now (on the basis of the phrase lumen inferre) one must translate as follows:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

Gaius Torenas, member of the Aniensis voting tribe, gives this to Hercules Victor as a gift, lest he brings the cut-off light of the sun to the moon (sc. for good?).

Torenas’ gift – whatever it was – was once mounted on top of this stone, as a hexagonal setting on the monument’s top demonstrates.

Why did Torenas ask Hercules Victor?

Frankly, I have absolutely no idea.

He might just have been the most valiant hero around.

On the other hand, Hercules does have a (rather tenuous) connection to the moon, for (i) he had killed the Nemean Lion (the moon’s offspring, according to one version of the myth), and (ii) his birth was marked by an unnaturally extended period of night, at whose end the invincible hero was born. (Claims according to which Hercules also battled the moonmen proved as inconclusive as those according to which he fought the sons of the sun.)

The inscription may thus be Torenas’ plea to Hercules to prevent another such period of unusual darkness.

A final thought for those who wish to see meaning in absolutely everything (I’m not quite as obsessed with that, to be honest): was the scazon rhythm (if that is what we’re facing here – I rather doubt it myself), whose name translates as ‘the limping one’, even chosen with cool consideration, to make the metre illustrate the way in which Hercules was supposed to make the natural phenomenon stumble and stall…?

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

To a very special mother!

Rome's most iconic mother: the Capitoline Wolf. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/She-wolf_of_Rome.JPG

Rome’s most iconic mother: the Capitoline Wolf. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/She-wolf_of_Rome.JPG

Unlike in most other places of the world, it’s Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, to be precise) in Britain today.

Time to celebrate a very special mother then ……… no, not my own (she’ll be celebrated when it’s Mother’s Day in Germany, and she’ll be celebrated offline!), but Claudia Lepidilla.

What do you mean, you’ve never even heard of Claudia Lepidilla?

Well, little surprise, to be honest.

All we know about Claudia Lepidilla has been recorded on a funerary altar whose existence and origin manuscripts report for the City of Rome (CIL VI 15493 cf. p. 3517. 3913 = CLE 1123 = ILS 7994):

Dis Man(ibus)
Claudiae Lepidillae
ex provincia
Belgica Ambianae.
fecerunt liberi     5
eius Lepidus et
Trebellius matri
hic matris cineres
sola sacravimus ara     10
quae genuit tellus ossa
teget tumulo.

(1-8) To the Spirits of the Departed of Claudia Lepidilla of the province of Belgica, an Ambian. Her sons, Lepidus and Trebellius, had this made for their best mother.

(9-12) Here we consecrate our mother’s ashes with only an altar. The soil that brought forth her bones now covers them in a mound.

At first glance, the son’s memorial for Claudia Lepidilla may not look like much. Dating to the first or second century A. D., the inscription comprises a prose part (lines 1-8) and a short poem (lines 9-12), consisting of a single elegiac distich.

The dedication to their ‘best mother’ (matri optimae) seems topical, considering how many hundreds of ‘best mothers’ and ‘incomparable mothers’ there are recorded in the Latin inscriptions. The poem, too, looks trite and sounds like a platitude.

So what is so special about her?

Time to listen a bit more carefully, and to acknowledge what has (and what hasn’t) been said.

First, one may wish to note that the poem distinguishes between the cineres (‘ashes’) and the ossa (‘bones’) – the former are consecrated on the ara (‘altar’) here (hic), whereas the bones are soil-covered in a mound (tellus … tegit tumulo [note the alliteration!]) … somewhere.

That ‘somewhere’ is characterised further, namely by the phrase quae genuit tellus, ‘the soil that brought forth (her bones)’. This phrase, in turn, draws attention back to the inscription’s prose part, where the mother’s origin had been stated: she was from the Gallic province of Belgica, belonging to the people of the Ambiani.

Since the memorial was discovered in Rome, and since it mentions the separation of the mother’s ashes from her bones, the most plausible explanation for this is that Claudia Lepidilla died in Rome, while being with her sons (who must have felt at home there enough to erect this lasting monument), but it was still appropriate – due to familial ties – to have her remains shipped home in her native Belgica after the funeral.

What the inscription does not mention is a father.

Was he dead already? Did he still live in Belgica, and the mother was just on a visit? (Quite frankly, the text does not sound like it.) Had the parents separated, resulting in Claudia Lepidilla’s departure to Rome, so that she would stay with her sons, who had come to Rome themselves – as provincials – for an unknown reason?

Whatever the reason, the sons chose to perpetuate the memory of her mother in Rome sola … ara, with only an altar.

With their mother gone, and with their new home far away from home, it must have appeared the most appropriate and efficient way for them to remember that extraordinary person to whom they were born. And thus in hindsight their little poem is anything but trite and a platitude – it is an expression of the sons’ desire to create a lasting memory of their mother under remarkable circumstances.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Monumental Hatred

‘Speak no ill of the dead,’ they say – an aphorism that Diogenes Laertius attributed to Chilon, one of the seven sages: τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν (usually just received in a non-antique Latin translation, de mortuis nil nisi bene or de mortuis nil nisi bonum).

What if that deceased person was a piece of work?

What if hatred outlasts the life of the object of hate?

What if one simply cannot forgive?

There are several examples of such scenarios recorded in the Latin inscriptions – e. g. a notorious piece from Pompeii, which I have discussed before on this blog as well as in a recent paper on the discourse about Reading and Writing in Pompeii (AE 1960.64):

Hospes paullisper morare | si non est molestum et quid euites | cognosce. amicum hunc quem | speraueram, mi esse ab eo mihi accusato|res subiecti et iudicia instaurata. deis | gratias ago et meae innocentiae, omni | molestia liberatus sum. qui nostrum mentitur | eum nec Di Penates nec inferi recipiant.

Visitor, sojourn a little, if it is no bother, and learn what to avoid: this friend, whom I had hoped to be my friend – by him were accusers brought forth and legal proceedings initiated against me. I thank the gods and my innocence, I was freed from all bother. He who lies about us: may he never be welcomed by the household gods and the gods of the underworld.

Herbert F. Johnson, Hatred. – Image source: http://lunaprod.library.cornell.edu/images/HFJ/Size4/Disc0268/02684017.jpg?userid=2&username=administrator&resolution=4&servertype=JVA&cid=1&iid=CORNELL&vcid=NA&usergroup=Faculty&profileid=2.

Herbert F. Johnson, Hatred. – Image source here.

That is pretty bad – hard feelings, hurt feelings, set in stone: anger celebrated for future generations to behold, while the pre-deceased offender is left without the opportunity to give his version of the story.

But it could be worse.

Compare, for example, the following, rather outrageous, text from the city of Rome (CIL VI 20905 cf. p. 3526 = CLE 95; for drawings follow this link).

At the front, the casual reader was able to read the following lines (translations from Judith Evans Grubbs, Stigmata Aeterna: A Husband’s Curse, in: C. Damon, K.S. Myers, and J. Miller (eds.), Vertis in usum. Studies in Honor of Edward Courtney, Leipzig 2002, 230-42, esp. 230-1):

Dis Manibus
Iuniae M(arci) f(iliae) Proculae. vix(it) ann(os) VIII m(enses) XI d(ies) V miseros
patrem et matrem in luctu reliquid (!). fecit M(arcus) Iuniu[s – – -]
Euphrosynus sibi et [- – -]e tu sine filiae et parentium in u[no ossa]
requ(i)escant quidquid nobis feceris idem tibi speres mihi crede tu tibi testis [eris].

To the divine manes of Junia Procula, daughter of Marcus. She lived eight years, eleven months, (and) five days. She left her wretched father and mother in grief. M. Junius Euphrosynus made (this altar) for himself and for [name deleted]. You, allow the bones of the daughter and parents to rest in one (place). Whatever you have done for us, may you hope for the same yourself. Believe me, you will be a witness to yourself.

At the inscription’s back, however, there was a poem in iambic senarii:

Hic stigmata aeterna Acte libertae scripta sunt vene-
nariae et perfidae dolosae duri pectoris. clavom et restem
sparteam ut sibi collum alliget et picem candentem
pectus malum commurat (!) suum. manumissa grati(i)s
secuta adulterum patronum circumscripsit et
ministros ancillam et puerum lecto iacenti
patrono abduxit ut animo desponderet solus
relictus spoliatus senex. e(t) Hymno <e>ade(m) sti(g)m(a)ta

Here the eternal marks of infamy have been written for Acte the freedwoman, the poisoner, faithless and deceitful, hard-hearted. (I bring) a nail and a rope of broom so that she may bind her own neck, and burning pitch to consume her evil heart. Manumitted free of charge, she cheated her patron, following an adulterer, and she stole away his servants – a slave girl and a boy – while her patron was lying in bed, so that he pined away, an old man left alone and despoiled. And the same marks of infamy to Hymnus, and to those who followed Zosimus.

But even this is nothing in comparison to the following, single most epic case, which has been recorded in a (fragmentary) anonymous funerary inscription.

This inscription – a poem – dating to the second century A. D., on a densely inscribed pedestal from Como (Pais 732 = 1288 = CLE 1178; photographic documentation here):

On the top:

[Quid me nunc] cunct[is miser]atio iuvit ademptis,
[quae cas]um et tant[um me super]esse tulit,
[sic cas]u misero [supe]resse – inimica, loquaris
[fatum] cui nul[lam tris]te reliqid (!) opem?
[cum me] perdid[eris expende] piacula fati,
[tu pere]as iun[ctis qui] placuere tibi.
[- – -]s[- – -]te [e]t BIIN[- – -]II
– – – – – –

What good does pity do me, now that everything has been taken away from me, which allowed for me to survive such downfall, to survive in such misery? Fiend, you may speak! A dire fate left me without any resources. As you destroyed me, afford the atonements of fate: may you perish, together with those whom you favoured.

[The remainder of this part cannot be deciphered.]

At the front:

[te quicumque leges] oro ne laeseris ul[lum]
[versum sic veniant o]mnia laeta tibi.
[- – -] misera set imulat[a – – -]
[- – – a]rte [- – -]
[- – – o]bsecro [te] discere versu
[- – – adv]ersi sideris [- – -]i
[nec potuit muta]re sacra mise[rat]io cura
[ausa ut cru]delis rumperet exitii.
et sic insonti fecit, men[s impia suasit],

argenti auxilio, sp[es] d[eus i]ps[e dedit].
[de]fessi perot VC(?) [- – -] tumultus
suae i[- – – perfi]diae(?)
cuncta pirei[- – -] dei [- – -]
nec fructus rerum nec manet ulla quie[s],
[i]gnava infelix, iamq(ue) obliviscere nost[ri]:
hic cinis exigu(u)s ossaq(ue) parva man[ent].

Whoever you are who reads this, I ask you not to damage a single line: thus may everything happy come to you.

[Fragmented lines follow, of which only a few phrases stand out: … wretched, but … with skill … I beg you to learn from the verse … of an ill star …]

Nor did pity manage, in its sacred effort, to cause change, so that she would discontinue her plot of cruel destruction. Thus she acted against an innocent man, a wicked mind suggested it, helped by lucre, a god himself gave hopes.

[Further fragmented text follows, which does not add up to much: tired … riot … of her wickedness … all … of god …]

Neither proceeds of things nor any tranquility remains, wretched coward, and you already have forgotten about us: here remains a little heap of ashes and tiny bits of bone.

On the right:

circumitu adversi te rite notavi sepulcri,
ut dignam Scythico sidere fama vocet,
qum nos deceptos ad iura forumq(ue) vocabas,
dum vis nec legem nec meminisse fidem,
quam tunc fingebas divos hominesq(ue) vocando,
cum tibi noctis opem lenta (!) ferebat anus,
[u]t comissa tibi nisi nobis salva manerent,
et tunicam esse tuam, cum morerere, velis.

I have noted you rightfully at the opposite side of my tomb, so that Fate may call you, worthy of that Scythian star [i. e. Arctos, symbolising the cold of night], as you repeatedly called us, deceitfully, to court and to the Forum, as you wished not to remember the law and your duty, a claim to which you faked back then, invoking divine and human witnesses,  when that old bawd (?) lent you a hand at night,  so that your actions remained unscathed to your benefit, if not to ours, and you wanted that you had something proper to wear on your deathbed.

At the back:

qua mea naufragio tamquam intercepta ia[cebant];
heu ne fragmento me voluisti tegi.
ad (!) grassatores, sola est quib(us) orbita nummi,
volnera quae intuler(int) linqueret tecta volent,
defuncta et vita iam deplorata suprema
velantur palla corpora funerea.
ad mihi viventi tua sic miseratio venit,
ut cassus nostri sors tibi praeda fo[ret],
[m]ilia quom erueres auri de nomin[e nostro],
igne deum effigies impia pollueres,
ut mea cuncta dares venum, deim scripta crem`ares’
praecipitiq(ue) fuga cetera diri<p>eres,
hostiles audax temptares deinde rapinas,
ut te sacrilegam scire(t) et imperium,
sed tutam, inlecebris si nulli nota m[aneres (?)],
– optamus credas – ambitiossa tui[s].

Thus my property lay around, intercepted, like in a shipwreck; woe is me, you did not want me to be left with even as much as a scrap. But rovers, whose only way is that of money, will want to leave the wounds they inflicted covered up, and the deceased,  bodies, lamented,  are being wrapped up in a funerary cloak. In the exact same way your pity came to me, while still alive, so that this useless fate of mine would become your prey when you embezzle a thousand pieces of gold from our name, pollute, wickedly, the effigies of the gods with fire, so that you get to sell all my possessions, then burn the documents and steal everything in headlong escape, then attempt, boldly, hostile forays, so that even the state would get to know that you are a criminal – albeit a safe one, if you remained unknown to anyone (we hope that this is what you believe), ambitious, with your enticements.

On the left:

– – – – – –
servat [- – -]
ad (!) te perfi[diae fueras qui saevior auctor],
piratam et mi[nus hoc qui pietatis habes],
perfida tum me[rito spernet nec perdere parcet],
me super audaci sed [feriente cades].
[dit]em non vestra [superabilis arte rapacem]
[au]fer[et a]et[a]tem [morbus et atra lues].

[The beginning is lost; the first word to be made out is servat … s/he saves …]

… but you, who were an immensely cruel purveyor of perfidiousness and a buccaneer (with a below-average sense of responsibility), the Perfidious one [i. e. one of the Fates?], will deservedly refuse and not spare from doom, …

[The remainder of the text is damaged beyond recognition.]

Despite the text’s fragmentary nature one gets a clear sense of the speaker’s immense outrage and anger over the ways in which he felt mistreated by a lady whom he describes as a vicious bandit, an extortionist, and a whore – a lady who had taken him to the proverbial cleaners, only to move on and eventually to become a public enemy (or so the poem implies).

One is reminded, mutatis mutandis, of the closing lines of Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz:

We naturally fell into a train of reflection as we walked homewards, upon the curious old records of likings and dislikings; of jealousies and revenges; of affection defying the power of death, and hatred pursued beyond the grave, which these depositaries contain; silent but striking tokens, some of them, of excellence of heart, and nobleness of soul; melancholy examples , others, of the worst passions of human nature. How many men as they lay speechless and helpless on the bed of death, would have given worlds but for the strength and power to blot out the silent evidence of animosity and bitterness (…).

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Shattered Foundations

The wanton destruction of historical artefacts and monuments in the museum of Mosul by supporters and fighters of Islamic State forces is a heartbreaking spectacle to behold:

While we are quick (and right) to condemn these acts as crimes against humanity, we are equally quick to forget what it is what we are looking at.

I have just called it a heartbreaking spectacle, and there will not be much disagreement over the ‘heartbreaking’ bit. Shameless thugs vandalise the remains of the earliest high cultures, smashing what is commonly regarded humankind’s common cultural heritage and calling it a fight against idolatry.

What we do not think through to an equal degree, of course, is the ‘spectacle’ part, even though it is, undeniably, a staged performance played to an audience who is easily reeled in, and made a part of, this staged reality with its predictable plot and its equally predictable audience response.

Like any spectacle, it comprises five vital elements: (i) a stage (prima facie this would appear to be the museum of Mosul; in reality it is the virtual world of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and our news media, of course), (ii) actors (the willing tools of the IS forces), (iii) theatrical props (the ancient artefacts), (iv) a plot of sorts (the despicable destruction of the monuments with its accompanying sound track), and  finally (v) an audience (the Western world).

Why is this spectacle so powerful? Why is it so painful to watch?

Replaceable objects? The so-called Perserschutt (Persian rubble). – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Perserschutt.gif.

Invaluable objects – or replaceable decoration? It all depends on your perspective. – The so-called Perserschutt (Persian rubble); image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Perserschutt.gif.

We live in a (largely) secular world, where hardly anything appears to be sacred – everything has a price tag on it, everything can be replaced somehow (even if it is by means of compensation). So one way of looking at this theatrical performance could be simply to say, ‘well, there were a bunch of idiots breaking stone with heavy equipment, just as they ought to be doing to the end of their lives – preferably as part of a chain gang’.

Except, no one with an IQ above room temperature is likely to adopt this point of view.

So what’s different here?

Is it the stage (a museum rather than a rocky landscape)? Is it the range of theatrical props (historical artefacts rather than any other kind of rock)? Or is it something to do with the audience, their frame of mind, and their expectations regarding the appropriate behaviour in a specific setting? A combination of these factors? Something else entirely?

An answer to this may lie in one of the predictable audience responses: the hope that the objects that got smashed to smithereens were not actually originals, but merely plaster casts, copies of objects kept in museums elsewhere – a short-lived, quickly frustrated hope.

The truth behind this response, however, is that, in spite of the common display of casual capitalist whateverism towards material objects, there are still certain things and scenarios left, to which we attach a sense of sacrosanctity in addition to the price tag.

The realisation that the third-rate actors of this performance in fact performed their little farce on a stage and using props that we recognise as actually sacrosanct is what causes our particularly emotional response. Had they done the same thing in a shop or in an office block, we presumably would have felt a lot more relaxed. Had they done the same thing on an actual stage and with fake artefacts, we could not have cared less.

Blending the artifice of a staged performance with our real world, however,  can result in a deeply unsettling experience once one realises that the artifice has begun to disintegrate: we would rather not think about a performance of an Oedipus drama in which actual parents and an actual son engaged in the actual acts, would we?

As a result, we are left disoriented – are we supposed to look? Are we supposed to look away? Will looking away condemn the spectacle, will it restore the spectacle to the fictional world of artifice?

Of course it won’t.

Ashurbanipal's soldiers give Susa the IS treatment. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Susa-destruction.jpg

Ashurbanipal’s soldiers give Susa the IS treatment. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Susa-destruction.jpg.

The best thing we can do, I believe, in addition to putting an end to this madness, is to explore our responses to what we see and to get to understand what drives our emotions.

What we see smashed in the museum is not actually part of our direct cultural heritage – it is something that we have appropriated by proxy, it is something that we have been taught to value through our education.

It is something that gives us a sense of purpose as well as a sense of legacy, with very little actual understanding of the objects’ context and their cultural background.

Or has anyone recently asked themselves  just how many cultures were suppressed and destroyed by those whose artworks we now see smashed? It could be a case of historical justice after all…?

Again, no one with an IQ above room temperature is likely to adopt this point of view.

I have a nagging suspicion that what it is that’s truly unsettling about what we were made to see is something else. It is, or so I would argue, the violent intrusion of that fantasy space that we prefer to call our history and our memory. If the artefacts and tombs of times long gone are no longer sacred – what will ever be? Is there any hope for ourselves to be remembered?

Roman tombstones, for example, express this concern rather frequently and, on occasion, even state the price that would be paid for any interference – two examples may suffice to illustrate this:

  • CIL VI 5886 cf. p. 3418, 3851 = ILS 8178 (Rome)

A(ulus) Terentius Terentiae | Domiti l(ibertus) Heracleo. | quisquis es homo et vos sodales meos cunctos | rogo per deos superos inferosque ni | velitis ossa mea violare.

Aulus Terentius Heracleo, freedmen of Terentia and Domitius. Whoever you are, man, and all of you, my friends, I ask by the gods above and below to refrain from defiling my remains.

  • CIL VI 24799 (cf. p. 3917) = ILS 8220 (Rome)

Dis Manibus. | M(arco) Popilio M(arci) f(ilio) Zosimiano | filio piissimo. vix(it) ann(is) X | mens(ibus) II dieb(us) XII h(oris) VIII. | M(arcus) Popilius Euphemus | et Popilia Moschis | fecerunt et sibi et libertis | libertabusq(ue) suis posterisq(ue) eorum. | quisquis hoc monumentum violaverit | aut titulum deasciaverit aliove | quo nomine inscripserit dabit | in aerarium p(opuli) R(omani) HS XX m(ilia) n(ummum).

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Marcus Popilius Zosimianus, son of Marcus, the most dutiful son. He lived 10 years, 2 months, 12 days, 8 hours. Marcus Popilius Euphemus and Popilia Moschis had this made for themselves and their freedmen and freedwomen as well as their offspring.

Whoever will violate this memorial or erases its inscription or inscribes it with another name, will have to pay the treasury of the Roman people 20,000 sesterces.

Deasciare – to ‘erase’ (by means of an axe!): this is as close as it gets to a Latin term for what the IS brute squad were doing in the museum of Mosul.

Sometimes, of course, it was possible to take remedial action against wanton destruction and the danger of forgetting (CIL VI 19295 cf. p. 3915 = CIL  X 5736 cf. p. 1013 = ILS 8384 cf. p. 190, from Rome):

CIL VI 19295. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder.php?bild=$DM_147.jpg;PH0011901&nr=2.

CIL VI 19295. – Image source here.

Heraclides Menodoti f(ilius) | Calliste matri suae et | Menodoto fratri l(ibertis) l(ibertorumque) l(ibertis) p(osterisque) om(nibu)s. | Ti(berius) Plautius Lupus | Ti(berius) Plautius Euaristus | A(ulus) Plautius Synegdemus. | hoc monumentum suum | violatum vindicarunt et | restituerunt no{n}mina | obitoru[m].

Heraclides, son of Menodotus, for Calliste, his mother, and Menodotus, his brother, and their freedmen, their freedmen’s freedmen, and all their offspring. Tiberius Plautius Lupus, Tiberius Plautus Euaristus, Aulus Plautius Synegdemus. They laid claim on their defiled memorial and restored the names of the dead.

In other cases, however, the invocation of heavenly wrath, whether from above or below, seemed to be the only recourse:

  • AE 1946.58 (Theveste, Numidia)

Ista(m) memoria(m) si qui(s) violaverit violavit (!) illum deus.

God will defile him whoever defiles this memorial.

  • AE 1988.380 (Rugge/Rudiae)

Fadius | Cominus | v(ixit) a(nnos) XXXX. || Ollam eius si quis | violavit (!) ad inferos | non recipiatur.

Fadius Cominus lived 40 years. If someone destroys his urn, may he not be received by the gods of the underworld.

Or, in a truly epic, interdenominational way – especially for those who think that sacred monuments and power tools should mix  (note the use of deasciare again; ILJug I 131 = AE 1959.252 = AE 2005.1187, from Salona):

Hanc sepultu]|ram si qu[is de]asciare volu|erit habe[at ir]ata numina | quitquid [Rom]ani sive Iudae|i vel C(h)rissi[ani] (!) | colent e[t deo]s Manis unus | quisque quot sibi fi|[e]ri non vu[lt] | facere non | debet.

Should someone desire to desire to damage this burial with tools, may he have divine spirits mad at them, whether of Roman, Jewish, or Christian creed, as well as the spirits of the departed: anyone who does not wish this to happen to them, should refrain from doing so.

Sapienti sat – enough for the wise.

Posted in Epigraphy | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Inscription from Cirencester: A Few Thoughts

A couple of days ago, the discovery and excavation of a Roman tombstone at Cirencester (Gloucestershire) – largely undamaged and still in its original setting (in situ, as the professionals say) – has been publicised in no unspectacular terms.

The BBC, for example, suggested that this was a ‘unique’ Roman tombstone. The Discovery News praised the ‘rare intact’ Roman tombstone.

Did I say rare? I meant ‘super-rare‘ of course: thank you, Huffington Post, for keeping it real.

At any rate, the Gloucestershire Echo is confident: the tombstone makes ‘archaeological history‘. And of course, wherever something has been found, the ubiquitous, inevitable, and pointless claim that this site is ‘a Pompeii’ must be made (however silly or inappropriate) – like here on the webpages of Culture 24.

Time to step back a bit and to look at the object in question – accompanied by the disclaimer that, so far, I could only see photos of the stone, and that I therefore am very cautious about what I am going to say here: more definitive statements can only be made after autopsy, a principle of current epigraphy that one must not ever discard, even in a digital age.

So here is the best photo that I found published so far (best, as in: most useful):

Cirencester tombstone. – Image source: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/B-ri8b9W4AEXBHN.jpg:large

Cirencester tombstone. – Image source: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/B-ri8b9W4AEXBHN.jpg:large

The text of the inscription, in a diplomatic, non-judgemental transcription, reads as follows:


To me, the most intriguing aspect of this inscription is the I of the first line, which has not been discussed in any of the releases so far. (Note the ruled lines underneath each line, continuing even after the inscribed part.) From the photos, there cannot be any doubts that it is the exact same shape as any of the other letters ‘I’ of this inscription.

Overall, the lettering and layout is a bit awkward. The first letters of lines 3–5 are detached from the remaining ones (even though they form a unit with what follows). Moreover, the stonecutter, somewhat unfortunately, detached the final -s of the word anno|s (lines 5–6) from the remainder of the word at the end of the preceding line.

All in all, not a masterpiece in layout and design, but no true disaster either.

In the press – apart from those pieces that hoped to find evidence for the name Boudicca (which is NOT in this inscription – deal with it, sensational world!) – two variants for the text of lines 2–6 have been discussed. I now move on from a diplomatic, non-judgemental transcript to an interpretative reading (with translation):

D(is) M(anibus).
vixit anno-

To the Spirits of the Departed.

Bodicacia, wife, lived 27 years.

Or, alternatively:

D(is) M(anibus).
Bodi Cacia
vixit anno-

To the Spirits of the Departed of Bodus: Cacia, his wife (sc. had this made). He lived 27 years.

Either solution is not without problems: In the first case, one would have to accept a new female name (Bodicacia) – not a huge problem, but something that those who study ancient onomastics are generally rather careful about. Moreover, the phrase coniunx, ‘wife’, is without proper alignment – unless one wishes to assume that the husband originally desired to have his name inscribed underneath (and this never happened).

The second solution is an interesting one, as it would give us names of husband and wife. The syntax is a bit curtailed, but again, not without parallel in the generally very lapidary style of Roman inscriptions. Both Bodus and Cacia are names attested for the Roman empire.

The second solution becomes even more interesting, considering that there is an inscription from Carlisle in which a certain Bodus is mentioned (RIB 953 – the text can be found here).

The one thing that bothers me, however, is the ‘I’ of the first line.

And this leads me to assume a slightly different scenario: principally reverting to the former of the two variants (i. e. with the husband originally planning to have his own name inscribed underneath), one could consider reading –

D(is) M(anibus)
vixit anno-      5

To the Spirits of the Departed, Female and Male.

Bodicacia, wife, lived 27 years.

A mere possibility, one first speculation, of course, with others – quite possibly better ones – undoubtedly to follow [Update, 4 March: a much better explanation still has now been found, see below, comments section]. Iunoni is not an altogether unusual female counterpart to the Dis Manibus, and, in fact, tombstones that contain reference to both the female and the male (or gender-neutral) versions of the spirits of the departed (an awkward, technical translation of the Latin phrase ‘to the divine Manes’) have come to light in the City of Rome herself (CIL VI 24745, 37444).

There is, of course, a way of ruling the case: once the skeletal remains that were found together with the tombstone have been examined, we may know whether it was a male (Bodus) or a female (Bodicacia), who was buried there.

In the meantime, we might be better off abstaining from sensationalism and presenting with great(er) care to a highly interested public just what is going on: it does not make the finding any less significant, exciting, or spectacular.

Even without this finding, however, I wish to add that the Corinium Museum at Cirencester is a wonderful one, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Roman world and the history of Roman Britain.

Posted in Epigraphy, Prose | Tagged , , | 6 Comments