The Riddle of a Poor Man’s Epitaph

As I write these lines, I am in Tarragona, about one hour south of Barcelona by train, on Catalonia’s Costa Daurada (‘Golden Coast’). Tarragona, Roman Tarraco, now a UNESCO world heritage site, is home to some of the most impressive Roman remains outside mainland Italy.

Plaque commemorating Géza Alföldy: Tarragona, Amphitheatre. – Photo: PK, 2015.

Plaque commemorating Géza Alföldy: Hungarian by birth, German by adoption, a citizen of Tarragona deep in his heart. – Tarragona, Amphitheatre. – Photo: PK, May 2015.

It is the third time I have been to Tarragona, following a brief visit in 2002 on occasion of the international AIEGL conference (when I had the opportunity to be introduced to Tarragona by one of its finest experts, the late Professor Géza Alföldy) and a wonderful conference in 2004, organised by the Spanish team that prepares the edition of the Carmina Latina Epigraphica of the Iberian peninsula for the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (volume XVIII).

What makes Tarragona particularly interesting to me, apart from very fond personal memories, is its rich record of Latin inscriptions, which were comprehensively studied by Géza Alföldy in his masterful 1975 volume Die römischen Inschriften von Tarraco. More recently, the inscribed material from Tarraco has also been covered in two volumes of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL II ed. alt. 14/2–3), prepared by Géza Alföldy and edited posthumously in 2011–2.

This time I came to Tarragona in order to inspect a number of verse inscriptions that have come to light here (edited and explained in the Joan Gómez Pallarès‘s excellent 2002 volume Poesia epigráfica llatina als països Catalans. Edició i comentari), paying heed to the well-established principle of epigraphical autopsy as well as collecting further relevant material for my current British Academy-funded project Poetry of the People – Poetry for the People.

Examining T3 = ILER 5762; RIT 441. – Photo (c) Emma Holding.

Examining CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279. – Photo (c) Emma Holding, May 2015.

Very excited anyway to come back to Tarragona and to study some inscriptions in greater detail, there was one inscription that I was particularly keen to see: the epitaph of a young man named Aper, who died aged thirty.

Why is this text of particular interest to me?

Three months ago, I published a long blog entry on the faint voices of the poor, presenting a number of Latin verse inscriptions that explicitly addressed poverty as an issue.

One of the items that I chose to exclude at the time, as I felt it required further study, is the inscription of Aper from Tarraco/Tarragona, which dates to the late second or early third century A. D. Its text reads as follows:

Conditus his tumulis iuvenis iacet
hic Aper aerarius ille
cuius viventis fuit probata iu(v)entus.
pauper vixisti, fuisti pronus amicis.
annis vixisisti (!) XXX duo menses et d(ies) VIII.     5
o dolor, o lacrim(a)e, ubi te dum qu(a)era(m) ego, nate?
has tibi fundo miser lacrimas pater orfanus ecce.
effugit et lumen labuntur membra dolore.
hoc melius fuerat (!), ut funus hoc mihi parares.
inferi si qua sapent (!) miserum me abducite patrem.     10
iam carui lucem (!) qui te amisi ego nate.
si qui pergis iter, viator, transis aut pollo (!) resistes
et relegis titulum sulcato marmore ferro,
quod ego feci pater pio mi dulcissimo nato,
hoc bene habet titulus tumulo manent ossa qu[ieta].     15
semper in perpetuo vale mi ka[ri]ssime na[te].

Covered by these mounds lies a young man here –

Aper, the coppersmith, whose youth, while still alive, was praised. You lived as a poor man, you were attached to your friends. You lived 30 years, two months, and 8 days.

Oh pain, oh tears, where do I seek you now, my son? Wretched, I, your father, abandoned, shed these tears for you – behold! My eyesight vanishes, my limbs succumb to my pain. It would have been more appropriate, had you prepared such burial for me! If the gods of the underworld have any reason, take me, the wretched father, away as well. I have already lost my livelihood, when I lost you, my son.

Whether you continue your way, traveller, or you pass by or rest a little –

and read the inscription on the stone, carved with iron, which, I, the father had made for my sweetest, dutiful son, then the inscription will contrive that, in this mound, the bones will rest in peace.

Farewell forever and in perpetuity, my sweetest son.

An interesting text, if of generally rather little challenge in terms of understanding and interpretation. So why the need for an autopsy, one might wonder…?

Well… here is what the inscribed object, currently on display in the excavation area of the Museu i Necròpolis Paleocristians of the Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona, actually looks like:

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, front view. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona.

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, front view. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona.

The monumental stone slab, over two metres wide, exhibits, in fact, two inscriptions, and the one on the right, in prose, unambiguously pre-dates the one on the left (the poem, above).

The earlier (prose) inscription, on the right, reads as follows (CIL II ed. alt. 14/2, 1079 = RIT 218):

L(ucio) Fuficio Mevan(ia) Prisco
vet(erano) leg(ionis) VII G(eminae) F(elicis) et Flaminiae Melete
uxsori et Domitiae Saturninae adfini
Fuficia Germana lib(erta) h(eres) f(ecit).

For Lucius Fuficius Priscus of Mevania, veteran of the Legio VII Gemina Felix, and Flaminia Melete, his wife, and Domitia Saturnina, a relative: Fuficia Germana, freedwoman and heir, had this made.

The letters of this inscription for the Umbrian veteran Fuficius, his wife, and their acquaintance are neatly cut and would appear to date to the later first or the second century A. D., when the Legio VII Gemina, stationed in Spain, used the additional honorific epithet Felix.

The slab must have formed part of a sizeable monumental tomb, where it would have been inserted in a representative position to commemorate the deceased.

What happened next is rather less clear.

Tarragona's amphitheatre (with ruins of Santa Maria del Miracle). – Photo (c) PK, May 2015.

Tarragona’s amphitheatre (with ruins of Santa Maria del Miracle), where the inscription was found. – Photo (c) PK, May 2015.

There are three events, however, that require attention:

  • A tabula ansata (‘winged tablet’) was cut into the stone (to the left of the original inscription)
  • The funerary poem for Aper was added
  • The stone was cut and reused subsequently towards the structure of the Visigoth Romanesque church called Santa Maria del Miracle situated in the arena of Tarragona’s amphitheatre.

The interaction of the poem with the tabula ansata is particularly interesting. On the left-hand side, the letters of the poem clearly have been written around pre-cut lines:

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, left-hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, left hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

Apart from lines 1 and 13 ff., which were inscribed above and below the tabula ansata, lines 3 (beginning with c||uius), 7 (beginning with has ti||bi), 10 (beginning with infer||i), and 12 (beginning with si qui p||ergis) have clearly been written around a pre-cut left-hand margin of the winged tablet’s main area, leaving visible gaps in the middle of the word.

One also notes the somewhat unfortunate change in letter size at the beginning of line 12, where the letters that are written to the left of the line are, in actual fact, too big to match those that continue the line within the tabula ansata.

The situation on the right hand side is rather more awkward, however:

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, right hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, right hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

The endings of lines 11–15 all exceed the right hand margin of the winged tablet’s central area. The letters of lines 14–15 also intersect with the bottom line of the tablet’s right wing (something that the stonecutter had managed to avoid on the left hand side).

What is more, one must note that the tabula ansata has also been cut in a very uneven manner (and quite possibly either been sculpted by different hands or been left at various stages of imperfection).

The top, left, and bottom lines of the main field are carved with care. The right line has been scratched into the surface carelessly, and it is anything but straight. The top and bottom lines of the left wing are cut unusually deep, whereas the vertical line on that side has barely been picked into the surface – the same technique that one finds applied to the entire right-hand wing of the tablet.

The most plausible scenario, to my mind, then, is this: following the inscription  for Fuficius, someone had the structure prepared for an additional inscription to the left of the original one, with the intention to have this inscription surrounded by a frame (whose upper, lower, and left-hand margin had already been prepared). For some reason, however, this was plan was abandoned.

If Joan Gómez Pallarès was right with his claim that the prose inscription originally was in the middle of the monument (and I should like to think that his claim is perfectly valid!), one might wonder, if –

  • either a similar framed pocket had originally existed to the right, mirroring the situation to the left (which had its left wing attached to it already?), to frame the entire inscription in its final design,
  • or, after the intended design did not work out as well as one had hoped, someone tried to ‘salvage’ the newly-cut lines and turned it into a somewhat shoddy tabula ansata.

Whatever the case may be, the space left to the original inscription did get used for a secondary inscription eventually (presumably with the stone presumably still in situ) – namely for that of Aper’s poem. The original outline of a framed inscription was altered into a tabula ansata, somewhat carelessly integrated into the overall layout of the poem.

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

Why did the stonecutter not include the entire text into the tabula ansata?

Perhaps – and this is a bit of a long shot – the answer is in the text itself.

The text comprises fifteen hexameter verses (of rather varied levels of technical perfection) that have been laid out over sixteen inscribed lines. The ‘additional’ inscribed line (vis-a-vis the number of metrical lines) is the result of an additional line break introduced in the first verse, putting the first half of the hypermetrical hexameter outside (and above), the second half of the same hexameter inside the tabula.

The first half of the first line reads conditus his tumulis iuvenis iacet, ‘covered by these mounds lies a young man here’.

Could it be the case that Aper’s father, when he encroached on Fuficius’ inscribed monument, he (or at least the stonecutter) aimed to find a solution that would allow for a reading of the text as one that comprised multiple (i. e. at least two) columns, one for Aper, one for Fuficius, etc., using the opening line as an introduction to multiple texts…?

Similarly, the text of lines 13 ff. comprises the more general wish, directed to the wayfarer, to read the inscription that has been carved here, to ensure that the mortal remains buried in the adjacent tumulus will rest peacefully – a wish that one might see extended to more than one burial that took place in the vicinity of the inscription.

In turn, the part of the poem that has been written within the tabula ansata, comprises the most personal part of the poem, expressing the father’s grief for his son, who had died prematurely, upsetting the natural order of things (since a father is supposed to predecease his son).

If this is the case (and I am aware of the great deal of speculation in this), then one might, in fact, be looking at a rather considerate way of encroaching on a pre-existing burial spot – a practice not at all unknown, but commonly frowned upon in the Roman empire (cf. text no. 22 in my paper on Attitudes Towards Wall Inscriptions in the Roman Empire; a freely accessible version with inaccurate pagination can be found here).

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Sadness, Weariness, and Laughter: An Ancient Latin Poem on Occasion of Mental Health Awareness Week 2015

Between 11-17 May 2015 it is Mental Health Awareness Week, when the Mental Health Foundation, like every year, helps to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues.

Mental health is hard to define. On their webpages, the Mental Health Foundation suggests that that –

‘If you’re in good mental health, you can:
• Make the most of your potential
• Cope with life
• Play a full part in your family, workplace, community and among friends’

On this occasion, I would like to introduce my readership to a most remarkable Latin poem, which was composed in the fifth century A. D.

Originally inscribed, the poem largely survived through a manuscript tradition – only small fragments of it were rediscovered in the Rome’s Basilica of the Apostles (which impressively proved, however, just how many mistakes a manuscript transmission can introduce even in a comparatively short text).

Based on a combination of evidence from these two traditions, the inscription has been restored as follows (ICUR 5.13655 = ILCV 806 = AE 2006.180):

Quid tibi, mors, faciam quae nulli parcere nosti? nescis laetitiam, nescis amare iocos.
his ego praevalui toto notissimus orbi, hinc mihi larga domus hinc mihi census erat. gaudebam semper: quid enim si gaudia desint hic vagus ac fallax utile mundus habet?
me viso rabidi subito cecidere furores, ridebat summus me veniente dolor.
non licuit quemquam mordacibus urere curis nec rerum incerta mobilitate trahi.
vincebat cunctos praesentia nostra timores et mecum felix quaelibet ora fuit.
motibus ac dictis tragica quoque voce placebam exhilarans variis tristia corda modis,
fingebam vultus, habitus ac verba loquentur ut plures uno crederis ore loqui.
ipse etiam, quem nostra oculis geminabat imago, horruit in vultos se macis esse meos.
o quoties imitata meo se femina gestu vidit et erubuit totaque compta fuit.
ergo quot in nostro videbantur corpore formae tot mecum raptos abtulit atra dies.
quo vos iam tristi turbatus deprecor ore qui templum legitis cum pietate meum
o quam laetus eras, Vitalis’ dicite maesti:
sint tibi, Vitalis, sin(t) tibi laeta modo.’

In translation:

What am I going to do with you, Death, you, who spares no one? You don’t know happiness, you don’t know how to love fun. I stood out in these areas, I was most famous all over the world, and it was the source of my stately home, it was the source of my wealth. I was always cheerful: for what is left that is of any use, if cheerfulness is lacking, in this random and elusive world? Upon seeing me, raging madness ceased to exist, when I approached, even the sharpest pain used to laugh. It was impossible for anyone to be tortured by their gnawing worries, or to be torn by the uncertain fleetingness of worldly matters. Our presence overcame all fears, and with me every hour was a happy one. I pleased with the way I moved and spoke, even with a tragic voice, cheering up worrying minds in manifold ways. I created facial expressions, and I made my characters speak in ways that would make you believe that many speak through but a single mouth. The very person, whom our imitation reproduced in [sc. everyone’s] eyes, shuddered to exist to an even greater extent in my displays. Ah, whenever a lady saw herself imitated in my gestures, she both blushed and arranged her looks. So, however many appearances there would seem to be in my body, a dark day stole all of them and took them away together with myself. Thus, troubled, I beseech you, who read my memorial with piety, say, in sadness: ‘Oh, how happy you were, Vitalis! May you, Vitalis, may you just be happy again!’

The poem, comprising twenty-four verses (twelve elegiac distichs), presents Vitalis as a highly successful entertainer who had amassed significant wealth well as a result of his fine talent: mime-acting. Whether he acted as biologos (an entertainer who represented lives through his acting), as ethologos (an entertainer who created little character studies), or a mere imitator of the types he observed in the theatre – his performances seem to have left no one indifferent or untouched.

What is particularly interesting, however, is the inscription’s pressing question – quid enim si gaudia desint hic vagus ac fallax utile mundus habet, ‘for what is left that is of any use, if cheerfulness is lacking, in this random and elusive world?’

There is no need to make a ‘sad clown’ out of Vitalis, no need to see an early Robin Williams in him.

But sadness and weariness are salient features of this text that is dedicated to happiness – the happiness of the people and the sunny nature of the entertainer himself:

me viso rabidi subito cecidere furores, ridebat summus me veniente dolor.
non licuit quemquam mordacibus urere curis nec rerum incerta mobilitate trahi.
vincebat cunctos praesentia nostra timores et mecum felix quaelibet ora fuit.
motibus ac dictis tragica quoque voce placebam exhilarans variis tristia corda modis.

Upon seeing me, raging madness ceased to exist, when I approached, even the sharpest pain used to laugh. It was impossible for anyone to be tortured by their gnawing worries, or to be torn by the uncertain fleetingness of worldly matters. Our presence overcame all fears, and with me every hour was a happy one. I pleased with the way I moved and spoke, even with a tragic voice, cheering up worrying minds in manifold ways.

In many ways, current generations share the anxieties of those who lived in fifth-century Rome: of a world that has gone insane, of peacelessness, of threat, hopelessness, insecurity, lack of control, lack of meaning.

Vitalis’ inscription is right: if we lose our cheerfulness for good, what is there left that is worth living for…?

Of course, shallow entertainment and distraction from what causes anxiety cannot be the answer – as healthy and as important as a good belly laugh can be: laughing is a stress relief, not a cure.

What helps us to cope is our mental health – and what helps everyone to cope is widespread awareness of the fact that sometimes people struggle with that.

Living in the present, not caught up in the past or worries about the future, can be a quintessential tool to overcome those darker moments:

vincebat cunctos praesentia nostra timores et mecum felix quaelibet ora fuit.

Our presence overcame all fears, and with me every hour was a happy one.

Paying attention to the present moment, without getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future is what mindfulness, this year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Week, is all about.

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What happened to Pontia?, Or: How a husband buried his beloved wife (and still only managed to talk about himself)

Last week I published a piece about fatal traffic accidents in ancient Rome. When I did my research for this entry, I came across an inscription from Carsulae in Umbria, which puzzled me for a number of reasons – not least with regard to its relevance for last week’s blog post.

In the end, I decided against its inclusion. Instead, I thought, this could be an interesting item for a broader discussion – a fascinating, moving little inscribed poem … and one that is extremely difficult to make sense of.

The text in question is engraved on two panels at the front-facing long side of a (fragmented) Roman sarcophagus, which is currently on display in the Museo Nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto [follow this link for a description provided by the museum].

Funerary poem from Carsulae. – Image source:

Funerary poem from Carsulae. – Image source:

At the left and right corners of the panel, there are sculpted images; at its (now damaged) centre, there was a circular structure containing a christogram as well as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, putting this sarcophagus unambiguously into an early Christian context – of the fourth century A. D., most likely.

The text of this inscription, a poem of 20 lines (= 10 elegiac distichs) in total, reads as follows (CIL XI 4634 cf. p. 1371 = CLE 1846 = ILCV 4812):

Left panel (lines 1–10):

Pontia sidereis aspirans vultibus olim
hic iacet: aetherio semine lapsa fuit.
omnes (!) honos, omnis ces(s)it tibi gratia formae
mens quoque cum vultus digna nitore fuit.
tradita virgo toris decimum non pertulit annum
coniugii, infelix unica prole perit.
quantus amor, mentis probitas quam grata marito,
quam casti mores, quantus et ipse pudor,
ni(hi)l tibi quod foedum, vitium nec moribus ullum,
dum satis obsequeris, famula dicta viri.

Pontia, who [sc. in her beauty] once aspired to starry countenances, lies here: she was offspring of heavenly seed. Every honour, every grace of beauty yielded to you, and you had a mind, too, which, dignifying, shone alongside your appearance. Entrusted to a conjugal bed as young girl, she did not last till the end of the tenth year of her marriage, she died, wretched, with single issue. What love! How welcome to her husband the goodliness of her mind! How chaste her character! How grand her very bashfulness! There was nothing foul in you, nor did you have any weakness of character: as you were obedient, you were called your husband’s servant.

Right panel (lines 11–20):

denique te, memet fatis odioque gravatum
dum sequeris, vidit Corsica cum lacrimis,
tu Treviros pergens cursu subvecta rotarum,
coniugis heu cultrix, dura satis pateris.
te pater infestus genero cum tollere vellet,
temtasti laqueum si faceret genitor.
cedite iam veterum laudes omnesque maritae,
tempora nulla dabunt talia quae faciat.
vir tuus ingenti gemitu fletuque rigatus
hos feci versus pauca tamen memorans.

Eventually Corsica saw you, in tears, when you followed me, aggrieved by fate and hatred. Carrying on to Trier, conveyed by the spin of the wheels, alas!, your husband’s comforter, you suffered hardship aplenty. When your hostile father desired to take you away from his son-in-law, you would have attempted to hang yourself, had your father gone through with it. Yield already, praises of previous generations and all wives, time will create no one to achieve the like. I, your husband, drenched in immense wailing and crying, have made these verses, and yet recorded only little.

(There are additional fragmentary bits of writing elsewhere on the sarcophagus, taking the form of legends to the bits of sculpture, but unrelated to Pontia’s epitaph.)

At first, the text seems perfectly clear. This is an epitaph for a beloved wife, full of heartfelt emotion and grief, beautifully arranged in two halfs – one, next to the Alpha, that is full of praise, and one, next to the Omega, that is testament to the many misfortunes of Pontia’s life. One also notes the constant changes between a third-person narrative and passages that address the deceased in the second person – concluding in a final first-person statement.

Complications arise from that final first-person statement, however, as the (anonymous) husband’s concluding remark – pauca tamen memorans, ‘I recorded only little’ – is sadly true: the more often one reads the text, the less one seems to know about Pontia and her fate.

The question that has kept me busy, first and foremost, is the obvious one when dealing with Roman funerary poems: how did Pontia die?

Two scenarios have been discussed in particular:

  • Hieronymus Geist, in a popular German translation of Roman funerary inscriptions proposed that Pontia died as a result of childbirth (see here for the German text) – an impression that he got from the phrase infelix unica prole perit, ‘she died, wretched, with single issue’, which he chose to render as ‘the agony! she died as a result of her only child’ (o Qual, starb an dem einzigen Kind‘). [Prosody buffs will note that unica, even though clearly an ablative, has been measured as ending with a short final -a, a phenomenon approvingly called systole in literary poets and dismissed as ‘mistake’ in epigraphical poems – life just is not fair to the poets of the Latin inscriptions! At any rate, those who want their long -a- back, may find an irrationally lengthened -a- in the first syllable of famula, line 10 – the counterpart to a systole, called diastole. Or ‘mistake’, if you happen to be an epigraphical poet…]
  • The museum webpage of the Museo Nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto, in turn, suggests that ‘[t]he Christian matron of Ponzia was buried, dead because a carriage ran over her along the via Flaminia, near Carsulæ, during a trip towards Treviri with her husband’ – a view derived from the phrase Treviros pergens cursu subvecta rotarum, ‘carrying on to Trier, conveyed by the spin of the wheels’.

The translation provided above, aiming to be as close to the Latin as possible without resulting in mere translationese, shows that neither one of these options is a necessary conclusion based on the Latin text: it just has not been expressed with clarity, and the only honest thing to say is that one cannot know why and how Pontia died – all we know is that she died in her early twenties (married as a virgo, i. e. presumably around the age of 12, and deceased before the tenth year of her marriage, which resulted in a single child, whose subsequent fate remains unknown).

As far as the child is concerned, it is unclear at what stage it was born – did it join the parents on any of the cumbersome trips that were mentioned, or was it born after those took place?

And as for the coach-ride to Trier, while the wording cursu subvecta rotarum ‘conveyed by the spin of the wheels’ is rather stilted, there is nothing to suggest that Pontia would have been run over by a coach – all it says is that the coach trip was a right pain (which is perfectly obvious, when considering the inconvenience of long-distance road travel in the ancient world).

What is interesting, of course, is the way in which the author(s) of the museum webpage have created a little narrative out of three pieces of isolated information, namely the toponyms provided by the inscription itself (Corsica, Trier) and its findspot, Carsulae:

How to create a narrative...

How to create a narrative…

Corsica, which made Pontia cry, is mentioned first, Trier is mentioned second – and it is mentioned as the destination of an inconvenient journey rather than a destination that has been visited. As the inscription was found in Carsulae, one may thus posit that this was a planned route from Corsica to Trier via Carsulae, and this is when Pontia died – in a coach accident.

Except, of course, that the text does not explicitly mention such an incident (unless one does some violence to its careful wording) – nor does it say anything about the relative and absolute chronology of events.

It is one’s imagination that turns the story into a plot!

What the inscription does say, however, is what the husband did. He went to Corsica. He went to Trier. He was aggravated by fate and hatred. He needed his wife as a cultrix, a comforter. Did he go to Corsica, because he was relegated there for some reason? Was this what made Pontia cry? Did he go to Trier to face the emperor? After all, Trier was one of the main places in which the Roman emperor would reside in the fourth century!

Why did Pontia’s father wish to take her away from her husband (a thought so horrendous to Pontia that she apparently threatened suicide)? Was the husband a disgrace in the eyes of the father-in-law – perhaps due to the speculative incidents mentioned just now? Unlike the speaker of the so-called laudatio Turiae, for example, this anonymous husband is very careful to avoid any details that would make him identifiable and that would go into any noteworthy depth regarding his fate (however bitter it had rendered him).

Other than that – nothing but versions of the interchangeable commonplace praises of wives: any specifics that are being revealed relate to the fate of the husband, who nevertheless chose to remain anonymous (noblesse oblige?).

Inscriptions, they say, are for the living, even where they talk about the dead. The anonymous husband and poet here was perfectly aware of that, and he decided to record the difficult, eventful time that he had with his wife by his side – his wife, who had deserved so much better.

The poem thus is a husband’s final farewell to a loyal, forbearing companion just as much as a reckoning with a life that had aggravated him time and time again.

[I am grateful to Professor emerita Jane F. Gardner, who gave up a lot of her valuable time to discuss individual aspects of this inscription with me. I am not sure if I have managed to convince her, and where I decided to stick with my own convictions, I am probably wrong: yet another piece of irrefutable evidence for my stubbornness…]

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Recycle for Britain

Ed Miliband, Labour’s hapless frontrunner for the General Election 2015, is responsible for the creation of an inscription that details his pledges and that was set to be installed in the Downing Street Rose Garden – had he been successful.

‘Carved in stone,’ Mr Miliband said. Do I hear ‘rock-solid’? Or even a ‘the writing is on the wall’…?

An epigraphic cliché festival is looming!

Now, however, that Mr Miliband was unsuccessful in his bid for Britain’s political leadership, the massive structure – the slab is some 8ft 6 inches (i. e. approximately 2,60 metres) tall! – won’t be needed for its original purpose.

After all, it seems unlikely that David Cameron will find it in his heart to agree to most of these pledges (however indistinguishable some of them are from his own).

As Mr Miliband and the Labour party may find it rather too painful to cling to this monument as a keepsake (the defeat was rather crushing after all), they may be grateful for some gratuitous, unsolicited, yet well-meaning advice on what to do with inscribed monuments that are no longer needed.

Considering the extent of Labour’s defeat, one option could be to do as the Athenians did after the Persians had laid waste to the city – to bury damaged and destroyed objects of worship ceremoniously and start rebuilding structures on top:

Persian debris ('Perserschutt') on the acropolis. – Image source:

Persian debris (‘Perserschutt’) on the acropolis. – Image source:

Alternatively, here are some examples of what became of inscribed objects of the Romans after they became available for recycling:

  • Turn them into drainage lids
Inscription from Ostia Antica. – Image source:

Inscription from Ostia Antica. – Image source:

  • Cut them up and use them as floor tiles…
Inscriptions in S. Maria in Cosmedin. – Image source (cropped):

Inscriptions in S. Maria in Cosmedin. – Image source (cropped):

  • If floor tiles seem too pedestrian, cut them into smaller pieces and make them part of a colourful quasi-mosaic (or opus sectile, as the professionals call it), perhaps…?
  • Re-inscribe them wherever there is some space left and then insert into a church wall
Inscription from Lincoln (St Mary le Wigford). – Image source:

Inscription from Lincoln (St Mary le Wigford). – Image source:

  • Alternatively, skip the re-inscribing process, cut them into shape, and just insert them into the wall of your cathedral…
Spolia inserted into the wall of the cathedral of Pisa. – Photo PK.

Spolia inserted into the wall of the cathedral of Pisa. – Photo PK.

  • Or why not build an entire church on top of them…
Inscription from Fort Langenhain. – Image source:

Inscription from Fort Langenhain. – Image source:

  • Cut them into shape and use as cover for cisterns and wells…
  • Use them as a fountain (because, after all, who doesn’t want to drink from a pre-owned sarcophagus or the like?) …

Inscribed sarcophagus from Pisa. – Photo PK.

In short, there is a lot of precedence, a lot of good practice out there for the responsible, resourceful, and sustainable use of pre-loved, still perfectly good building material.

I for one am anxious to find out just what will become of the Miliband manifesto.

And undoubtedly the epigraphists of the future will be grateful for the job-creating potential that any creatively discarded and reused inscription holds for their research!

[I am grateful to Llewelyn Morgan (Oxford), who brought this story to my attention.]

Postscriptum: Here are two further classicists’ responses which are well worth reading, one by Maria Pretzler (Swansea) and one by Richard Rawles (Nottingham) – I had completely missed these before I wrote my own piece.

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

A Sense of Fatality: Ancient Latin Poems for Road Casualties

Among the top three things the Romans have done for us, one must – obviously – list their roads. Justly famous, they are right up there with sanitation and, of course, the aqueduct:

With roads comes traffic, however, and with traffic come noise, nuisance, and, above all, danger – an aspect expanded upon by the Roman satirist Juvenal in his third satire (3.239-267, translation from here):

si vocat officium, turba cedente vehetur
dives et ingenti curret super ora Liburna     240
atque obiter leget aut scribet vel dormiet intus;
namque facit somnum clausa lectica fenestra.
ante tamen veniet: nobis properantibus obstat
unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos
qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro     245
alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.
pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna
calcor, et in digito clavus mihi militis haeret.
Nonne vides quanto celebretur sportula fumo?
centum convivae, sequitur sua quemque culina.     250
Corbulo vix ferret tot vasa ingentia, tot res
inpositas capiti, quas recto vertice portat
servulus infelix et cursu ventilat ignem.
scinduntur tunicae sartae modo, longa coruscat
serraco veniente abies, atque altera pinum     255
plaustra vehunt; nutant alte populoque minantur.
nam si procubuit qui saxa Ligustica portat
axis et eversum fudit super agmina montem,
quid superest de corporibus? quis membra, quis ossa
invenit? obtritum volgi perit omne cadaver     260
more animae. domus interea secura patellas
iam lavat et bucca foculum excitat et sonat unctis
striglibus et pleno componit lintea guto.
haec inter pueros varie properantur, at ille
iam sedet in ripa taetrumque novicius horret     265
porthmea nec sperat caenosi gurgitis alnum
infelix nec habet quem porrigat ore trientem.

When duty calls, the crowd gives way as the rich man’s litter,
Rushes by, right in their faces, like some vast Liburnian galley,
While he reads, writes, sleeps inside, while sped on his way:
You know how a chair with shut windows makes you drowsy!
Yet, he gets there first: as I hasten, the tide ahead obstructs me,
And the huge massed ranks that follow behind crush my kidneys;
This man sticks out his elbow, that one flails with a solid pole,
This man strikes my head with a beam, that one with a barrel.
Legs caked with mud, I’m forever trampled by mighty feet
From every side, while a soldier’s hobnailed boot pierces my toe.
Do you see all the smoke that rises, to celebrate a hand-out?
There’s a hundred diners each followed by his portable kitchen.
Corbulo, that huge general, could scarce carry all those vast pots,
With all the rest that the poor little slave transports, on his head.
Fanning the oven, he runs along, his body held perfectly upright.
Recently-mended tunics are ripped, while a long fir log judders
As it looms near, while another cart’s bearing a whole pine-tree.
They teeter threateningly over the heads of those people below.
Now, if that axle breaks under the weight of Ligurian marble,
And spills an upturned mountain on top of the dense crowd,
What will be left of the bodies? What limbs, what bones will
Survive? Every man’s corpse wholly crushed will vanish along
With his soul. Meanwhile his household, oblivious, are scouring
The dishes; are puffing their cheeks at the embers; are clattering
The oily back-scrapers; by full oil-flasks, arranging the towels.
The slave-boys bustle about on various tasks, while their master,
Is now a newcomer on the banks of the Styx, shuddering there
At the hideous ferryman, without hope, poor wretch, of a ride
Over the muddy river, and no coin in his mouth for the fare.

Juvenal’s lines provide us with a lively poetic imagination of the busy streets of ancient Rome – and they have inspired many a visual representation of Roman streets in literary fiction and the arts.

The beauty of literary imaginations is, of course, that it easily dispenses with our sense of immediacy and relevance – safely relegating stories to the world of fiction and fantasy, which, if they were to be encountered in one’s real life, could be deeply traumatic and disturbing.

Traffic- and vehicle-related fatalities from ancient Rome are, of course, occasionally recorded in the Latin inscriptions – and sometimes those mentions appear in a poetic form themselves.

The assumption that these poems refer to actual fatalities create a remarkable tension between the potentially pleasurable artifice of poetry, their graveyard setting, and the harsh reality of life (and death) they describe – these texts simply cannot be enjoyed in the same way as Juvenal’s amusing description.

Stumbling child dies in road accident (CIL XI 4311 cf. p. 1366 = CLE 457 cf. p. 855; Terni/Interamna)

D(is) M(anibus).
L(ucio) Valerio
L(ucius) Valerius
Euaristus et
Mu[rri]a Ampli-
ata [fili]o piissimo.
tu quicumq(ue) legi[s ti]tulum
nostrum nomeq(ue) requiris,
aspice quo fato rapus mih[i]
spiritus or[e] est.
nonus ab incepto currebat
mihi tem[po]ris annus
dum subito incautus fratri
succurrere tendo,
me rota sublapsum pressit
pii[- – -]S[-]D[- – -]andi
ita A[- – -]I[- – -]re[- – -]aius mihi
vi[ta(?)] sub aur[as].

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Lucius Valerius Magnus. Lucius Valerius Euaristus and Murria Ampliata (sc. had this made) for their most dutiful son.

You, whoever you are reading our inscription and asking for the name, behold the fate through which my life-breath has been snatched away from my face. During the course of the ninth year since the beginning of my time (sc. on earth), while I suddenly – incautiously – haste to help my brother, a wheel crushed me, as I had stumbled … [the remainder of this inscription is too fragmentary for a meaningful translation].

Wife and slave boy trampled to death by the masses on the Capitoline hill (CIL VI 29436 cf. p. 3536, 3919 = CLE 1159 = ILS 8524; Rome [image here])

Ummidiae Manes tumulus tegit
iste simulque Primigeni vernae
quos tulit una dies, nam Capitolinae
compressi examine turbae
supremum fati competiere
Ummidia(e) Ge et P(ublio) Ummidio Primigenio,
vix(it) an(nos) XIII. P(ublius) Ummidius Anoptes lib(ertus) fecit.

This pile covers the spirit of Ummidia as well as that of Primigenius, the home-born slave, both of whom a single day snatched away: for when they were crushed by the swarm of the crowds of the Capitoline hill, they both reached their day of destiny.

For Ummidia Ge and Publius Ummidius Primigenius (he lived 13 years). Publius Ummidius Anoptes, freedman, had this made.

Little boy, born out of wedlock, killed in oxcart accident (CIL XIV 1808 cf. p. 482 = CLE 1059; Ostia [image here])

Dis Manibus
Q(uinti) Volusi Sp(uri) f(ilii) Lem(onia) Anthi.
parvolus in gremio com(m)unis forte parentis
dum ludit fati conruit invidia.
nam trucibus iunctis bubus tunc forte novel(l)i
ignarum rector propulit orbe rota.
maestus uterque parens postquam miserabile
funus fecit inferis munera sum(m)a dedit,
hunc Antho tumulum male deflorentibus
annis pro pietate pari composuere suo.
Q(uintus) Volusius Q(uinti) l(ibertus) Anthus pater fecit sibi et
(mulieris) l(ibertae) Feliculae coniugi sanctissumae
Volusiae Q(uinti) f(iliae) Nice Q(uinto) Volusio Q(uinti) f(ilio) Antho
Siliae (mulieris) l(ibertae) Nice C(aio) Silio Antho.
in fr(onte) p(edes) VI in agr(o) p(edes) III S(emis).

To the Spirits of the Departed of Quintus Volusius Anthus, son of Spurius, of the tribus Lemonia.

As the little boy happens to play around, under the protection of a common parent, he falls down, due to the envy of fate. For a carter, with inexperienced yoked wild oxen, ran over by accident the unsuspecting boy, with the rim of his wheel. After both grieving parents performed the wretched funeral and gave the final offerings to the deceased, they erected this memorial for Anthus, out of their commensurate sense of parental duty.

Quintus Volusius Anthus, freedman of Quintus, the father, had this made for himself and for Silia Felicula, freedwoman of a woman, his most innocent wife, and for Volusia Nice, daughter of Quintus, Quintus Volusius Anthus, son of Quintus, Silia Nice, freedwoman of a woman, and Gaius Silius Anthus.

(sc. This plot is) 6 ft. wide, 3.5 ft. deep.

Of course, humans were not the only casualties of ancient Roman traffic, as Mary Beard recently reminded us with reference to a Greek inscription (of Roman Macedon).

Though certainly no laughing matter to the person who had this monument crafted, this final poem may serve as a satyr play to the tragic trilogy of ancient Roman traffic accidents that was just presented:

Epitaph for a pig killed in a road accident. – Image source:

Epitaph for a pig killed in a road accident. – Image source:

χοῖρος ὁ πᾶσι φίλος,
τετράπους νέος,
ἐνθάδε κεῖμαι
Δαλματίης δάπεδον προλιπὼν
δῶρον προσενεχθείς
καὶ Δυρράχιν δὲ ἐπάτησα
Ἀπολλωνίαν τε ποθήσας
καὶ πᾶσαν γαίην διέβην
ποσὶ μοῦνος ἄλιπτος
νῦν δὲ τροχοῖο βίῃ
τὸ φάος προλέλοιπα
Ἠμαθίην δὲ ποθῶν
κατιδεῖν φαλλοῖο δὲ ἅρμα
ἐνθάδε νῦν κεῖμαι
τῷ θανάτῳ μηκέτ’ ὀφειλόμενος.

A pig, friend to everybody
a young four-footed one
here I lay, having left
behind, the land of Dalmatia,
as an offered gift,
at Dyrrachion I walked
Apollonia yearning
and all the road I crossed
on foot alone steadily.
But by the force of a wheel
I have now lost the light
longing to see Emathia
and the Phallic Chariot
Here now I lie, owing
nothing to death anymore.

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

The Lapidary Poetics of Roman Domestic Violence

A couple of weeks ago, I published a few thoughts on the rather touching inscribed poem for Margarita, the lap-dog from ancient Rome.

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

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

One of the remarkable things that the poet expressed in this text – stressing it as noteworthy, it would seem – was that she never had to endure any physical abuse (lines 5-6):

non gravibus vinc(u)lis unquam consueta teneri
verbera nec niveo corpore saeva pati

unaccustomed ever to be restrained by heavy harnesses or to endure savage beatings with my snow-white body

I would like to return to Margarita’s poem for a while and talk a bit more about (at least some of) the implications of these lines.

The decision to revisit Margarita’s inscription was sparked by a fascinating text that I read more recently: a Greek papyrus in which a woman talks about the violence that she experienced from her husband – horrendous violence directed not only at herself, but also at her slaves and foster-children (P. Oxy. 6.903; text, description, and English translation available here [trigger warning: this text is not for the faint-hearted – the account of domestic violence therein is extremely grim]).

Poetry invites us to fantasise, to drive imaginations to extremes – and fantasies quickly reach the limits of what we may regard as bearable (subject to ever-changing frameworks of morality and good taste).

What in Ovid’s outrageous poem Amores 1.7 is intensely disturbing, becomes altogether sickening in P. Oxy. 6.903, where one must imagine that unspeakable violence has entered the real world.

Back to the world of make-believe – back to the world as it was imagined in the inscription of Margarita.

Margarita’s owners suggest that their dog was spared corporeal punishments – measures that, at first glance, one might be inclined to associate with animal abuse, as is still all too common nowadays.

This association, as charming as it may seem to think of such animal lovers in the ancient world, may, however, be misleading.

In my earlier post, I expanded on the affectionate way in which Margarita’s owners spoke about her – volunteering a few remarks about how their words relate to the way in which members of Rome’s lower classes tended to be commemorated in the Latin verse inscriptions (a genre that I regard as ‘the people’s poetry’).

If it is indeed the case that Margarita has been presented as a (lowly, if dearly beloved) member of her master’s household (just like a slave girl or a freedwoman), then it is more sensible to ask how these words relate to how physical violence and abuse against underlings is presented in Roman inscriptions.

The language that is used in Margarita’s inscription (stressing the absence of violent punishment as something positive and noteworthy), is, in its essence, entirely in keeping with references to physical punishments that were in store for wanton, misbehaving, truant inferiors:

  • Violence that finds itself hinted at in a (somewhat problematic) Pompeian graffito (apparently) from a school context, which has been interpreted (if not actually read) as follows (CIL IV 4208):

Si ti Cicero do, vapulabis.

If Cicero pains you, you’ll get thrashed.

  • Violence that sounds almost absurd in an inscription related to water distribution and hygiene at Herculaneum (CIL IV 10488; cf. also CIL IV 10489):

M(arcus) [Alf]icius Pa[ul]lus | aedil(is). | [si qu]is velit in hunc locum | stercus abicere monetur n[on] | iacere. si quis adver[sus ea] | i(u)dicium fecerit, liberi dent | [dena]rium n(ummum), servi verberibus | [i]n sedibus admonentur.

Marcus Alficius Paullus, aedile. Anyone who wishes to defecate in this place, is advised not to linger around. Anyone who does so, will be punished. The free [rather than ‘The children’?] shall have to pay one (?) denarius, The enslaved shall be admonished with beatings on the buttocks.

Eo magis me ca[stigavit dum] | dice[r]em mercem [nihil vale]|r[e] vel effunder[em p]r[o] | [ho]mine probo tuam maies|[t]atem imploro ne patiaris me | [i]nnocentem virgis cas[t]igatum | esse et domine Procle prae|[fe]cto non potui queri qua va|[let]udini detinebatur | ques[tu]s sum beneficiario || [Frustra et ce]nturionibu[s] | [ceteris] numeri eius [proin]|[de tu]am misericord[ia]m | imploro ne patiaris me | hominem transmarinum | et innocentem de cuius f[ide] | inquiras virgis cruent[at]u[m] | esse ac si aliquid sceler[i]s | comississem.

… he beat (?) me all the more … goods … or pour them down the drain (?). As befits an honest man (?) I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods and, my lord, inasmuch as (?) I was unable to complain to the prefect because he was detained by ill-health I have complained in vain (?) to the beneficiarius and the rest (?) of the centurions of his (?) unit. Accordingly (?) I implore your mercifulness not to allow me, a man from overseas and an innocent one, about whose good faith you may inquire, to have been bloodied by rods as if I had committed some crime.

  • Violence that is requested in an extraordinary letter from Villafranca de los Barros (Spain, EE IX 176 [bibliography and images available here]):

Maximus Nigriano. | et hoc fuit providentia | actoris ut puellam qu(a)e iam | feto (!) tollerat mitteres | illam ac tale labore ut | mancipius (!) dom(i)nicus (!) | periret qui tam magno | labori factus (!) fuerat (!) | et hoc Maxima fecit | Trofimiani (!) fota et casti|ga illum quare (e)x omni | closus(!) est. (…)

Maximus to Nigrianus. Such was the foresight of the manager that he (sc. put?) the girl, who was already pregnant, whom you had sent, to such labour that the master’s slave-offspring perished, who was made for great work, and Maxima did that too, the offspring of Trofimianus. Give him the strap, as if he’s been deprived of everything (?).

  •  Violence that may take the extreme shape of torture, as depicted in Pope Damasus’ epigram for St. Lawrence (which I have discussed on another occasion).

With Damasus’ epigram we have, of course, re-entered the realm of (inscribed) poetry – a world in which objectivity has been suspended in favour of whatever a poet wants to make believe.

Unsurprisingly, references to violence against family members (in the wider sense of the term family – familia rather than gens) are almost entirely absent from the Latin verse inscriptions.

But the fact that it is not really talked about does not mean that there is nothing to talk about.

Where references finally appear, like in the context of Margarita’s epitaph, they appear in the negative, stressing their absence.

A most remarkable, in fact rather moving illustration of that can be found in a poetic inscription from Narbonne/Narbo, which testifies to the (otherwise violent) nature of slavery (CIL XII 5026 cf. p. 853 = CLE 1276; image available here):

C(aius) Of[illi]us C(ai) l(ibertus)
Pal(atina) A[rimn]estus
vivos [sibi] et
Mindiae M(arci) f(iliae) Primae
uxori et
C(aio) Ofillio C(ai) f(ilio) Proculo
filio et
barbara quem genuit tellus
hunc tradidit usu[s] servitio,
ingenium ut flec[t]eret,
inmerit[o]. quaesitum ex pat[re]
ut potuit s[i]bi nomen adaux[it]
et pretio [obtin]uit quod prec[e]
non valuit. officiis vicit
[d]ominum nec verbera sens[it].
[p]raemia non habuit, pignor[a]
quae potuit. quid properas
[h]ospes, requies tibi nota parat[a]
[es]t. hospitium hoc populo
semper ubique patet horaru[m]
numerum quem suspr[- – -]V[- – -]
quoque senti summam [- – -]
[- – -] securum [- – -]
– – – – – –

Gaius Ofillius A[rimn]estus, son of Gaius, of the tribus Palatina, while still alive, (sc. has erected this monument) for himself and his wife Mindia Prima, daughter of Marcus, and his son Gaius Ofillius Proculus, son of Gaius, and [empty space follows].

Born in barbarian territory, commerce handed him over to slavery, undeservedly, so that he changed his personality. He made every effort to have a (sc. Roman family) name added to the name that he had inherited from his father, added to his (sc. new, Roman name), and at a price he obtained what he was denied at his bidding. He overcame his master through his sense of duty and did not experience beatings. He did not receive any rewards, children within his ability.

Why do you rush, stranger, see, there is a place prepared for you to relax. This resting area is open to the people always and everywhere for as many hours as [the remainder of the text is too fragmentary for it to be rendered in a meaningful way].

Was this, in fact, an exception to the rule – or why did Ofillius Arimnestus, in modern terms a victim of commerce and human trafficking, choose to mention it?

An interesting spin on the motive of excessive domestic violence is provided in an inscription from Merida/Emerita. Here, a father, who first had to bury his wife and then, soon thereafter, his daughter, talks about his torments in rather graphic terms (CLE 1380 = ILCV 4362 = ICERV 289):

Lux mihi Siricia divino rapta flagello,
te matremq(ue) tuam tempus enorme tulit.
necdum ter binos crescens attigeras annos,
liquisti moesto vulnera dira patri.
fletibus ecce tuis renovasti funus opertum,
quod matris tumulo iungeris ipsa cito.

My light, Siricia, robbed by the divine scourge – an extraordinary time took you and your mother (sc. away from me). Growing up, you had not yet reached six years, and you left your father with dreadful wounds. Lo!, you have re-opened a closed grave with the mourning that you left behind, as you joined your mother’s grave yourself so quickly.

Violence within the family, within a strongly patriarchal system, is a topic that gets swept under the rug all too easily – a difficult topic, easily concealed behind words that dream up an ideal world in which everything is in perfect order, in which family members are described as obedient and dutiful, as is the case in an overwhelming number of Latin inscriptions, especially for wives and children.

It is when violence is almost accidentally addressed in terms of its absence, that one must wonder as to what the realities of life were.

Margarita, it seems, was a lucky pup.

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Scholarly serendipity struck this week. While I was in the process of preparing a workshop related to questions of text layout and design in the Latin verse inscriptions (watch this space!), my colleague Ian Rutherford asked me an intriguing question:

I’m giving a talk to some 13 year-olds about magic on Friday. I didn’t know that abracadabra goes back to Sammonicus. See wikipedia. Is this true?

Being stuck in a bit of a 1980s time warp (my domestic internet connection had been down for quite some time and I was confined to the house to wait for the umpteenth engineer to sort it out, so my only connection to the outside world was a lousy GPRS phone signal or – the horrors!! – leaving the house), my profound response was:

I had no idea!

Ian’s response:

But is Sammonicus a poem?  How can you write that in a poem?  It’s in the Bod<leian library>; I haven’t managed to get there.

I had never heard of Sammonicus before, and, confined to a pre-internet age, I couldn’t really find out much either – I suspected it wasn’t a poem.

But I was wrong, as I was soon to find out, when Ian managed to go the Bodleian after all and sent me a copy of the text. The passage in question (from a didactic medical poem, written in hexameters)  reads as follows (Sammonicus, Liber medicinalis 931–9 [no. LI]):

Hemitritaeo depellendo

mortiferum magis est quod Graecis hemitritaeos
uulgatur uerbis; hoc nostra dicere lingua
non potuere ulli, puto, nec uoluere parentes.
Inscribes chartae quod dicitur abracadabra
saepius et subter repetes, sed detrahe summam     935
et magis atque magis desint elementa figuris
singula, quae semper rapies, et cetera + figes,
donec in angustum redigatur littera conum:
his lino nexis collum redimire memento.

On shaking Tertian Fever [hemitritaion]

Rather more deadly is what in Greek words is commonly called hemitritaion [half-of-three, i. e. a fever whose attacks last for approximately 1 1/2 days = 36 hours; ‘tertian fever’ in English]. This no one could express in our language, I believe, and neither did parents wish for that.

Write on a sheet (of papyrus) the word ABRACADABRA, repeat it rather more often underneath, but omit the last letter, so that more and more individual letters will be missing from the lines, the elements that you remove, which you continually snatch away, while you commit to writing the others, until a single letter is to be rendered as the narrow end of a cone. Remember to attach this to the neck with a linen thread.

[Sammonicus then continues to recite further miracle cures, including the application of lion fat as well as corals and saffron (wrapped in cat skin) – I will skip this as less relevant to me and thus deservedly incur the disappointment and wrath of medical historians…]

The various possible results of the writing process has been traced as follows by Alf Önnerfors:

coneSo – why serendipity?

Well, the idea appears to be that, just as the word abracadabra gradually disintegrates and virtually disappears, the fever should magically disappear as well.

This is, of course, an extreme case of text layout that is charged with meaning – extreme even by Roman standards. But what is striking is just how conscious texts (on numerous occasions) were laid out and clearly related to a meaning that is to be found beyond the mere words.

My colleague María Limón (Seville) has just finished a great book discussing the layout of inscribed Latin poetry, and I can’t wait to hear what she will have to say at the Reading-based workshop later this year.

Meanwhile I will keep my eyes open for further evidence for texts that talk about the deliberate formal design and layout of Latin texts – a topic that has fascinated me on a number of occasions before.

It’s clearly not just another hocus-pocus!

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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.

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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:

Roman sculpture of two dogs. – Image source:

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.

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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.

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