God(s) Help Us All!

The last few days I spent in the Taunus mountain range in Hesse, Germany, exploring Roman remains with my son, who, as my loyal readers may remember, is interested in everything Roman (as well as everything else).

German trying to enter the Roman Saalburg. – Photo (c) PK, August 2015.

German trying to enter the Roman Saalburg. – Photo (c) PK, August 2015.

Among the most impressive sites in that area is the so-called Saalburg.

Saalburg, main entrance. – Photo (c) PK, August 2015.

Saalburg, main entrance. – Photo (c) PK, August 2015.

The Saalburg is an almost fully reconstructed Roman fort near the German limes – an overwhelming, popular museum with ever changing exhibitions and activities for the general (and not so general) public:

Mick Jagger and Egon Schallmayer in the Saalburg. – Image source: http://static2.fnp.de/storage/scl/importe/fnpartikel/rhein-main/hochtaunus/351051_m3w605h320q75v64393_tzh_Jagger_290713.jpg?version=1375059102.

Mick Jagger and Egon Schallmayer in the Saalburg. – Image source here.

When we entered, we asked the museum guard whether it was okay to take photos, and he said it was, under the condition that we’d do ‘not too noisily’ (‘aber nicht so laut’). Fun!

In a room next to the fort’s aedes, the standards shrine, there is a display of inscriptions – not only from the Saalburg and adjacent areas, but also from further afield. In this area, the following (slightly damaged) votive altar caught my attention, so I decided to take a photo of it (very silently, of course, following the guard’s instructions, ever the obedient German that I am!):


CIL XIII 6638. – Photo PK, August 2015.

This altar was found rather far away from the Saalburg – namely in Stockstadt, Bavaria, in a sanctuary of the beneficiarii (on which see below).

The altar’s front contains three inscriptions – a long one, and two little and rather peculiar labels (which were one of the main reasons for my initial interest in this piece).

The central, long inscription, with its numerous ligatures, appears to date to the late second century and reads as follows (CIL XIII 6638):

I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo)
ceteris diis dea-
busque et
Genio Iuni Victori-
ni co(n)s(ularis)
C(aius) Secionius
Senilis b(ene)f(iciarius) co(n)s(ularis)
[v(otum)] s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).

Which means:

To Jupiter Optimus Maximus [= the Best and Greatest] the Protector, to the remaining gods and goddesses, and to the genius of Iunius Victorinus, the governor: Gaius Secionius Senilis, consular beneficiarius, fulfilled his vow gladly and deservedly.

The opening, abbreviated dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (I. O. M.) is set apart from Jupiter’s honorific epithet conservator, the Protector, by the sculpture of a female and a male bust, which in turn are separated from one another by a decorated, ritual staff.

Above the inscription, in the monument’s gable and in between two rosettas (one of which is now lost due to the stone’s damage), there is the representation of a bearded, male figure with a thunderbolt – presumably Jupiter himself, as the first-mentioned recipient of this votive altar.

Polychromic reconstruction of the altar. – Image source: http://www.ubi-erat-lupa.org/img/monuments/6914-5.jpg.

Polychromic reconstruction of the altar. – Image source: http://www.ubi-erat-lupa.org/img/monuments/6914-5.jpg.

The identities of the two figures is explained by inscribed labels, to the left and to the right of this sculpted frame:




The fact that these two names are inscribed in the nominative (rather than in the dative, as all other divine entities in this inscription) clearly sets these two labels apart from the flow of the main text – a rather remarkable peculiarity of this monument that does not exactly find many parallels in the corpus of ancient Latin inscriptions.

A similar oddity lies in the fact that Secionius Senilis decided to include the Genius of his better, Iunius Victorinus, in the list of deities that were presented with this altar – alongside Jupiter and ‘the other gods and goddesses’ – as an expression of his gratefulness for their role in fulfilling his wishes (votum).

Iunius Victorinus – the inscription calls him a consularis, i. e. a legate of consular rank, serving as provincial governor – appears to be identical with one Lucius Iunius Victorinus Flavius Caelianus who is known from another altar that was found in Britainviz. at Kirksteads, near Kirkandrews-on-Eden, by Hadrian’s Wall, dedicated to an unknown deity ob res trans | vallum pro|spere gestas (‘for affairs successfully carried out beyond the wall’).

The most plausible scenario is then, that Iunius Victorinus went on from Britain to become governor of Germania superior (though perhaps not straight away).

Gaius Secionius Senilis, the German altar’s dedicant, is otherwise unknown. His inscription identifies him as a beneficiarius consularis, a member of the governor’s staff (whose salary, due to his special position, was 50% above that of his peers – whence the title beneficiarius, ‘recipient of additional [pay] benefits’).

While the dedicant carries the tria nomina of a Roman citizen, his family name Secionius is somewhat of a mystery. Some have explained it as Celtic, whereas others (less plausibly and largely on the basis of the mention of Isis and Serapis in this inscription) thought of him as being of oriental descent.

Why did Secionius erect this (by provincial standards reasonably lavish) altar?

This is a difficult, but perhaps not an altogether unsolvable riddle.

The first thing one must note is the sequence of deities that the dedicant mentions: Jupiter Conservator, ‘the remaining gods and goddesses’, and the genius of his governor.

Jupiter Conservator, the protector of the Roman empire (or even the entire world, conservator orbis) was an important element of the Roman imperial cult – linked to the will and well-being of the emperor himself.

The genius of the named individual – the governor Iunius Victorinus – is a Roman concept that conceptualises the innate abilities and greatness of mind of a person; a votive altar to the genius of an individual implies that the dedicant had wished for someone’s genius being strong and successful enough in a challenging situation.

(One might add that, while votives to the genius of an individual such as a patron or the like [rather than that of a military unit] is a practice that stands out, this practice is known from areas such as Gallia Cisalpina: another clue hinting towards a Celtic origin of the dedicant?)

And then there are ‘the remaining gods and goddesses’ – certainly Isis and Serapis, as depicted on the stone itself. Both Isis and Serapis are gods of fertility, prosperity, and well-being – Serapis is sometimes even likened to Aesculapius, the god of healing. Since Vespasian the couple were also linked to successful return from a complicated mission.

This imagery of the inscription coincides with the representation of a cornucopia on the altar’s right side (image available here): the opposite, left side of the altar has a thunderbolt, linking it to the mention of Jupiter (image available here).

The inscription from Kirksteads shows Iunius Victorinus as a brave military man, operating beyond the vallum in enemy territory (something that he himself regarded as dangerous enough to promise an altar for the successful completion of his mission).

Iunius Victorinus may well have distinguished himself in that regard, so that he subsequently was transferred to Germania superior as consular legate – building on that reputation.

Did Iunius Victorinus receive an imperial order to carry out similar missions in Germany? Did he lead troops beyond the limes?

Behind enemy lines (artist's impression). – Photo PK, August 2015 (Saalburg Museum).

Behind enemy lines (artist’s impression). – Photo PK, August 2015 (Saalburg Museum).

A dedication specifically to deities that are related to the imperial cult, to prosperity and health, and to the abilities of the commander, made by his staff officer, are a strong indication of that – and the existence of the altar shows that Iunius Victorinus must have succeeded (again).

In the imagination of Secionius Senilis this was the work of several deities – and the monument’s iconography allows us to push this a bit further still.

While Jupiter himself, represented in the altar’s gable, appears to reign supreme, his official title I. O. M. Conservator is interrupted by the frame that contains the sculpture of Isis and Serapis – a frame through which these deities appear to look into our world, but which equally well allows us to glance into the world of gods imagined by the dedicator.

Secionius did not only choose to single out Isis and Serapis among ‘the remaining gods and goddesses’, but in his iconography he chose to interlink them (and their protective power) with Jupiter Conservator himself.

On the sides of the altar, Isis and Serapis feature just as prominently as Jupiter, insofar as one side carries the thunderbolt, whereas the other has the cornucopia (again symbolising fertility, prosperity, and even abundance).

When nowadays we explore the borders of the western Roman Empire, we tend to be taken in by the scenery – whether it is the beautiful, atmospheric loneliness of Hadrian’s Wall or the fertile fields and the woodlands of the German limes.

It is hard to imagine that the same places were not spaces for romantic walks to those who built, enforced, and defended them almost 2,000 years ago – they were the extremes of an empire, and unknown dangers awaited them beyond these demarcations of Roman power.

Following the hiking path along the German limes today means walking on the Roman side and the Germanic side in equal measure.

To the Romans setting foot on ‘the other side’, in certain times and places, was reason enough to pray to the gods that meant stability of the state, health and well-being, and personal capability, to protect them from the dangers and perils of what they regarded barbarian territory.

To students of Roman history, ‘the Romans’ may appear to be a driven and self-confident, homogeneous bunch  – a united force, always prepared to fight, marching forward, erecting bulwarks against those pesky barbarians.

Looking at the individuals who ultimately were but cogs in the Roman imperial machinery, looking at their fears and concerns, allows us to paint a rather different, more complicated, and more human picture.

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All Work and No Play…?

This year’s August is a strange month for me.

On the one hand, this August is the final month of my British Academy Fellowship, which has allowed me to work on my project ‘Poetry of the People’, focusing on the Latin verse inscriptions and subject of many a blog post over the last twelve months. Nearly there now, but no time for complacency: who knows when I will ever be able again to spend so much continuous time on a single research project!

On the other hand, this year’s August is also the main month of summer holidays for my son – a period during which I try to spend as much time with him as possible (or at least next to him, as he’s busy doing things on his computer that, as he continues to assure me, I would not understand anyway).

And then there are a couple of other obligations for me – in particular, correcting the page proofs for my forthcoming book on the Latin inscriptions of Reading, which will be out next month, beautifully produced by Reading’s exquisite Two Rivers Press.

My lakeside office...

My lakeside office…

Hiding in the hinterland of my native Berlin – by one of those many wonderful, deep, clean, and extremely bathe-able lakes that are characteristic of the landscape of Berlin and Brandenburg – I am currently trying to combine those aforementioned strands of my life.

As I enjoy my time here, between work and leisure, I am trying to persuade myself that it is perfectly acceptable to merge otium and negotium in this way, seeking sanity in the countryside and frequent dips in the lake, as temperatures have been approaching 40º Celsius.

Reassurance is provided, as it is so often, by the infinite collective wisdom of the Latin verse inscriptions themselves – on this occasion by an early Christian piece, consisting of one dozen (partly damaged) elegiac couplets, from the city of Rome (ICVR I 1485 = ILCV 1901):

Balnea, quae fragilis suspendunt corporis aestum
et reparant vires, quas labor afficerit,
quae constricta gelu validis aut solibus usta
admixto latici membra [- – -] levant,
[ut]amur causa propri[ae suadente] salutis.
[at cave ne mala mors sit me]dicina homini!
lubrica ne sensus rapiat turpetque boluptas,
effera ne mentem luxuries stimulet,
ebria neu vino dapibus neu viscera crud[a]
dissol[v]at fluxo corde lab[ante liquor],
sobria sed casto foveant [tibi membra labacro]
et quaesi[ta salus sit sine damno animae]. ||
Haec [tibi, si quis amor vitae] te tangit h[onestae],
[quicumque es homi]num, dicta fuisse [putes]!
[tu tam]en ista magis cautus servare me[mento]
,     15
grex sacrate d(e)o corpore men[te fide],
cui bellum cum carne subest, quae et vic[ta resurgit],
quam cohibere iubat, si refobere p[aras].
clau[- – – s]aluti [- – -]
vulnere [ne doleas – – -], quod medeare iterum.
[- – – in]veni bene parta remedia carn[is].
[- – – – – -]
[non] nostris nocet officiis nec culpa labacri
quod sibimet generat: lubrica vita malum est.

1–6. Baths that remove the heat of the fragile body and rejuvenate strengths weakened by one’s toil, baths that bring ease to one’s limbs when they have become rigid from frost or burnt from the sun’s powerful heat if there’s (text damaged – balm?) added to the liquid – let us use those in the interest of our health! But beware, lest what is meant to cure humankind becomes its ill-omened downfall.

7–12. Don’t let slippery lust take away and defile our senses, don’t let unrestrained luxury stir up the mind, and don’t let the water loosen your intestines, whether they are intoxicated from wine or full of food, as the fluctuating heart begins to slip: instead, let sober limbs enjoy a bath of self-restraint, and let the health you seek be without harm to your soul.

13–18. Consider this said for your benefit, you, whomever the love for an honest life has touched, whoever you are among men! You in turn, flock, sacred to god in body, mind, and faith, remember to follow this advice with even greater care, as you continually lead a war against your flesh, which will rise again even after it was defeated, which you must contain even when you prepare to refresh.

19–24. (text partly damaged) . . . lest you suffer from a wound, which you need to heal again. . . . I discovered a remedy well designed for the flesh . . . The bath does not cause harm to our duties, and the bath is not to blame for what it spawns: slippery life is the true evil.

Almost a Christian counterpart to the pagan motto balnea vina Venus | corrumpunt corpora | nostra set vitam faciunt | b(alnea) v(ina) V(enus) (‘baths, wines, and sex are our bodies’ downfall: but then that is what life is all about: baths, wines, and sex’; CIL VI 15258 cf. p. 3517, 3913 = CLE 1499 = ILS 8157 = AE 2010.238), this inscription from Rome’s church San Martino ai Monti preaches moderation – both to those of the Christian faith, but also to anyone who has discovered a ‘love for an honest life’ (amor vitae … honestae, line 13) for themselves.

Where balnea vina Venus (‘baths, wines, and sex’) hold the potential to cause pro|perantia fata (‘fate rushing along’, CIL III 12274c = CLE 1923), the poet of the Christian epigram (masterfully discussed by Stephan Busch in his work on poetry about baths and bathing in the Roman Empire) suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong about enjoying the physical pleasures of balnea, baths, as long as moderation is kept. (Unsurprisingly, he is less clear about vina and Venus – though he does seem to suggest that getting into the water drunk, or after a recent meal, is a sure-fire recipe for a heart attack.)

Baths don’t spoil humans – humans do (as the National Trifle Association has long since argued), and only where they succumb to the temptations of the flesh, defeated in that eternal struggle, there is a danger to enter the slippery slope . . . or so the poet claims.

And with the inscription’s blessing, I shall continue my work-and-bathing-and-son-chasing routine (at least as long as this summery weather lasts) . . .

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Cecil the Fabled Lion

Cecil the lion, one of the most iconic creatures of Zimbabwe’s national parks, has been killed by trophy hunters, creating an international outcry in the press as well as in social media (for an overview see e. g. this page)

Cecil the lion. – Image source: http://i.imgur.com/Vc3IFkb.jpg?1.

Cecil the lion. – Image source: http://i.imgur.com/Vc3IFkb.jpg?1.

I don’t care at all for trophy hunting and those who pursue this repulsive pastime.

Cecil and his pointless, unnecessary, and undignified death by the hand of vainglorious animal killers, deriving their perverted pleasures from the killing of proud beasts for no practical purpose whatsoever, reminded me of a classic(al) tale.

Cecil was 13 years old, with a typical life-span of lions of 10-14 years (in the wild). In other words, he was not only an exceptionally photogenic, but also – let’s face it – an old lion.

Phaedrus, Rome’s hugely under-appreciated fabulist, tells a story about an old lion (Phaedr. 1.21), and it goes like this –

Illustration from Sebastian Brant's 'Esopi Appologi' (early 1500s). – Image source (cropped): http://www.uni-mannheim.de/mateo/desbillons/esop/seite62.html.

Illustration from Sebastian Brant’s ‘Esopi Appologi’ (early 1500s). – Image source (cropped): http://www.uni-mannheim.de/mateo/desbillons/esop/seite62.html.

Leo senex, aper, taurus et asinus

Quicumque amisit dignitatem pristinam,
Ignavis etiam iocus est in casu gravi.
Defectus annis et desertus viribus
Leo cum iaceret spiritum extremum trahens,
Aper fulmineis venit ad eum dentibus
Et vindicavit ictu veterem iniuriam.
Infestis taurus mox confodit cornibus
Hostile corpus. Asinus, ut vidit ferum
Impune laedi, calcibus frontem extudit.
At ille exspirans: “Fortis indigne tuli
Mihi insultare: te, naturae dedecus,
Quod ferre certe cogor bis videor mori”.

Christopher Smart’s beautifully outdated English verse translation of this piece (from here):

The Old Lion

Whoever, to his honor’s cost,
His pristine dignity has lost,
Is the fool’s jest and coward’s scorn,
When once deserted and forlorn.
With years enfeebled and decay’d,
A Lion gasping hard was laid:
Then came, with furious tusk, a boar,
To vindicate his wrongs of yore:
The bull was next in hostile spite,
With goring horn his foe to smite:
At length the ass himself, secure
That now impunity was sure,
His blow too insolently deals,
And kicks his forehead with his heel.
Then thus the Lion, as he died:
“‘Twas hard to bear the brave,” he cried;
But to be trampled on by thee
Is Nature’s last indignity;
And thou, o despicable thing,
Giv’st death at least a double sting.”

‘But to be trampled on by thee / Is Nature’s last indignity, / And thou, o despicable thing, / Giv’st death at least a double sting’ says the lion to the creature that administered the fatal blow.

The once proud lion, killed by an ass.

Enough said.

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Four-legged snake 1 – Latin 0

News just broke about a sensational discovery: a four-legged ancestral snake. Truly fascinating stuff.

Its name? Tetrapodophis amplectus, apparently.

τέτταρες (tettares) ~ “4”.

πούς (pous) ~ “foot”.

ὄφις (ophis) ~ “snake”.

But … what exactly is amplectus supposed to mean?

How the snake tried to overcome the rules of the Latin language. (Artist's impression) - Image source: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Minories-Eagle-and-Serpent-c-MOLA-Andy-Chopping.jpg

How the snake tried to overcome the rules of the language of the Romans (Artist’s impression). – Image source http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Minories-Eagle-and-Serpent-c-MOLA-Andy-Chopping.jpg.

Assuming that the name-givers intended to say ‘hugging’ (as the news pages suggest), then surely they should have followed the rules of the Latin language and called it amplectens?

You can't just randomly stick '-us/a/um' onto Latin verb stems, says Eutyches: It's a big NO-NO!

You can’t just randomly stick ‘-us/a/um’ onto Latin verb stems, says Eutyches: It’s a big NO-NO!

O tempora, o modi, as Cicero used to say (kind of).

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Interpreting the Interpreter’s Poem

Some time ago, I published a little piece about the idea that the etymology of a name should reveal something about the character of a person – nomen est omen – as reflected in the Latin inscriptions.

One piece that I did not include at the time – whether to keep it short or to disguise my lack of understanding I am not so sure – keeps resurfacing in my current research, so it is time to share it, as a little exercise in being intrigued.

There is a (highly fragmentary, early Christian) inscription from Carthage, dating to the fifth century A. D. or slightly later still, which (with its numerous restitutions) appears to have read  as follows (CIL VIII 13535 = CLE 1417 = ILCV 780 = ILTun 925):

Rure o[pulens caru]sq(ue) suis Callistrat[us ipse]
[in]terpres [voluit] nominis [es]se sui.
qu[i li]cet et [cen]su dives mansis[s]et et a[uro]
invid[iae n]umqua[m fer]vida <t>ela t[ulit].
fortunatus o[li]m u[ni non] sibi vixit, ami[cis]
[au]xit congest[o p]redia rure no[vo].
[i]n pace v[ix]it ann(o)s [- – -], [de]positus III K(a)l(en)d(a)s Apri[les].

Rich in land and dear to his family, Callistratus wanted to be the interpres of his name himself.

Yes, he would always have remained rich in terms of property and gold; but he never reached for those violent weapons of envy.

He did not just live a blessed life for himself: he created the country estates for his friends by adding new soil.

He lived in peace for . . . years, and he was buried on the 30th of March.

Unlike many other inscriptions, in which the etymology of a name is merely alluded to, Callistratus makes the meaning of his name his prime concern: he wishes to be its interpres – its interpreter, its mediator, its facilitator. (Did you know that there’s a fabulous project on language intermediaries? Check out the work of my Reading colleague Rachel Mairs and her collaborator Maya Muratov on the Hermeneis blog!)

Etymologically, there is little to achieve in the interpretation of the name Callistratus – it is a compound made up of two constituents, κάλος (‘good, beautiful’) and στρατός (‘army’), meaning something like ‘good warrior’.

What is there to interpret, mediate, facilitate?

Callistratus, self-disclosed rich landowner in late (or post) antique North Africa, clearly saw room for potential. But where?

Was it, like the editors of the excellent volume Vie, mort et poésie dans l’Afrique romaine thought, just the equivalent of bona militia as in ‘bonne gestion’, decent management (at a significant stretch of the meaning of militia, one must add)?

A look at the poem’s structure and its way of story-telling may be helpful.

Disregarding its prosaic final line, the inscribed text consists of three elegiac couplets:

  • 1-2. The first of these couplets introduces Callistratus as the poem’s subject and the interpres of his own name.
  • 3-4. The second couplet asserts Callistratus’ significant wealth and points out that the tela (‘missiles’), those weapons of war, were alien to him – certainly with regard to envy.
  • 5-6. The third and concluding couplet represents the honorand as someone who generously shared his wealth for the benefit of his friends (in the Roman sense of the word), putting them in an economically more advantageous position.

It thus seems reasonable to assume that the ‘re-interpretation’ of his name is something that Callistratus hoped to achieve between lines 3-4 on the one hand and lines 5-6 on the other.

The middle distich makes explicit reference to weaponry (the invidiae … fervida tela, which Callistratus refused to take): the kind of (literal) warrior that Callistratus did not wish to be.

Instead, Callistratus expresses an explicit desire to share his wealth – and he claims to have undertaken measures to ensure that this could happen, improving his friends’ farmland through the provision of fresh, fertile soil.

It is noteworthy that this resembles a dichotomy that the poet had already introduced in the first line – rure opulens (‘rich in land ) and carus suis (‘dear to his family’)

Could it be therefore that Callistratus was hoping to present himself as a warrior for the good cause (as opposed to ‘merely’ being a good warrior) . . . ?

[The thought crossed my mind to take interpres in the meaning of ‘translator’ and to consider if Callistratus meant to derive the second half of his name from Latin sternere etc. (‘to scatter’, incidentally a term that is etymologically related to Greek stratos), referring to his earthworks. This, however, would seem both extraordinary per se and very far-fetched. But I thought I’d mention it nonetheless, however absurd it may seem.]

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Callistratus is presented as referring to the battle-related part of his name’s etymology in the middle distich – rejecting this approach for himself.

Just where the poet of this epitaph subsequently intended to go with this, remains somewhat of a mystery.

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

Vergil and the Minions (and a Blatantly False Translation)

UNCOVERED: the earliest attestation of  ‘Minions’ as followers of the mighty seeking to follow a boss and to lay waste to the establishment in Vergil‘s Aeneid (10.182–4, translation from here [slightly altered]; summary overview of the context available here).

A minion in ancient Rome. (Artist unknown)

A minion in ancient Rome. (Artist unknown)

ter centum adiciunt (mens omnibus una sequendi)
qui Caerete domo, qui sunt Minionis in aruis,
et Pyrgi ueteres intempestaeque Grauiscae.

Three hundred more (minded to follow as one) were added
by those with their home in Caere, the fields
of the Minion, ancient Pyrgi, unhealthy Graviscae.

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Two Latin Poems (and an English one) from Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

If someone were to ask of me some of my most favourite places in the world, Scotland’s capital Edinburgh would most definitely feature on that list.

Last weekend, enjoying another delightful day in Edinburgh, I ventured to explore one of the legendary (and allegedly haunted) graveyards: Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Why Greyfriars?

One might think of many reasons (in addition to my general fascination with historical graveyards).

What convinced me, however, was the opportunity to pay tribute to one of my most favourite Scottish poets (de gustibus and such…), the multifariously (though perhaps not always – or even ever? – deliberately) outrageous William Topaz McGonagall (d. 1902), who was buried there in an unmarked grave, and more recently was honoured with a commemorative plaque:

Plaque for Wm. McGonagall. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Plaque for Wm. McGonagall. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

The plaque displays a few lines from McGonagall’s poem A Requisition to the Queen:

I am your Gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, The Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee.

There is something fantastically grating about McGonagall’s poetry – an aesthetic that is at odds with mainstream poetry to a degree that many have decided to regard it among the worst poetry ever written in the English language.

I cannot agree with that – yes, it does not conform to expectations and standards: but is that what art is (and in fact: has ever been or should be) about?

The true power of McGonagall’s poetry unfolds in recital, blending highly emotive, overblown story-telling with a unique desire consistently to vary the lengths of lines, while maintaining its (often painfully strained, monotonous) rhymes – all of which unfold their power when delivered in a somewhat histrionic fashion:

Certainly, no competition for Britain’s finest poets – but a gem nonetheless, especially when considering McGonagall’s lowly background and poor education.

One of the reasons why McGonagall has impressed me so much recently is that, unlike other poets who, during his lifetime and (to an even higher extent) afterwards, have deliberately shifted away from classical aesthetic models – McGonagall has, in fact, done the exact opposite.

McGonagall has turned the grating, (arguably) imperfect nature of folk poetry – the imperfect, amateurish rhymes of the common people, the rhymes of the type that invariably and predictably will ruin the solemn spirit of birthdays, weddings, and funerals – into an art form, and he drove it to unprecedented extremes.

In other words, the literary critic’s disrespect for McGonagall’s poetry is nothing else but the (self-?)loathing for the (imperfect, yet heartfelt) aesthetics of the everyman, of the common people – of those who, as complete amateurs, mean well and harbour sincere feelings, but reach the limits of their artistic craftsmanship and imagination sooner than they fully and wittily expressed what they desired: the poetry, that, in the shape of the Latin verse inscriptions of the Roman world, has kept me busy and highly entertained not only over the last year, but for a significant part of my professional career.

Which brings me back to Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Greyfriars Kirkyard, too, is home to a number of funerary monuments inscribed in Latin verse – and there were two that stood out to me in particular: the monument for George Heriot (1610) and the monument for John Laing (1614).

Both monuments are similar in size, shape, and design – representing altar tables with modest, sculpted reredoses – and they both date to roughly the same time period, namely the 1610s, during the reign of King James VI and I. In addition to their similar overall appearances, the two monuments, affixed to the kirkyard’s eastern wall (by Candlemaker Row), also have in common that they exhibit – in a comparable arrangement – short Latin epigrams.

Heriot Memorial. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Heriot Memorial. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.


Top panel. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Top panel. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Viator | qui sapis | unde sis, quod | sis, quidque futu|rus sis, hinc nosce.

Subsequently, inscribed on the main panel of the altar tomb, there are four hexameters, two on the left, two on the right.

Left column:

Left column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Left column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Vita mihi mortis, | mors vitae, | janua fa|cta est; |
Solaque | mors m|ortis v|ivere p|osse d|edit.

Right column:

Right column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Right column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Ergo quisquis ad|huc mortali  | vesceris a|ura,
| licet, ut  | possis | vivere, | disce| mori. |

In the translation of Robert Monteith (An Theatre of Mortality, or, the illustrious inscriptions extant upon the several monuments, erected over the dead bodies, … buried within the Gray-friars church-yard; and other churches and burial-places within the city of Edinburgh and suburbs: collected and Englished, Edinburgh 1704):

Passenger, who art wise, hence know whence you are,
what you are, and what you are to be,
Life, gate of death; death, gate of life, to me;
Sole death of death gives life eternallie.
Therefore, whoever breath draws from the air,
While live though mayst, thyself for death prepare.

  • Master John Laing’s Memorial (1614) [Note the deceased’s initials as well as the date, inscribed in the top panel]
Laing Memorial. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Laing Memorial. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Two elegiac couplets are incised on the main panel:

Left column:

Left column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Left column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Quam natu|ra dedit, | mortali | corpore | clauso, |
dum spes | exilii sus|tinet una | moras,

Right column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Right column. – Photo: (c) PK, July 2015.

Vita fuit; nec | vita fuit: | mors, | nescia | mortis,
posse de|dit vita | jam meli|ore frui.

Again in the translation of Robert Monteith (see above):

The life, me nature gave, while pent in clay,
Hopes of escape supporting the delay,
It was not life: death, ignorant of death,
To me a life far better did bequeath.

It is obvious that the memorials for George Heriot, goldsmith and benefactor of the city of Edinburgh, and for John Laing, Keeper of the Signet and owner of Redhouse Castle, communicate with one another.

This communication is not only achieved through a similarity of stylistic and iconographic features of the two tombs.

It is also the result of a direct communication between the two poems, both presumably written by the same (unknown) poet; this communication of two of Edinburgh’s grandees from beyond their graves deserves some further attention.

Both poems – Heriot’s hexametrical one and Laing’s elegiac one – essentially dwell on the same subject, the relationship between life and death as well as the evanescence of life.

Both poems derive their points from combinations and recombinations of the two key terms, vita (life) and mors (death) – narrowly (if at all) avoiding the tediousness of expression that comes with a play of words that is more an expression of ars gratia artis than evidence for any particularly deep and metaphysical insights. (Missing McGonagall’s honest, if awkward, rhymes yet?)

Heriot’s poem – the older one of the two – suggests that life had become a gate to death for him just as much as death turned out to be a gate to (eternal) life: only the death of death itself allowed for (true) life.

His advice, therefore, for the living (conveniently addressed as viatores, wayfarers, in the prescript to his poem): prepare for death as best you can, while still alive. (No mention is made of what preparations in particular the poet had in mind.)

Laing’s epitaph does not reach any radically different conclusions.

Instead of imagining an interface between life and death that redefines ‘actual’ life and ‘true’ life, ‘actual’ death and ‘true death’, however, Laing’s poem begins with what nature provided: life, the life of a person locked into a mortal body, sojourning in the hope one has in the soul’s exile that is human life (a neoplatonic concept).

Yet, this must not be mistaken for (true) life! A death that knows no (actual) death, or so the poem claims, is what grants a life far better to enjoy.

One might at first be inclined to read these as rather dark poems, negating the value of life in the face of death.

In between the two poems, however, a very different spirit emerges: the top panel of Heriot’s tomb instructs the reader who has understanding to consider one’s origin, one’s current state, and one’s fate: unde sis, quod sis, quidque futurus sis.

In keeping with the ancient idea that, for the better part of one’s life, one is, in fact dead (cf. the famous Epicurean idea of non fui, fui, non sum, non curo, ‘I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care’) the two poems actually propose something positive, both individually and in between themselves.

Heriot’s poem puts it bluntly: disce mori, learn how to die, while you are still alive – grasp the opportunity to mortify death itself (solaque mors mortis vivere posse dedit, ‘sole death of death gives life eternallie’).

Laing’s poem does not go quite as far – it does not propose to kill death itself, but envisions a death that is ignorant of its own nature, thus opening up the opportunity for a life better than everything that nature itself can bestow upon mortals: the afterlife, which will release one’s soul from the prison that is the human body (mortali corpore clauso) and end the deceptively appealing exile of the soul in this world.

Or, as William McGonagall put it, in a poem commemorating The Burial of Mr Gladstone, The Great Political Hero:

But I hope his soul has gone to that Heavenly shore,
Where all trials and troubles cease for evermore.

And in Death and Burial of Lord Tennyson:

I hope his soul has fled to heaven above,
Where there is everlasting joy and love.

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Undying Voices: The Poetry of Roman Britain

Britain has produced some of the world’s most highly renowned, influential, and beautiful poetry – Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare,  John Milton, Robert Burns, the Brontë sisters, Lewis Carroll, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to name but a select few!

British poetry does not begin, however, with the emergence of the English language: several hundreds of years before Cædmon‘s hymn of creation and Beowulf were composed, over 1,200 years before Geoffrey Chaucer had penned down even a single line, poetry had been written on the British Isles (and it must have existed in unwritten forms much longer still).

The earliest evidence for written poetry from Britain dates back to the time of Roman occupation, when the inhabitants of this country (not just locals or Romans from mainland Italy, but people from all over the Empire, from as far away as modern-day Turkey or Syria!) expressed their feelings, hopes, and desires in poetic forms.

What survived is not much.

At first glance one might well think: ‘gosh, it took a long time for this island’s native poetry to reach its later, glorious heights!’

But this does not do the poets of Britain’s most ancient (surviving) poetry justice: they were not poets laureate, and they never aspired to be.

They were soldiers, merchants, tilers, common people – yet with a shared desire to leave behind unassuming works of verbal art.

Their voices, even after over 1,600 years, deserve to be listened to. Their poetry – truly the poetry of the people rather than of, or for, an aristocratic elite – is indicative of, and reflects, popular culture, aesthetics, and thought.

Discover the Undying Voices: the Poetry of Roman Britain!

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

Sousse: Whence the Offence, Whence the Hurt…?

Sousse, ancient Hadrumetum, gave light to a famous mosaic, now kept in the Musée national du Bardo, Tunis:

The poet Vergil and two Muses. Mosaic from Hadrumetum/Sousse. – Image source: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/Classics/roman_provinces/mosaics%20of%20roman%20africa/The%20poet%20Virgil%20and%20two%20muses.JPG.

The poet Vergil and two Muses. Mosaic from Hadrumetum/Sousse. – Image source here

The mosaic displays Rome’s most famous poet Vergil (centre), surrounded by two Muses, Clio (left) and Melpomene (right).

In his lap, held with one hand, Vergil has a book scroll, that contains a line and a bit of his epic poem Aeneid (CIL VIII 22916 = CLE 2293 = ILS 9229 = ILTun 155):

Musa mihi ca(u)-
sas memora
quo numine
laeso quidve

These lines come from the opening of the Aeneid, the very epic poem that describes how refugees from a war-torn country in the Near East had to find a new home abroad (lucky that Europe was not quite the fortress that it is today).

They were forced to navigate the Mediterranean by boat. They lost many of their family members and their friends en route. After an intermezzo in Carthage, they eventually arrived in Italy, where they established themselves after many a savage battle (Verg. Aen. 1.1–7, translation from here [with a minor modification]):

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.

I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.

Straight away, Vergil requests divine inspiration and support for his poem (Aen. 1.8-11) –

Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
quidve dolens, regina deum tot volvere casus
insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?

Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity,
how was she hurt, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man,
noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many
trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?

Juno, it will turn out, was resentful for two chief reasons.

She still held a grudge against the Trojans, whose prince Paris had chosen Venus over her in a beauty contest (Paris’ judgement led to the Trojan war).

More importantly, however, Aeneas, the Trojan refugee, and his friends were about to come to Carthage, a project under Juno’s tutelage, where Aeneas would break Queen Dido’s heart … and thus lay the foundations of enmity that would eventually result in the Punic Wars and Carthage’s destruction by the Romans.

This is how she was offended in her divinity (quo numine laeso).

In the mosaic from Sousse/Hadrumetum, Vergil is presented as pondering just that very question:

How was she offended in her divinity, how was she hurt…?

A sentence, that he leaves incomplete.

As an epic poet, Vergil may have considered asking Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, for support.

The mosaic artist knew better: Vergil in actual fact required the support of Clio, the muse of historiography, and Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, finding his way between cruel reality and a tragedy whose extent is hard to fathom:

Whence the offence, whence the hurt?

Looking at Sousse today, this ancient mosaic and its question could not be any more topical:

Whence the offence, whence the hurt?

39 people were killed yesterday in a horrendous and despicable gun attack claimed by Islamic State (IS) in Sousse (Tunisia), and an additional 36 were injured.

May the dead rest in peace.

May we find an answer to this question.

May we find an appropriate response that will help to stop the endless bloodshed in the (feigned) name of what Vergil calls the numen laesum, offended divinity, a hurt divine being’s will and plan.

Nothing good and lasting can come of it.

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More Than Meets the Eye: Fragrance, Sensuousness, and Inscribed Latin Poetry

When we talk about ‘reading’ and ‘Latin poetry’ in academic contexts, we often tend to reduce complex intellectual and sensuous processes to a fairly linear model by which a text, either by acoustic or by optic means, somehow enters the brain of its recipient to work its charm.

The smell of books. – Image source here.

The smell of books. – Image source here.

This is a model that is conveniently sterile, reductionist, and out of touch with real-life experiences in its pretence that the feel of the medium, its scents (or that of our surroundings), and other such circumstantial elements were negligible factors of the overall sensation.

Anyone who has ever held a beautifully produced volume of poetry in their hands will be able to confirm that there can be significantly more to an experience of poetry as art than ‘just’ sounds and shapes that are to be taken in by one’s ears and eyes – an aspect elucidated and explored in depth for literary texts by numerous contributions to Mark Bradley‘s recent, most useful volume on ‘Smell and the Ancient Senses‘.

Olfactoric sensations related to acts of reading are by no means exclusively caused by literary texts, however, and the Latin verse inscriptions offer several remarkable perspectives on the ancient landscape of fragrance (or ‘smellscape’, as some have put it), as the following choice of texts will show.

Monument of the Flavii at Kasserine. – Image Source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder/$CIL_08_11300b_2.jpg

Monument of the Flavii at Kasserine. – Image Source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder/$CIL_08_11300b_2.jpg

Already, on another occasion, I have introduced the famous epitaph inscribed on the monument of the Flavii at Cillium/Kasserine (Tunisia), where a passage of the inscribed poems – poems that comprise a grand total of 110 lines! – reads as follows: (CIL VIII 212=11300b = CLE 1552a and CIL VIII 213=11300c = CLE 1552b):

quid non docta facit pietas: lapis ecce foratus
luminibus multis hortatur currere blandas
intus apes et cerineos componere nidos
ut semper domus haec thymbraeo nectare dulcis
sudet florisapos dum dant nova mella liquores.

What does a sense of filial duty not achieve: behold, the gaping stonework, with many a light crack, invites enchanting bees to go inside and to build their waxy nests, so that this home forever will exude a sweet scent from the nectar of thyme, when new honey produces flower-dripping juices.

Quite apart from the striking description of livelihood in a monument devoted to the deceased, one must note the way in which the poet refers to the sweet fragrance (dulcis | sudet) that is envisioned for the tomb, once bees will settle in its cracks and begin to gather thyme nectar – an image that combines the imagery of smell with that of flavour, aroma, and taste.

A significantly less impressive monument, yet a not at all less fragrant, sensuous environment is evoked in the following text from Theveste/Tébessa (Numidia, now Algeria) (CIL VIII 2035 cf. p. 1590 = ILAlg I 3550 = CLE 469):

Inter odoratos nemorum ubi laeta recessus
mater pingit humus et lectis dedala Tellus
floribus exultat gratisque et frondibus almum
<v>ix patitur cum sole diem, hic provide felix
Florentine decus cum coniuge sancta pudica
Hostiliana tua et Splendonillae natoque ||
cons[- – -]

hic pulch[r – – -]
aedes pen[- – -]
incertu[- – -]
constru[- – -]
felices vi[- – -]

Where in the fragrant seclusion of the groves mother Earth cheerfully brings colours to herself and ingeniously rejoices in exquisite flowers and with her treetops barely yields the day’s nourishing sunlight, here, provident, felicitous Florentinus, your splendour, alongside your saintly, bashful wife Hostiliana and … Splendonilla’s … boy … reunited (?) … [the remainder of the text is too fragmentary to allow for a meaningful translation]

Florentinus’ monument combines references to the monument’s emotionally charged, aromatic environs with an appreciation of colour and light effects, caused by the flowers and the treetops (which, of course, are also responsible for the emission of the fragrances), stimulating the reader’s senses and suggesting happiness (laeta), indulgence (gratis … frondibus), and good cheer (exultat).

A comparable serene, sensous environment is depicted in a third inscription from Roman North Africa – again from Numidia, discovered in Cirta/Constantine (CIL VIII 7759 cf. p. 966 = VIII 19478 = ILAlg II.1, 831 = CLE 1327 = AE 2006.145; image of a squeeze available here):

Qui properas, quaeso, tar-
da, viator, iter, ut paucis
discas cum genus (!) exitium.
non externa satus Scythi-
ca de gente Syrorum,
[s]um satus Aethna, viros ub[i]
cingunt Anspagae moles.
cognitus est locus amoenis-
simus Alba, in qua frondicoma
odoratur ad mare pinus, Daphne
pudica vi[ret, sa]lit et loco vitrea Na[is]
dum simi[li do]no natam V[- – -]amic-
[- – -]D[- – -] ubi me iurat esse D-
[- – – i]bi sum cinis, hic o[ssa]
[nostra colen]tur. ter denos et
bis quin[os – – -]sum sperat annos
aetate, my[s]ero que mihi fuit unica na-
[t]a. quot dedit, it repetit natura, non
[q]uia peccat dicere ne pigeat.
P(ubli) Sitti Optati
molliter ossa cubent.

Wayfarer, as you are rushing along, please stall your journey, so that you may learn in a few words about my end in conjunction with my origins. Not a scion of the exotic Scythian branch of Syrians, I am the offspring of Etna, hailing from where the waves of Ampsaga enclose men. This most beautiful place is known as Alba, where the leafy pine tree exudes its scent towards the sea, where bashful Daphne [i. e. laurel] is green, and where the crystalline Naiad leaps.

[The following two lines are too fragmentary to allow for a translation.]

… there I am, in ashes, here my remains are looked after. Three times ten and twice five years [= 40 years] . . . I am … s/he hopes … years of age,  who was my – wretched me! – only daughter.

What nature gave, she demands back, and may it not irk to say that this is not because she [i. e. nature] has any failings. May the ashes of Publius Sittius Optatus rest softly.

This most peculiar piece, in terms of rhythm and content (opening with two pentameters, for example, and then potentially referring to illegitimacy and Sicilian descent!), describes another idyllic, sensuous landscape, blending the alluring, stunning scent of Mediterranean pine trees with references to the conifer’s hair-like needles, the rich green colour of laurel, and the movement of water.

Alluring scents and fragrances of a surrounding landscape are not the only odours to be encountered in the Latin verse inscriptions, however.

A most remarkable epitaph from Rome, dedicated to the memory of one Marcus Lucceius Nepos presents the mourner in a direct dialogue with the deceased – and the mourner, an adfinis of the deceased, is allowed to experience Nepos’ netherworld (CIL VI 21521 cf. p. 3526 = VI 34137 = CLE 1109 = AE 2008.150; image available here; transl. E. Courtney):

Memoriae M(arci) Luccei M(arci) f(ilii) Nepotis Sex(tus) Onussanius Sex(ti) f(ilius) Com[- – -].

Quum praematura raptum mihi morte Nepotem
flerem Parcarum putria fila querens
et gemerem tristi damnatam sorte iuventam
versaretque novus viscera tota dolor,
me desolatum me desertum ac spoliatum
clamarem largis saxa movens lacrimis,
exacta prope nocte suos quum Lucifer ignes
spargeret et volucri roscidus iret equo,
vidi sidereo radiantem lumine formam
aethere delabi non fuit illa quies,
sed verus iuveni color et sonus at status ipse
maior erat nota corporis effigie
ardentis oculorum orbes umerosq(ue) nitentis
ostendes roseo reddidit ore sonos:
adfinis memorande, quid o me ad sidera caeli
ablatum quereris? desine flere deum ||
ne pietas ignara superna sede receptum
lugeat et laedat numina tristitia.
non ego Tartareas penetrabo tristis ad undas,
non Acheronteis transvehar umbra vadis,
non ego caeruleam remo pulsabo carinam
nec te terribilem fronte timebo, Charon,
nec Minos mihi iura dabit grandaevus et atris
non errabo locis nec cohibebor aquis.
surge refer matri ne me noctesque diesque
defleat ut maerens Attica mater Ityn.
nam me sancta Venus sedes non nosse silentum
iussit et in caeli lucida templa tulit.
erigor et gelidos horror perfuderat artus;
spirabat suavi tinctus odore locus.
die Nepos seu tu turba stipatus Amorum

laetus Adoneis lusibus insereris, ||
seu grege Pieridum gaudes seu Palladis [arte],
omnis caelicolum te chor[u]s exc[ipiet].
si libeat thyrsum gravidis aptare co[rymbis]
et velare comam palmite Liber [eris];
pascere si crinem et lauro redimire [placebit]
arcum cum pharetra sumere Ph[oebus eris].
indueris teretis manicas Phrygium [decus Attis(?)]
non unus Cybeles pectore vivet a[mor].
si spumantis equi libeat quatere ora [lupatis],
Cyllare formosi membra vehes e[quitis].
sed quicumque deus quicumque vocaber[is heros],
sit soror et mater sit puer incolu[mis].
haec dona unguentis et sunt potiora c[orollis]
quae non tempus edax non rapi[t ipse rogus(?)].

Sextus Onussianus Com…, son of Sextus, to the memory of Marcus Lucceius Nepos, son of Marcus.

When I was lamenting my loss of Nepos through premature death, complaining of the easily-snapped threads of the Fates, and was bemoaning his manhood condemned by a cruel destiny, and pain not previously experienced was torturing my whole heart; when I was bewailing my bereft, abandoned, deprived state, moving the rocks with my floods of tears; almost at the end of night, when the dewy Dawn-Star was spreading his rays and riding his swift horse, I saw a shape, glowing with stellar light, glide down from the sky. That was no dream, but the man had his actual complexion and voice, though his stature was greater than the familiar shape of his body. Showing the blazing orbs of his eyes and shining shoulders he spoke from his rosy lips. ‘My noble kinsman, why do you complain that I have been snatched away to the stars of the sky? Cease to bewail a god, lest your affection, unaware that I have been welcomed in the celestial abode, may mourn and by its sorrow distress a supernatural being. I shall not gloomily make my way to the underworld streams and shall not as a ghost be ferried across the waters of Acheron; I shall not with my oar drive forward the dark boat nor shall I fear Charon with his terrifying countenance, nor will ancient Minos pass judgment on me; I shall not wander in those dark places nor be pinned in by the rivers. Rise, tell my mother not to lament me night and day, as the mourning Attic mother does Itys. For holy Venus has forbidden me to know the abodes of the silent and has carried me to the bright halls of heaven’. I jumped up, and trembling had pervaded my cold limbs; the place was fragrant, redolent with a sweet smell. Sanctified Nepos, the whole heavenly chorus will welcome you, whether, escorted by a crowd of amorini, you happily mingle with the amusements of Adonis, or you rejoice in the crowd of the Muses or in the artistic skill of Athena. If you should want to fasten heavy clusters of ivy-berries to the thyrsus and veil your hair with vine-shoots, you will be Bacchus; if you should want to grow your hair and garland it with bay and take up bow and quiver, you will be Apollo. Put on fine sleeves and a Phrygian (cap), more than one love will quicken in Cybele’s breast. Should you desire to shake the mouth of a foaming horse with the bridle, then Cyllarus will carry the body of a handsome rider. But whatever god, whatever demigod you shall be called, may your sister, mother and young son be safe and sound. These gifts, which gnawing time and [the pyre?] do not take away, are better than perfume and garlands.

Twice this poem makes reference to pleasant odour – first they feature as an olfactoric backdrop to the transcendental experience of the interlocutor while encountering the deified deceased, subsequently they recur at the very end of the poem, now related to gifts presented to the dead himself, which, while pleasing, are feeble and perishable in comparison to the gift that he has received in his afterlife.

The latter adds an important facet to the poetic and epigraphical landscape of fragrance, however, as the use of perfumes and flowery scents is attested in other poems as well.

The following inscription from Hadrumetum/Sousse (Tunisia), for example, is a clear reference to  such a rather more fleeting olfactoric celebration in the context of monuments for the dead (CIL VIII 22971 = CLE 1829; image available here):

Liber et exuctus cura, germane, subisti
Infera, desertus vita, disiunctus in aevom;
Blanda luce cares fugiens tristesque labores
Exceptus tellure patris Plutonis in aula.
Rebus sollicitus fueras dum vita maneret
Adfectus curis miseris necdum memor Orchi.
Laeserunt Parcae disiuncti sanguine caro,
Invidia saevo voluit nos sternere luctu.
Sola quies retinet tumulo tellure manentem. ||
condidimus cineres latebris et odoribus ossa.
vixisti triginta annos duo, mensibus et sex

nam iuvenem pater et properantem mater habetis:
ergo velut deus esse velis mihi dexter in aevom.
pro meritis Peregrinus carmine frater adornat.
Lucius Ummidius situs est hic: perlegat hospes.

Free and free from all worries, my brother, you have entered the underworld, abandoned by life, separated for eternity; You lack the affectionate light of life, fleeing depressing toils, received by the earth in the hall of father Pluto. You had been exercised by your business while life lasted, beset with wretched care and with death on your mind no less. The Parcae hurt us, as we are now separated from your dear lifeblood, envy wanted to strike us down in cruel mourning. This is the only rest that holds you now, remaining in this earth as your tomb.

We covered the ashes and bones with shelter and fragrances. You lived thirty two years and six months, for you father and mother, have a young man who was in a hurry: so you desired to become like a favourable god to me for eternity!

Peregrinus, his brother, adorns him with a song for his merits. Lucius Ummidius is buried here: may you read (sc. this text) to the end, stranger.

Similarly, an inscription from Aternum/Pescara mentions the use of fragrant substances in the context of the burial (CIL IX *344 cf. p. *49 = CLE 1321 = AE 2001.899; reproduction available here):

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
Decimus, a prima sectatus castra iuventa,
circitor morior – praemia parca! – senex.
qui nulli grauis extiteram, dum vita manebat,
hac functo aeternum sit mihi terra leuis.
dat patruo, ob meritum, feralem Flavius urnam
Ninnius et cinerem spargit odore gemens.

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

I, Decimus, who attended the camps from his earliest youth, die in old age as a watchman – what a pathetic reward! As my existence was no burden to anyone, while I was alive, may earth rest light on me in eternity after departure from such life! Flavius Ninnius gives this funerary urn for his paternal uncle for his merits and, lamenting, spreads his ashes together with fragrances.

Finally, in a fragmentary poem from the city of Rome the use of such substances is even declared a continuous gift, vowed in honour of the deceased as well as offered in the hope for a safe future (CIL VI 30102 cf. p. 3736 = CLE 1508; image available here; transl. E. Courtney):

– – – – – –
et quae rara fides poni [- – -],
multos cum caperet superba forma,
blando iuncta viro pudica mansit.
qui nunc pro meritis bene adque caste
corpus, quod potuit negare flammae,
unguento et foleo (!) rosisque plenum
ut numen colit anxius merentis.
parcas, oro, viro, puella, parcas,
ut possit tibi plurimos per annos
cum sertis dare iusta quae dicavit,
et semper vigilet lucerna nardo.

… and, though superlative in her beauty she captivated many, united to her loving husband she remained chaste, a loyalty rare among married couples. Her husband now in return for her benefactions devotedly honours the body of the benefactress as a divinity, that body which he was able to deny to the flames and fill with unguents and perfumes and rose-petals. Spare, I beseech you, spare your husband, so that for many years he may be able to give you the garlands and offerings which he has vowed, and so that the lamp may ever be kept alight by nard.

Drawing of the funerary altar for Antonia Panace (CIL VI 12059), including its floral decoration. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder.php?bild=$CIL_06_12059_1.jpg;$CIL_06_12059_2.jpg;$DM_251.jpg&nr=3.

Drawing of the funerary altar for Antonia Panace (CIL VI 12059), including its floral decoration. – Image source here.

What in literary contexts might easily be dismissed as a mere topos, gains a rather different momentum in the context of memorials for the dead – there is little reason to doubt that such pleasant odours and fragrances were indeed part of the reading experience of those who took the time to interact with the monuments. (Incidentally, one might be quite tempted to use this evidence in conjunction with the omnipresence of floral motives on Roman sculpture – petrified flora, which gains a real-life fragrance from regular offerings, just as the deceased regain their voices from their interaction with the passers-by.)

It would be a mistake, however, to reduce such complex sensory experiences to funerary contexts. It features in honorific poems just as much as it occurs in votives and dedications.

One Pomponius Victor, for example, when asking the god Silvanus for a safe return (for which he is prepared to plant a thousand large trees!), says that he will have to travel per arva perq(ue) montis Alpicos | tuique luci suave olentis hospites (‘through the fields and the Alpine mountain range and those who dwell in your sweet-smelling grove’) while on the emperor’s business (CIL XII 103 cf. p. 805 = CLE 19).

And then there is the long poem of some 52 lines by one Julius Agathemerus, imperial freedman, celebrating the ever-potent god Priapus, which includes the following delightful lines (CIL XIV 3565 = CLE 1504, lines 12–22 [inscribed at the side of the monument]; transl. E. Courtney):

Convenite simul quot est[is om]nes
quae sacrum colitis [ne]mus [pu]ellae
quae sacras colitis a[q]uas puellae
convenite quot estis atque [be]llo
voce dicite blandula [Pria]po
salve sancte pater Priape rerum
[in]guini oscula figite inde mille
[fasci]num bene olentibus [cor]onis
[cing]ite illi iterumque dicite omnes

[salve san]cte pater Priape rerum.

Assemble together, each and every one of you, you lasses who dwell in the sacred grove and the sacred waters, assemble all and in winning tones say to handsome Priapus ‘Hail, Priapus, holy father of the world’. Next fasten a thousand kisses on his crotch, gird his phallus with fragrant garlands and again all say ‘Hail, Priapus, holy father of the world.’

This, however, reaches an entirely different level of sensuousness (or rather: sensuality) and interaction with inscribed objects, adding an element of tactile perception to it, which will require additional discussion on another occasion.

Does the rosy picture of the Roman ‘smellscape’, as painted in the inscriptions here, bear any resemblance to reality? The historical and archaeological evidence collected in Mark Bradley’s volume (see above) may raise certain doubts and suggest that the imagery contains a certain deal of wishful thinking.

On the other hand, a lack of mention of repulsive odours need not be taken as their negation or obliviousness towards them: first, culture-specific constant exposure to such smells would have resulted in a reduced sensitivity towards them; secondly (and perhaps even more importantly) the emphasis on pleasant, captivating fragrances may well be an indication that there were other smells to be masked.

That said, however, one must acknowledge that, at least in the minds of our poets, alluring, fragrant scent was positively linked to the respective spheres in which they were operating – and these scents were plausibly interrelated to other parts of the human sensorium, thus describing a substantially more complex and multi-sensory reading experience than commonly assumed.

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