Harrowing Statues: Pliny, Hannibal, and Cecil Rhodes

History is like a bad dream from which one cannot wake.

Though undoubtedly related to what once must have been real, history merely exists in our collective and individual imaginations and re-imaginations. It is shaped by our fantasy and wishful thinking just as much as by factors completely out of our control. And whenever we desire to tell someone about one of our particularly vivid dreams, we never find anyone ready to confirm that what we were positive we experienced just now ever truly existed.

Like bad dreams, imaginations of history and how it all made sense at the time have their focal points as well as their blind spots. Like bad dreams, these may revolve around objects that at first seem almost insignificant and circumstantial, but all of a sudden develop a terrifying life of their own.

One such object – an object that has received a lot of attention recently and thus become a focal point of historical re-imaginations – is a statue of Cecil Rhodes, placed above the entrance of Oriel College, Oxford.

Following a similar movement at the University of Cape Town, a campaign arose at Oxford urging the college to remove the statue of their prominent alumnus and benefactor – #RhodesMustFall.

Yet, after much public debate and, more remarkably, a threat of current donors to withdraw millions, the college decided to keep the statue in its accustomed location.

Removal of statues has a long history. To anyone with a background in Classical Scholarship the idea of damnatio memoriae, ‘condemnation of memory’, is a familiar concept.

Unlike others, I do not see much of a problem with that; to me it seems like a liberating, perfectly rational act to rid oneself of the pictures of a harrowing, painful past that one would like to leave behind.

It is an act of cleansing, a proxy that allows us to act against an effigy in a way that we may not be able, or willing, to act against a real person.

Statues of fascist and communist leaders fell when the oppression of their regimes had been removed. Statues of Saddam Hussein fell, once it was safe to purify the urban landscape without risking political repercussions. Statues and inscriptions of disliked Roman rulers were defaced, altered, or destroyed after their deaths.

But it would be mistaken to think that damnatio memoriae was the Romans’ sole response to the visual representation of those whose effigies might be seen as triggers of deeply traumatic memories.

The Roman encyclopedic writer Pliny the Elder relates the following story about the urban decoration of the city of Rome (Plin. nat. 34.32; for a translation of Pliny’s works, and for book 34 in particular, see here):

Publice autem ab exteris posita est Romae C. Aelio tr. pl. lege perlata in Sthennium Stallium Lucanum, qui Thurinos bis infestaverat. ob id Aelium Thurini statua et corona aurea donarunt. iidem postea Fabricium donavere statua liberati obsidione, passimque gentes in clientelas ita receptae, et adeo discrimen omne sublatum, ut Hannibalis etiam statuae tribus locis visantur in ea urbe, cuius intra muros solus hostium emisit hastam.

‘The first statue publicly erected at Rome by foreigners was that in honour of the tribune of the people Gaius Aelius, for having introduced a law against Sthennius Stallius the Lucanian who had twice made an attack upon Thurii; for this the inhabitants of that place presented Aelius with a statue and a crown of gold. The same people afterwards presented Fabricius with a statue for having rescued them from a state of siege; and various races successively in some such way placed themselves under Roman patronage, and all discrimination was so completely abrogated that even a statue of Hannibal may be seen in three places in the city within the walls of which he alone of its national foes had hurled a spear.’

Three statues of Hannibal, Rome’s quintessential foe, attested at Rome in the first century A. D. (Pliny famously died in A. D. 79 during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius), some 250 years after Hannibal posed the single most dangerous threat to the Roman state.

Pliny does not specify how Hannibal was depicted, who was responsible for the statues, or where exactly these statues were placed.

The fact that display of Rome’s nemesis in public spaces of the city of Rome was apparently tolerable, however, would suggest that these effigies were positioned in a way that seemed acceptable; that it triggered debate regardless can be seen from the fact that Pliny mentions it as the high point of an enumeration of public statues that were ‘erected at Rome by foreigners’ (ab exteris posita … Romae).

Position and presentation of public statues was a matter that Pliny understood perfectly well (Plin. nat. 34.17):

excepta deinde res est a toto orbe terrarum humanissima ambitione, et in omnium municipiorum foris statuae ornamentum esse coepere propagarique memoria hominum et honores legendi aevo basibus inscribi, ne in sepulcris tantum legerentur. mox forum et in domibus privatis factum atque in atriis: honos clientium instituit sic colere patronos. 

‘The practice of erecting statues from a most civilized sense of rivalry was afterwards taken up by the whole of the world, and the custom proceeded to arise of having statues adorning the public places of all municipal towns and of perpetuating the memory of human beings and of inscribing lists of honours on the bases to be read for all time, so that such records should not be read on their tombs only. Soon after a publicity centre was established even in private houses and in our own halls: the respect felt by clients inaugurated this method of doing honour to their patrons.’

Also (Plin. nat. 34.27):

Columnarum ratio erat attolli super ceteros mortales, quod et arcus significant novicio invento.

‘The purport of placing statues of men on columns was to elevate them above all other mortals; which is also the meaning conveyed by the new invention of arches.’

Statues are focal points of memoria, and to put them on pedestals means to showcase particularly noteworthy individuals who have risen above the masses in a manner that is worth remembering as well as inspiring.

Does that apply to Cecil Rhodes in 21st century Oxford?

There is hardly any need to explain why a statue of Cecil Rhodes would seem offensive to many nowadays (just as much as his presence was offensive to many then, just not those who put him on his Oxonian pedestal at the time), and there is hardly any requirement to explain how Rhodes’ ill-gotten gains have subsequently been used for rather better ends than Oxford’s generous donor himself would have imagined (or, in fact, approved of).

(Does that mean that Oxford need not care about its colonial past or that recipients of Rhodes scholarships at Oxford whose family history is related to parts of this globe that suffered under Rhodes’ activities should feel grateful for a ‘partial refund’? Hardly! It is the job of the present ‘to get off its backside and do better’, as Mary Beard put it on her blog a while ago.)

Oriel College, partly driven by financial pressures of current donors (or so one is led to believe), decided to keep Cecil Rhodes on his prominent pedestal, claiming that they will ‘seek to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there’.

This may well be true – but the historical context to explain why it is there already exists (though it may not be easily accessible to everyone): there is a Latin inscription that reads –


Rhodes’ statue and accompanying inscription, facing Oxford’s High Street. – Image source: http://static.independent.co.uk/s3fs-public/styles/story_large/public/thumbnails/image/2016/01/01/20/rhodes.jpg.

E larga munificentia
Caecilii Rhodes.

By means of the large munificence
of Cecil Rhodes.

How has this context changed after the pressure exercised on the college by its current donors?

Can this ever be anything else than a symbol that Oriel College will always, absolutely always, honour their wealthy donors, no matter how unethical their behaviour has been – from colonialists of profoundly upsetting proportions to those who resorted to threatening financial consequences in a debate that should be about historical awareness, moral responsibility, and self-representation?

It seems exceptionally unlikely to me that Oriel College will now add a line to this inscription, equally prominent in nature, stating precisely how it had become possible for Rhodes to become such a humanitarian (and why it was apparently impossible for the college to refuse the money at the time); but I remain open to pleasant surprises.

Pliny teaches us that it is possible to look at statues of those who represent for trauma and shame; that it is possible to look at statues of Hannibal in Rome.

But he also, quite rightly, teaches us that position is everything – and that the places where we put our statues is something that makes a statement about our current values and priorities, not merely about our past.

The position of Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College could hardly be more elevated or focal.

Suppressing our collective historical memory, damnatio memoriae, and iconoclasm cannot, and should not, be the answer. It will not fix the past, nor help us to redeem ourselves.

But Oriel College’s façade is not a museum or exhibition hall with neat labels and documentation attached to it. It is its shopfront, it is the college’s most obvious and iconic interface to the present world, its most obvious form of self-representation.

To pretend that focal objects don’t matter in our (and other people’s) imaginations of the past, as well as to call the debate over this statue a distraction, is hardly more compassionate than telling someone to stop having bad dreams while relentlessly reinforcing a focus on the effigy of a bogeyman that epitomises their suffering, while being a blind spot on our own conscience at best.

What some have called preserving history is in actual fact a deliberate, almost fiendish misnomer, for this is not about preserving history, but about preserving control over the narrative and thus about preserving the outcomes of history, whilst conveniently shunning responsibility, in the hope that future generations will extend us the same courtesy.

If it were truly and exclusively about preserving history (as some have fervently suggested), then this statue should have gone into an exhibition about Britain’s colonial past where it belongs in order to preserve memoria, but not remained on its pedestal, towering over Oxford’s High Street.

Posted in Epigraphy, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Saxa Loquuntur: The Stones Are Talking

Read about my recent adventures at St. Albans Cathedral!

Alban Conversations

On January 16th, Peter Kruschwitz, Professor of Classics at the University of Reading, visited us to lead a study day on the topic of the Latin inscriptions of St Albans Cathedral.  Here is his report:

Wouldn’t it be exciting if a building as old and magnificent as the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban could share with us some of the people and events that it has encountered during its history of almost one thousand years?

If it could tell us something about its worshippers, its visitors, and the events that took place in it?

Would we be prepared to listen?  What would we want to know?  What would we want to hear from a building so full of memories?

There are many ways in which one can approach an organic, ever-changing place of human activity and worship such as St Albans, of course.

A particularly exciting way…

View original post 1,693 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Disarming Hug

January 21st. Apparently it is National Hugging Day: a day that ’embraces hugging’ (or so the organisers say).

Whatever next?

There are a great many hugs and passionate embraces in Latin literature.

Among my most favourite Roman hugs, however, I would have to list the double embrace of which Phaedrus tells in his fable Soror ad fratrem (Phaedr. 3.8):

Praecepto monitus saepe te considera.
Habebat quidam filiam turpissimam,
idemque insignem pulchra facie filium.
Hi speculum, in cathedra matris ut positum fuit,
pueriliter ludentes forte inspexerunt.
Hic se formosum iactat; illa irascitur
nec gloriantis sustinet fratris iocos,
accipiens (quid enim?) cuncta in contumeliam.
Ergo ad patrem decurrit laesura inuicem,
magnaque inuidia criminatur filium,
uir natus quod rem feminarum tetigerit.
Amplexus ille utrumque et carpens oscula
dulcemque in ambos caritatem partiens,
“Cotidie” inquit “speculo uos uti uolo,
tu formam ne corrumpas nequitiae malis,
tu faciem ut istam moribus uincas bonis.”

In  Christopher Smart‘s beautifully dated translation:

The Brother and Sister

Warn’d by our council, oft beware,
And look into yourself with care.
There was a certain father had
A homely girl and comely lad.
These being at their childish play
Within their mother’s room one day,
A looking-glass was in the chair,
And they beheld their faces there.
The boy grows prouder as he looks;
The girl is in a rage, nor brooks
Her boasting brother’s jests and sneers,
Affronted at each word she hears:
Then to her father down she flies,
Arid urges all she can devise
Against the boy, who could presume
To meddle in a lady’s room.
At which, embracing each in turn,
With most affectionate concern,
“My dears,” he says, “ye may not pass
A day without this useful glass;
You, lest you spoil a pretty face,
By doing things to your disgrace;
You, by good conduct to correct
Your form, and beautify defect.”

Winning at parenting – with a hug, as imagined two thousand years ago.

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

A Poem Worthy of a Champion

This was an excellent weekend, as far as my Latin epigraphy geekiness goes.

On Friday and Saturday, I had the immense pleasure of preparing and leading a Study Day on Latin inscriptions for the Study Centre of St. Albans Cathedral – a delightful experience, about which I will blog for a different forum soon and which I hope will lead to future collaboration regarding the abundance of astonishing Latin texts in this extraordinary church.

Saturday night, I was invited to a party that took place in St. Margaret’s church in Stanford-le-Hope (Essex) – a church that boasts a history of 800+ years. Naturally, I could just have enjoyed the party – but me in a historical church without looking for traces of Latin? That is just not going to happen! (Sad, I know!)

Thus it turned out that there are (at least) two monuments in this beautiful historical building of interest to me – both related to a once local family called Champion.

One of the inscriptions, on an east-facing wall of the north aisle of the north nave, is a monument commemorating one Richard Champion Esq. (d. 1599). It contains an (otherwise undocumented) poem. The monument is visible high up on the wall in this historical photo –



Unfortunately, the view is now blocked by a screen, and I was unable to make out much of the text at all (with old age comes fading eyesight – who knew!); the following photo was my best attempt, and thus at least some words can be detected by those who have a keen enough eye:


Monument for Richard Champion Esq. (d. 1599). – Photo: PK, 2016.

The second monument of interest to me – also with an inscribed poem – belongs to a man of the same name (but of an earlier generation): Sir Richard Champion (d. 1568), draper and Lord Mayor of London in 1565-6. The monument is mounted to the blocked north door of the church, in close proximity to the former monument:


Memorial of Sir Richard Champion (d. 1568). – Photo: PK, 2016.

Its inscription is somewhat difficult to make out:


Inscription for Sir Richard Champion. – Image: PK, 2016.

The text, neatly composed as a poem consisting of three elegiac distichs, reads as follows:

CHAMPION excelsus victor de morte triumphat:
Nobilis Athletes nomine req(ue) fuit.
Im(m)undas mundi merces mercator abhorret,
Mundus de mundo vult dare lucra deo.
Ordinis en praeses dignissimus Armiger almus
Arma gerit Christo, fert pia lucra deo.

In English:

Champion, a sublime winner, triumphs over death:
He was a noble athlete by name and in actual fact.
A merchant, he abhors the world’s foul goods,
Pure (himself), he wishes to bestow the gains of this world upon God.
Behold, the council’s most worthy president, an esquire, propitious,
He bears arms for the benefit of Christ and gives pious gains to God.

Impossible to bring out in a translation, the poem abounds with puns and word plays:

  • The name Champion is the basis for a reference to his being an athletes (‘athlete’) in line 2 as well as his being an excelsus victor (‘sublime winner’) already in line 1 – someone who triumphat (‘triumphs’) even over death (de morte).
  • He is a nobleman – thus a nobilis athletes, a dignified dignitary (Ordinis … praeses dignissimus, line 5), an esquire (Armiger) – and in fact his right to use a coat of arms (armi-ger ~ ‘arms-bearer’) is metaphorically put to good use when he is described as someone who bears arms (arma gerit, line 6) for Christ.
  • Champion, a draper and thus a merchant (mercator, line 3), does not enjoy merces (‘goods’ – i. e. those of trade), if they are foul: immundas … merces, immundus being an adjective derived from the word mundus which, like Greek kosmos, covers a spectrum of meaning from ‘order’ to ‘the order that is this world’ to ‘the/this world’.  This world’s (mundi, line 3 still) goods are, of course, immundas and thus worthy of contempt – yet, being pure himself (mundus, now an adjective denoting the opposite of immundas), he desires to bestow gains (lucra) upon God – made in this world (de mundo, if that is, in fact, what this phrase is supposed to mean).

Sir Richard Champion, alderman, sheriff, and Lord Mayor of London, once owner of Hassenbrook Hall, died without issue and was buried in the church of St Dunstan-in-the-East, London.

Several records document his being a generous benefactor during his lifetime. His will contains a contribution for the benefit of the church and the poor of Stanford:


It is reasonable to assume that it was this generous contribution in particular that is more than richly alluded to in the remarkable little composition at St. Margaret’s church, Stanford-le-Hope.

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

Casting the Die, Sounding the Charge

It was on January 10th, 49 B. C., allegedly, that Gaius Julius Caesar decided to cross the Rubicon – literally – and thus both to start a bloody civil war and to create a metaphor, for millennia to come, that describes the deliberate taking of a fatal step at a point of no return.


Rubicon. – Image source here.

The incident is reported in several ancient sources, but it is Suetonius who, in his Life of Julius Caesar, preserves the Latin version of the famous phrase ‘the die is cast’, alea iacta est, ‘the game is on’ (Suet. Iul. 31–32, transl. J. C. Rolfe):

consecutusque cohortis ad Rubiconem flumen, qui prouinciae eius finis erat, paulum constitit, ac reputans quantum moliretur, conuersus ad proximos: ‘etiam nunc,’inquit, ‘regredi possumus; quod si ponticulum transierimus, omnia armis agenda erunt.’ cunctanti ostentum tale factum est. quidam eximia magnitudine et forma in proximo sedens repente apparuit harundine canens; ad quem audiendum cum praeter pastores plurimi etiam ex stationibus milites concurrissent interque eos et aeneatores, rapta ab uno tuba prosiliuit ad flumen et ingenti spiritu classicum exorsus pertendit ad alteram ripam. tunc Caesar: ‘eatur,’inquit, ‘quo deorum ostenta et inimicorum iniquitas uocat. iacta alea est,’ inquit.

Then, overtaking his cohorts at the river Rubicon, which was the boundary of his province, he paused for a while, and realising what a step he was taking, he turned to those about him and said: “Even yet we may draw back; but once cross yon little bridge, and the whole issue is with the sword.”  As he stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he.

A lot has been written about the crossing of the Rubicon and the phrase ‘the die is cast‘ (and its Greek origins). Equally, the role of visions, premonitions, dreams, and omens in Caesar’s life (right down to the point of his death) has been well-explored.

Moreover, historians such as Peter Wiseman (in Roman Drama and Roman History) and Gregor Weber (in Kaiser, Träume und Visionen in Prinzipat und Spätantike) have quite rightly pointed out that the introduction of this episode in Suetonius’ report may be testimony to an early dramatisation of this particular historical event for theatrical performance.

But what truly fascinates me about Suetonius’ report is something else. It is the role of music and sound as imagined in this report.

According to Suetonius, Caesar, his soldiers, and local shepherds encounter an apparition – an apparition that is described as of eximia magnitudine et forma, ‘of wondrous stature and beauty’. Sitting there, it played music upon a reed, harundine canens.

This creates an image of Pan, the god of shepherds, immersed in an idyllic, peaceful pastoral sphere and its archetypical music – the type that Vergil describes many a time in his Eclogues.


Illustration of the Roman Vergil. Image source (cropped) here.

Attracting shepherds and soldiers alike, the apparition then suddenly grabs the war-trumpet (tuba) of one of Caesar’s aeneatores, ‘trumpeters’, rushes down to the river bank, and sounds the charge: ingenti spiritu classicum exorsus pertendit ad alteram ripam, ‘and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, [he] strode to the opposite bank’.

Caesar, who had briefly hesitated to risk everything, according to Suetonius’ account interprets this as a sign from the gods and thus decides to go to war.

The change in tune is sudden and unexpected.

The peaceful, idyllic world of an idealised pastoral sphere with its gentle tunes played on a reed, attractive to shepherds and soldiers alike, is suddenly abandoned and replaced with the discordant tune of the war-trumpet, whose sound was famously described first by Ennius (reported e.g. at Serv. Aen. 9.501) –

at tuba terribili sonitu taratantara dixit

But the war-trumpet spoke ‘ta-ra-tan-ta-ra’ with its horrible noise

and subsequently, based on the Ennian model, by Vergil (Verg. Aen. 9.503–504) –

at tuba terribilem sonitum procul aere canoro
increpuit, sequitur clamor caelumque remugit.

But the war-trumpet, with its bronze gifted with song, widely
rattles its terrible sound, followed by a clamour, and the sky resounds.


Depiction of the tuba on Trajan’s column. – Image source here.

The change in tune from peaceful singing (canens) to the mighty blast of the trumpet (ingenti spiritu classicum exorsus), and the change of instrument from the reed (harundo) to the war-trumpet (tuba) both symbolise the imminent departure: a departure from a world in which soldiers and shepherds alike, for a short, fleeting moment, get to share the peace and joy of a pastoral idyll, towards an era of new war heralded by the harsh, terrible sound of the tuba, in which the sound of music cannot prevail (Verg. ecl. 9.1–13, translation from here):

Where are you heading, Moeris? To town, where the path leads?

O Lycidas, we’ve lived to see the time when a stranger,
owner of our land, could say (as we never thought could happen):
‘These lands are mine: you old tenants move on.’
Now sad and defeated, since chance overturns all,
we send him these kids (may no good come of it).

Surely I’d heard that your Menalcas, with his songs,
had rescued all your land, from where the hills end,
where they descend, in a gentle slope, to the water
and to the ancient beeches, with shattered tops?

You heard it, and that was the tale: but our songs
are as much use, Lycidas, among the clash of weapons,
as they say the Chaonian doves are when the eagle’s near.

For Caesar, according to Suetonius’ account, the transition from the sound of the harundo to that of the tuba were the ‘signs of the gods’, the deorum ostenta, that he craved to avenge the inimicorum iniquitas, the ‘false dealing of our foes’ (a double motivation worthy of Homeric epic!).

For me, given that the crossing of the Rubicon symbolises an irreversible step (which may or may not have been necessary), the more important question is this, however: how does one achieve the transition back from that horrible taratantara noise of the war-trumpet to that gentle, civilised, idyllic sound of the reed?

Posted in Education, Poetry, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

First Things First

Gaius Caelius Donatus of Oppidum Novum in the province of Mauretania Caesariensis (now Ain Defla, Algeria) was really looking forward to New Year’s Day.


A Roman new year’s gift: the lamp’s inscription, amidst symbols of prosperity, contains the common phrase annum novum faustum felicem. – Image source here.

An auspicious day, the Romans marked New Year’s Day with religious ceremonies and sacrifice (as T. Vindol. II 265, a letter from Vindolanda, illustrates, for example), but also with notes (see, e. g., T. Vindol. II 261, another letter from Vindolanda), exchanging all kinds of little trinkets and foodstuffs, and quite possibly even cakes that wished others a ‘prosperous, well-omened new year’: annum novum faustum felicem.

But for Caelius Donatus, this one particular New Year’s Day (unfortunately, we cannot know the exact year) was more than that: it was supposed to be extra special!

A father of two sons and one daughter, Caelius Donatus had been elected chief magistrate of his local council, with oversight of local finance.

Many Roman offices were taken up on March 1st; but several communities introduced their new magistrates on January 1st, including that of Caelius Donatus.

The first of January therefore was the very day for him on which he finally could put on and boast the toga praetexta – the garment that distinguished him as a magistrate.

His family, his wife and his three children: they all must have been proud of him, his great achievement, and the prestige that came with it.

But then, all of a sudden, things took an unexpected, dramatic turn, as the following inscribed poem records (CIL VIII 9642 = VIII 21494 = CLE 1603 = ILS 6881):


CIL VIII 9642 (squeeze). – Image source: http://cil.bbaw.de/test06/bilder/datenbank/PEC0001087.jpg

Transgrediens paulumper (?) qu[ae]-
so resis{is}te viator atque lege
quae sine fletu re<l>i<g>ere (!) nequi-
bis. hic enim positus loculo ia-
ceo infelicissimus ipse patre
duoviro qu(a)estor(e) cui non licuit nisi una die Kalendarum
Ianuariarum praetextatum patre(m) videre. exinde lecto
receptus, post diem vi<c>esimum funeri redditus, trans-
gressus vitae annos XVI m(enses) X d(ies) X lugentem matrem pia
cum sorore fratrem patremque cum luce reliqui. haec maerens
C(aius) Caelius Donatus C(aio) Caelio Sedato pater filio fecit.

(i) As you pass by, please stay a little, wayfarer, and read what you will not be able to read out without crying.

(ii) For here, buried in this little plot, I lie, most ill-omened, born of a father who was duovir with oversight of financial affairs.

(iii) He was not allowed to see his father wearing the toga praetexta except for that one day on the first of January.

(iv) Subsequently, I was bedridden, then, on the twentieth day, I had to be handed over for funeral: I lived a life of 16 years, 10 months, and 10 days, and, together with my light of life, I abandoned my mourning mother together with my dutiful sister, my brother, and my father.

(v) Gaius Caelius Donatus, the father, had this made for Gaius Caelius Sedatus, his son, mourning these matters.

Gaius Caelius Sedatus fell ill and died at the (preliminary) high point of his father’s career, and it is hard not to see the father’s barely concealed anger and disappointment that resulted from son’s premature death and the way it had blighted the beginning, if not the entirety, of a year that was supposed to be special.

A blemish whose origins the father chose to relate to New Year’s Day, to what was meant to be his New Year’s Day:

Cui non licuit nisi una die Kalendarum
Ianuariarum praetextatum patre(m) videre

He was not allowed to see his father wearing the toga praetexta except for that one day on the first of January.

The father’s feelings are deeply engrained in the text’s structure.

The text of the inscribed poem rests on three fundamental pillars, of which the passage that I just quoted is the central one: (i) the customary address of the wayfarer, (iii) the observation that the son was not allowed to admire his father’s achievements for more than just a single day (above), and then (v) the final, mostly technical statement that Caelius Donatus had this memorial made for his son Sedatus.

These elements, presented in an impersonal third-person narrative, are interspersed with two segments in which Sedatus, the deceased son himself, is imagined to act as a first-person interlocutor: (ii) Sedatus remarks that he lies ‘here’, born of a (newly) distinguished father, and then (iv) he speaks of his sudden and lethal illness, through which he had to abandon his family and leave his mother in mourning.

On two occasions the deceased’s dialogue with the memorial’s impersonal voice thus adds a personal dimension to a narrative that more than anything else celebrates father’s achievement (rather than, for example, the boy’s promising potential) – and that even commemorates the father’s name before that of his prematurely deceased son (to whom this memorial belongs).

The first time he gets to speak for himself, the son is imagined to refer to himself as infelicissimus, most ill-omened, the opposite, to an extreme, of the felicem (i. e. ‘well-omened’ ~ ‘lucky’) element in the Roman New Year’s wish annum novum faustum felicem.

One cannot help but feel that this is mostly for a rather vain reason – namely because he was unable fully to enjoy the pleasure that (to his father’s mind) one must derive from having been granted the privilege to see one’s father as a provincial magistrate.

The second time, the son is made to recapitulate the story of his illness and his premature demise, describing himself as a cause of grief and mourning for his mother most of all. It is not until it comes to the mention of his creation of a funerary monument for his son that the father speaks of his own mourning – and he is in mourning over ‘these matters’ (haec maerens) rather than over his son.

In fact, even at the point of death of his son, Gaius Caelius Donatus did not manage to put his (now tainted) achievement into perspective. Much rather, his poem utilises the deceased boy and introduces him as someone who regrets having been denied the privilege to behold the father in his political role for more than a day.

When Caelius Donatus was wished a ‘prosperous, well-omened new year’, annum novum faustum felicem, he undoubtedly (on the basis of the above inscription) saw faustitas and felicitas in material wealth, political influence, and societal standing: a common notion, well expressed in the iconography of many New Year’s trinkets, including the clay lamp (above) with its depiction of ears of grain and coins.

A stark contrast to the use of faustus and felix in Terence‘s exclamation o faustum et felicem diem, ‘oh prosperous, well-omened day!’ at Andria 956, clearly resembling the Roman New Year’s wish at the very moment when after extended family stresses harmony gets restored and new, more peaceful beginnings are finally within reach.

Through the death of his son, the infelicissimus Caelius Sedatus, Caelius Donatus had to learn the hard way: true prosperity and true good fortune do not depend on one’s professional achievements alone, and our successes are worth but little if we cannot share them with those we love and those whose opinion matters to us.

Annum novum faustum felicem vobis  – a prosperous, well-omened new year to you, not just as professionals!

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

A Medieval Cycle of Poems for Santa Claus

St Nicholas. 10th Century icon. – Image source: https://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/sinai_10c.jpg.

St Nicholas (10th Century icon). – Image source: http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/sinai_10c.jpg.

In my search for something unusual and exciting for my readership to enjoy in the second half of December, I came across a most remarkable cycle of poems celebrating St. Nicholas of Myra, now more commonly known and worshipped in the Anglophone world and beyond as Santa Claus.

Transmitted in the Ms. Cotton Tiberius B. V, the poems would appear to date to the 10th-12th centuries (or perhaps, in some of their substance, even earlier).

Amounting to some 350 lines in total, the poems do not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention – or, in fact, ever been translated into English (or any other language, for that matter).

Without any desire to proselytise, or to upset anyone through the provision of a document and a frame of mind that is representative of a long bygone era, I herewith publish what I believe to be the first ever complete translation of this composition.

The Latin version is provided in the form of scans taken from Thomas Wright – James Orchard Halliwell’s Reliquiae Antiquae. Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, Illustrating Chiefly Early English Literature and the English Language (London 1841, vol. I, 199 ff.). It will allow the attentive reader to discover the intricacies of this peculiar composition even further, noting, for example, the internal rhyme scheme of each line.

Encounter a medieval mode of story-telling, presenting us with an idea of a man readily given to threats and physical violence in his pursuit of good causes and of justice – a man whose actions and whose entire demeanour could not be much further from the grandfatherly, jovial, slightly bumbling, and somewhat grumpy Santa Claus figure of our own time. (That being said, he is, of course, equally creepy in his ability to appear unexpectedly as well as in his profound knowledge of people’s wicked deeds.)

Discover poeticising, glorifying stories, over one-thousand years old, of miraculous and fantastic interventions, of faith and spiritual encounters, of bravery and blackmail, of unfailing support for the poor, the wrongly accused, and the persecuted, and, most of all, of the fundamental belief that justice must prevail.

Be amazed at the truly bewildering justification provided for the violation and destruction of Saint Nicholas’ tomb and the pilfering of the his remains.

But, most of all, have a happy, peaceful holiday, everyone!


In the province of Lycia, there lived a Christian,
After the demise of the most holy bishop Nicholas;
He had fallen back to poverty from his many riches,
And pressed by his poverty, he approached a Jew,
Asking if he would lend him, poor man, some money,
So that he might acquire a livelihood without shame.
The Jew gives the Christian the following response, placidly,
‘Whatever you ask from me, you may have in an instant;
If you wish to obtain money, provide a guarantor,
Or a surety of the kind that matches the value of the debt.’


‘I do not have anyone close to me’, says he, ‘who would concern themselves with me,
But I promise on the altar of the bishop, in lieu of an actual deposit,
That, should I be ungrateful and not return your property,
he, who appears to everyone, may seek revenge against me.’
The Jew says to the trickster: ‘I will not reject Nicholas,
For in his presence there is no hidden fallacy.’
And thus the cunning Catholic receives the money,
Who then within only a very short amount of time became tremendously rich.
Eventually, the lender reminds the borrower
Not to delay any further his paying back of what he had received.
To this he responds, ‘What I had, I have long given back,
You have it, and now you ask back as if you had not received anything.’
The Jew was appalled and, in utter disbelief he groaned,
Invoking Nicholas, lest he let him get away without punishment:
“If you took an oath over the altar of a bishop,
whatever I’m compelled to exact (from you) I am happy to do without.’
The Christian considers how he might deceive him:
He hides the gold he owes in a hollow staff.
He then hands this staff with the gold to the Jew, unsuspecting such fraud,
To carry it, and thus to be misled, as he misleads.
Relying on such trickery, he is positive not to commit perjury,
So he appears to be innocent and to say the truth.
With no regard to the good deed he received, he swears that he had handed back the gold;
He rejoices as though he had won, and he wishes to go home.
But as he reaches a crossroads, he is overcome by great tiredness,
So that he could not proceed any further, so that he had to lie down right there.
Along the same way people led a carriage,
They shout, ask him to move, lest he died in his sleep.
But he, in his guilt, lies there, immobile, like a rock,
until the spinning wheel with its wood tears apart his stomach.
Then became clear the deceit that had been hiding in wood,
And the sudden death of the fool matches his perjury.
Rumour flies out, reaching the Jew’s ears,
Announcing what had happened, regarding that horrendous death.
‘Oh Nicholas, pride of bishops and everyone’s honour,
I have long understood that you are the Lord’s servant;
Your eminent goodness and strong sense of justice,
Urged me to relinquish my Jewish superstition.
Henceforth, I shall now be a Christian, thanks to your merits,
So that I may enjoy, together with you, the joys of eternal life;
This I ask you: that him who made the transition from this world
You restore to life, lest he rots in hell.’
Nicholas, the admirable, becomes open to persuasion by such a cause,
He brings the dead man back to life, so that may soon return the money.
May the whole world hear this and love Nicholas,
Who, holding on to the right rule, loves no fallacy.


A father of a family, in possession of many riches,
Used to travel to the threshold of his church –
In this church lies the body of a most holy bishop –
And to pay his debt in annual contributions.
He promised to make a precious little vessel,
In honour of the most holy bishop Nicholas.
Finally, he seeks out a goldsmith, versed in such work,
Who knows how to produce fine sculptures, to insert gemstones into gold,
To create a blend of jasper and Arabian gold:
There is hardly a work of its like from the time of Solomon!
A golden vessel was created, a match for any king,
With stones surrounding it, an amazing creation.
But the beauty of the vessel entices the eyes of the giver,
Dragging him towards greed, through the demon’s envy.
What he had vowed of his own volition he does not hesitate to withhold,
He maintains ownership, redesignating it for his own personal use.
Again he seeks out the goldsmith, whom he gives gold
And orders to recreate a vessel that is similar to the previous one.
He hands it over, the man receives it, pressing on with the work he begun
He does not cease to work, and yet he achieves nothing.
The tools are failing, nature spoils the refined gold,
Like highly fragile glass the gemstones fall off the work,
And as the master understands that his own craftsmanship is powerless,
He collects everything and returns the gold and the gemstones.
As it is nearly the time of the annual feast for Nicholas,
The knight plans to sail with everyone else,
With his wife and his son, he takes as many slaves as possible,
So that they pay him the necessary respect.
But as he gets on the open sea, the father orders the son
To take the aforementioned vessel and give him a drink.
The boy, rushing as quickly as he can, readily takes the goblet,
Which he desired to cool down a bit, before mixing wine in it.
As it moistens in the water, it slips from his hands,
But as he desires to retrieve it, he too slips into the sea.
The father shouts for the boy, shedding tears over his face,
‘I alone am to blame for the young man’s demise!
I beseech you, Nicholas, have mercy with me, wretched,
and don’t pay back in equal measure for the huge crime, as I would deserve.
When I lied to you, I was not pressed by any hardship,
Nor was there any necessity or barrenness upon me.’
As the pitiful knight reaches the land,
He returns to the well-known threshold of bishop Nicholas.
There is no such eloquence that could tell,
Just how much he blamed himself, or how bitterly he cried.
Finally, after many a tear, he offers the unwelcome gifts,


Which the goldsmith had returned and which were never to please the Saint.
But the glorious bishop, offended by such a gift,
Soon pushed off his altar whatever the knight had placed on it.
Then the matter became exceedingly clear, why the boy had died,
Who could not hold on to the goblet that the father had vowed.
And while the people celebrate the holiday in sacred ceremonies,
And the father of the family mourns his misfortune,
Behold!, In comes the boy, carrying the goblet in his hands,
Quickly bringing the hearts of the onlookers to rejoice.
The father comes running, breathless, flinging his arms around the son’s neck,
Besides himself with joy, he barely manages to speak to the boy.
Finally, after deserved kisses, the father asks his son,
How he had been, since he had fallen into the waves.
He says: ‘When I fell, I saw an old man,
In the venerable appearance of angelic graciousness,
Whom his most pious mother held in her arms.
He gave me the goblet and said: Fear not!
How he led me out of such mighty danger,
I do not know. I am still astonished in my amazement.
The one thing I do remember, however, when I had escaped the sea,
There was a guide who showed me the way to this church.
Immediately he then takes the goblet from the hand of his son,
And offers it, glad in his heart, with all the people watching.
To everyone faring the sea Nicholas is well known,
And the gifts that have been promised to him in vows are presented deservedly.

When the Vandals’ army, from Africa
Coming to Calabrian lands to maraud,
loots men and lifestock alive, moving across the entire country,
And everyone snatches the best things he is capable to snatch,
One of them discovers an image of Saint Nicholas,
Which he hides in his fold, lest his companions see it,
And, as it was beautifully and decently crafted,
He looks at it frequently, wondering whose it was.
Looking at the amazing image of this Christian man,
They tell him that this is a most famous icon of Nicholas.
If he, whoever owns it, believed in God,
He could rest assured that everything would turn out well for him.
The man we are talking about was a publican,
With an abundance of wealth, but not yet a Catholic;
As he sat down in his own home, having returned,
He put his clothes and whatever else he had on display.
High up on the wall Nicholas was hung,


And he ordered him to safeguard everything with diligence;
He gives his orders to the image just like one would to a living being;
Hence he tends to other business, with peace of mind.
During the night, thieves come, who steal everything,
Taking all the fixings, except for that very image.
As the man returns first thing in the morning and, distraught, could not find the things
That he had left behind, he grabs the image
Saying: ‘Nicholas, your protection I have experienced in a bad way,
Because I have deemed you trustworthy, I have lost everything.
I make the gods my witnesses and all those idols that I worship,
If you do not restore my property, you will be subjected to the fire.’
Saying such things, he thrashes the statue savagely from every side,
And as though it could feel it, it sustained wounds.
After he had inflicted punishment, which it took without so much as a whisper,
He places it on the wall, hanging it where it had been before.
Hence Saint Nicholas, around the evening, calling to mind
What ignomy his statue had to suffer,
Rushes to the lodgings where the bandits met
To distribute among themselves the loot that they had accumulated.
‘You rogues,’ said he ‘what is it that you are dividing up here?
For your thefts I have sustained these injuries;
What I see here is not of your inheritance,
For these objects were left in my custody.
Lest you be in danger, through my reporting you,
And I make you publicly known to everyone, return this posthaste.’
Thus he spoke and disappeared; the bandits were terrified.
Soon they restore everything, lest they be in danger.
In the morning, as the publican got out of his bed,
He revisits the place where he had lost his possessions.
But when he enters the room, finding what was his –
No one can describe how cheerful he became!
He dances full of joy, renouncing all idols;
He becomes Christian, which is the most salubrious thing there is.
For the saint, through whose merit this miracle had happened,
He built a church, beautifully constructed.
Ever since that time, the people of Africa worshipped
Nicholas, more than any other province, with wondrous love.
There is not a Christian region in this world
Where there are not any churches dedicated to his name;
His name thus conquers all land and sea;
Let his intervention deliver us from crime.

May the orders of heaven rejoice, earth be happy alike and join the cheer,
For the most pious memory of Saint Nicholas,
Who at a tender age, when he still clung to his mother’s breast,


Gave a memorable example of self-restraint.
When he had been breast-fed on the fourth Friday,
Having received milk from the breast once, he refused to touch it again.
After the death of his father, he as the son had remained the sole heir,
Who put his inheritance to good use for the poor.
To him came a neighbour, who had three daughters,
Whom he offered for fornication, though he had been a noble.
Such lack of bread had pushed the poor man,
That he, once poor, wanted to live in such disgrace.
But tempered with the spirit of charity, Nicholas, a young man still,
Put an end to a sin whose number resembled that of the trinity.
Not yet made a bishop, he gave the young girls money,
He dispelled the father’s infamy and the daughters’ ignomy.
With such benefactions of a great character the young man
Had divinely deserved to become a powerful bishop.
Since then he appears to sailors who are shipwrecked in adverse wind
And call on him, as they speak to him:
‘Nicholas, if it is true what many say about you,
Help us quickly, lest we drown in these floods.’
He has appeared to those who shout in fear of such a threat,
He shows himself to those who invoke him, calls himself Nicholas,
And after the sea has crashed onto the masts and the ropes
And the rigging, he calms the heaving sea.
The ship-masters of Alexandria were thoroughly astounded
When they saw the copious abundance of grain.
Rationing it, they return the entire load in measure,
Despite what Nicholas had kept, as he had requested (of them).
As he reveals it, the terrible deceit is laid bare,
Which Diana had sent as a treacherous gift.
As they carry away and throw into the sea this superstition,
It heats up like a furnace and burns whatever it reaches.
Three innocent young men were doomed to be killed,
Whom he set free, unbound by powerful might.
Not much later, Constantine held others captive;
But I shall explain how it happened that he snatched them away from death.
An arrogant family from Phrygia denied the ruler what was due,
In response to which he, deservedly, ordered to press on to restrain them.
But when his men return as desired, having overcome the enemy by force,
Certain people, due to their envy, made up a lie;
They falsely claimed that their partners, Arpileon and the others,
Desired to be rulers, having stolen Caesar’s reign.
The governor was headed such malice, corrupted by a bribe,
And as a result of their fraudulent acts the men were thrown into jail.
After that, the ruler ordered the governor to have the innocent men killed,
Lest anyone else commits such an act in similar arrogance.
The jail’s guard became aware of the fraud;


At night, they accomplish everything the way the judge had ordered;
Having heard of the deadly plan, the guard comes to those just men, locked up in prison,
But he cannot hide it from them, as tears are running down his cheeks.
As they see the guard, more pale than usual,
they ask him, astonished, if he had heard news about them.
‘Silent’, he said, ‘young men, you are altogether done for,
For the end of your lives is fast approaching.
A judge gave a cunning verdict about your death,
Rushing to have you executed before the day will break;
For laments and tears will not be able to save you,
Highest virtue will come to your support this night.’
Who would be able to express just how immense the sadness was
That dwells deep down in their hearts.
But as no mortal can bring help
And there is no hiding place to escape the danger,
Back to their mind came that, when they had travelled across the sea,
They had seen Nicholas, to whom they had entrusted themselves.
That is why they ask him more than all others in their prayers
That he who sets free others, may not forget his own servants.
In the same hour, hastening, minding his servants, the bringer of help
asks Constantine whether he was asleep or awake;
As he asks ‘Who are you, who thus came to me?’,
The saint responds: ‘I am Nicholas, the bishop of Lycia,
I came here out of compassion, lest your soldiers die
Whom I advise you not to touch, lest you wish to die this instant;
Know that a king mightier than you will raise war against you,
Whose strong victory you will not be able to resist;
If you choose to go to battle, and you will take him on,
You will be overpowered and die for the fact that you are a non-believer.
Having terrified the ruler, he rushes there quicker than the wind itself,
And terrifies even more those who had made the accusations against the men.
‘Impious, bandit, traitor, deserving of a wretched demise,
You will be punished for your greed.
You will be eaten by the worms, like a filthy dog,
Everyone will give your festering body a wide berth.
But I will mercifully show lenience in the face of your crimes under the following
condition: if you come clear, with regret, about what you wickedly have done.
Having heard this, the governor is shaken off his bed,
Fearful through the night he comes to the imperial palace.
Before the governor arrived, the emperor had got up,
And furiously he hurled many a threat towards him.
He in turn attempted to appease the ruler with words of peace,
Apologising himself for the crime, ordering for the captives to be brought in.
They were immediately handed over to the ruler, fearfully they expected their demise,
They sigh, they sweat of fear, they have no hope for their lives.
The ruler asks the soldiers, ‘Where is that man, Nicholas,


Who, for better or worse, for his clemence, sets you free?’
To the sound of the well-known name of the bishop, they shout, shedding tears,
Raising their hands to the star, praising God’s glorious works,
Answering that in Lycia there is that city of the Myrians
In which the bishop lives, whom God gives glory,
Of whose prudence and brave patience
We have never seen another man, a man so good and yet so humble.
More than any other virtue, whose number in him is unrestricted,
Charity glows in him, which is the biggest one of them all;
We did entrust us to his prayers,
When we were on naval warfare against the barbarians;
There we were faithful to you,
For we conquered many an enemy with only a small number of soldiers.
The rebels that existed, and they could barely act as such,
We rendered your subjects – and tamer than lambs.
For such services we were sentenced to death,
Unless God sets us free through the merits of Nicholas.’
Who could have a chest so iron-hard, a heart so hard as stone,
That piety would not soften, for the sake of humanity?
Those who stood there in attendance could not contain themselves,
The soldiers’ eloquence elicited the tears of many.
Then finally the appeased ruler orders for the young men to be dressed properly,
Restoring the friendship they originally had.
Then he says, ‘Bring many a gift from me
To the saint bishop, about whom you have talked so much.
From his words I have learnt that you were not perfidious,
But in his testimony faithful in your service.
Nicholas, the bishop, indeed is most close to God,
Through whom we experience such miracles in our world.
That you live and understand, that you have been set free,
All that achieved his goodness and his mercy.
Bring him gifts, cloth and candles,
Which to receive he shall not reject in my memory.
I and my sons will be his servants,
For whom he may pray to God; may he no longer haunt me.’
Thus they quickly rush to board their vessels quickly with the present,
They bestow countless gifts upon Nicholas in Lycia.
On land and sea we know that Nicholas in particular
Quickly comes to the rescue of everyone who invokes him.
While we are in this world, let us ask from our Lord
That we may be mentioned in the heavenly prayers of this saint.

N9Let us praise God by whose providence
Nicholas becomes even closer to us than he was to begin with.
Whence the people of Greece and their Asian neighbours mourn him,
Myra in particular, now lacking this outstanding friend:
Their insulting him resulted in the fact that nowhere near to them
There is now a patron of such grace, of such excellence.
He was a lover of peace, while he flourished in this world,
After his demise he forever loves peaceful people,
He flees the Turks and the Pechenegs, wretched people indeed,
Who do not bestow what is due onto the creator of the universe.
The city of Bari, much beloved by God, well deserved
With great joy to receive Nicholas  and to provide a resting place.
The Baresi and Venetians with their most powerful ships
Often cross the seas for the purpose of trade.
Just in our times they reached, with ships full of grain,
Antioch, further away still than the province of Myra.
After they had sold their grain there, following divine admonition,
They were exposed to the plan, at God’s behest,
To break open, upon their return, the saint’s marble tomb,
With iron tools, prepared for this task.
By the Lord’s will and with the bishop’s help
They entered the church and carried out what they had been told.
There were four guards in the atrium
Who, in their usual custom, soak up the holy water with their brushes;
They are in the belief that these people wanted to bring the usual offerings,
So they do not hesitate to show whatever they desired to see.
Then one of the Baresi, daring and physically strong,
Brings an iron hammer, with which he smashes the tomb,
Under whose blow the inscription is demolished into many pieces.
Forth bursts an enticing fragrance
As though they were removed into the Lord’s paradise:
They had little hope of finding glory greater still afterwards.
From here they carry away the treasure, exceeding everything in value,
Push their vessels onto the sea, set sails into the wind immediately,
A prosperous journey brings home those cheerful fellows,
Who deliver the body of the venerable bishop.
A timid seaman was admonished in his dream;
To him he said: ‘Fear not to navigate strenuously,
The twentieth day will bring an end to your journey,
And meanwhile there will not be any trouble ahead on the sea.’
As it was announced, thus it happened, the saint disembarks by the riverbank,
And all Apulia, rejoicing, comes running to encounter him.
The sheer mass of miracles worked through his merits
Sets people across the globe in motion voluntarily.


Rich and poor, they come running, to see the place
Where the limping are healed when touched by a drop of oil.
Earls and bishops, abbots and priests,
And all humankind, they come to the saint’s tomb.
Summer, winter, and the sea – they do not stall the journey
Of the pilgrims that come to him.
Graceful worship of the remaining faithful ensues
In Christ, who made him his servant and companion.
We beseech you, Nicholas, as we cannot go ourselves,
That we may be part of all the good people who go. (Amen)

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Let us remember that this has happened

After the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A. D., most of the Iberian peninsula eventually became part of the Visigothic Kingdom. A successor state to the (Western) Roman Empire, the Visigoths had gained control over Rome’s Iberian provinces as well as over parts of southern Gaul, and their influence was to be felt for some 300 years, from the early fifth to the early eighth century A. D.

While the Visigoths managed to control most of the territory of the Iberian peninsula, there were certain areas that remained notoriously contentious, controlled by independent Iberian tribes – areas in which armed conflict, campaigns, and skirmishes lingered for sustained periods of time.

Testimony to this period and its conflicts in this area is a Latin verse inscription, dating to the seventh century A. D., which was discovered in the vicinity of Córdoba/Corduba, in the province of Baetica, and which commemorates one Visigothic nobleman named Oppilanus.

Oppilanus’ inscription reads as follows (CIL II ed. alt./7.714 = CLE 721; for a drawing of the inscription, which does not appear to have survived, follow this link; further on this text cf. also here [in Spanish]):

Haec cava saxa Oppilani
continet menbra (!),
clarum in ortum natalium,
gestu abituq(ue) conspicuum.
opib(u)s qu(i)ppe pollens et ar-
tuum virib(u)s cluens
iacula vehi pr(a)ecipitur pr(a)edoq(ue)
Bacceis destinatur.
in procinctum (!) belli necatur
opitulatione sodalium desolatus.
naviter cede perculsum
cli(e)ntes rapiunt perem(p)tum,
exanimis dom{i}u(m) reducitur
suis a vernulis humatur.
lugit (!) coniux cum liberis,
fletib(u)s familia pr(a)estrepit.
decies ut ternos ad quater
quaternos vixit per annos,
pridie Septembium (!) Idus
morte a Vasconibus multat(u)s
(a)era sescentensima et octagensima.
id gestum memento.
sepultus sub d(ie) quiescit
VI Id(us) Octubres (!).

This hollow stone contains the limbs of Oppilanus, of noble birth and notable bearing and composure. Mighty in his strength and renowned for the strength of his limbs, he gets taught to throw javelins and prepared to become a marauder in the country of the Baccei.

Prepared for war, he gets killed, deprived of his fellows’ help. Severely beaten up in an ambush, loyal helpers carry him away as he is wounded. Lifeless, he is taken back home and buried by his servants. His wife mourns him, together with his children, his family resounds with fits of weeping.

When he was forty-six years old, he was mortally wounded by the Vascones on the 12th of September in the 680th era [i. e. A. D. 642].

Let us remember that this has happened.

Here he rests, the date of his burial was the 10th of October.

Oppilanus, according to his epitaph, was trained to operate as a (presumably militarily otherwise unaligned?) Visigoth marauder (praedo) in the territory of the Vascones – a term that is at least etymologically related to the ethnic and geographical term ‘Basque’, though not (necessarily) straightforwardly synonymous to the Basque people and their territory of our age.

Fully prepared to go to war, he soon fell victim to a skirmish, in which he was mortally wounded. Despite his loyal servants’ best efforts, his life could not be saved: lugit (!) coniux cum liberis, | fletib(u)s familia pr(a)estrepit – ‘his wife mourns him, together with his children, his family resounds with fits of weeping’.

Oppilanus, according to his epitaph, was a highly trained combatant – he was ready to fight as a praedo, ready to ambush and kill the enemy. His inscription takes great pride in this, praising both his manly physique and his fighting skills, which proved to be of no use to him after all, for things turned out the other way: it was Oppilanus himself who fell victim of a skirmish, and thus his family was devastated.

Did Oppilanus himself, did his wife, his children, his familia ever spare a single thought for the families of those whom Oppilanus had set out to fight?

We cannot know.

What we do know, from the inscription, is what his relatives wanted to remember.

Of course, they wanted to remember Oppilanus, their husband and relative, and they wanted to remember him as a noble fighter.

But his end was not noble.

It was brutal and horrendous, and even his friends could not prevent Oppilanus’ dire fate – his getting ambushed by those whom he himself had set out to attack. All that there was left for his loyal helpers to do was to pick up Oppilanus’ mutilated, lifeless body, to carry it all the way back home (from close to the peninsula’s north to Córdoba in the south), and to see to its getting buried.

It is the aspect of failure, suffering, and death at the hand of the enemy that this inscription places at its very centre: it is this aspect that constitutes, quite literally, its core message.

And this core message gets reinforced subsequently.

The key phrase, to my mind, is id gestum memento, ‘let us remember that this has happened’, referring to the entire unfortunate string of events and how it had turned out for Oppilanus and his family.

‘Lest we forget’ is a phrase in common use nowadays in the context of our commemoration of those who died in armed conflict; we use it in conjunction with ‘we will remember them’.

Id gestum memento, ‘let us remember that this has happened’, goes substantially beyond that, reminding us not only of the people, but of what happens when armed conflict seems like the noble and the right thing to do.

Id gestum memento, ‘let us remember that this has happened’, is a much better way of putting it, linking the events (and their motives) to those who took part in it.

Let us remember that this has happened, and that the inevitable outcome has been, and will always be, that –

lugit (!) coniux cum liberis,
fletib(u)s familia pr(a)estrepit.

His wife mourns him, together with his children, his family resounds with fits of weeping.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

End Violence against Women!

November 25th has been declared the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

My colleagues at the EAGLE Europeana project have decided to mark the occasion with a reference to the funerary inscription of Prima Florentia, who died when her husband tossed her into the Tiber (AE 1987.177k).

I, too, would like to support this cause on my blog.

I therefore choose the following text from Lyon (CIL XIII 2182 = ILS 8512 = AE 2011.758):

D(is) M(anibus)
et quieti aeternae
Iuliae Maianae femi-
nae sanctissimae manu
mariti crudelissim(i) inter-
fect(ae), quae ante obi(i)t quam fatum
dedit. cum quo vix(it) ann(os) XXVIII ex
quo liber(os) procreav(it) duos puerum
ann(orum) XVIIII puellam annor(um) XVIII.
o fides, o pietas! Iul(ius) Maior fra-
ter sorori dulciss(imae) et [Ing]enuinius
Ianuarius fil(ius) eius p(onendum) [c(uraverunt) et su]b a(scia) d(edicaverunt).

To the Spirits of the Departed and the eternal rest of Julia Maiana, a most saintly woman, who was killed at the hand of her most cruel husband.

She died before the time that fate had decreed. She lived with him for 28 years, and by him gave birth to two children, a boy aged 19 and a girl aged 18.

What an expression of faithfulness, what an expression of dutifulness!

Julius Maior, her brother,  took care of the erection of this memorial for his sweetest sister, as did Ingenuinius Ianuarius, her son, and they dedicated it (while it was still) under the adze.

Posted in Prose | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Baby, It’s Cold Outside: Frosty Notes from Roman Britain

Last week I gave a research seminar paper at Reading about Britain’s most ancient poetry, the evidence for which I published on this blog a few months back in a freely available and downloadable e-publication called Undying Voices.

One of the inscriptions in this collection which has long fired my imagination is a fragmentary piece from Habitancum/Risingham in Northumberland, situated a few miles north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Its find context makes this piece Britain’s – and in fact Ancient Rome’s – northernmost (half-)surviving poem of the Roman period, and its content certainly lives up to any expectations that may come with that.

The inscription – engraved on a funerary altar that was subsequently cut in half lengthways, with only its right half surviving – reads as follows (CIL VII 1020 cf. p. 312 = RIB 1253 = Undying Voices no. 20):

[- – – Flam]inii ++nsae
[- – -]ae dominar-
[- – – se]mper geli-
[dis – – -]te pruinis
[- – -]++ qui sib[i]
[- – -]++++AS
[- – -]+FICTNI
[- – -]+ue frag-
[- – -]+E tibi pro
[- – -]rce pro
[- – -] Flaminius o-
[- – -]e profund-
[- – – l]ucem uolu-
[it – – -]dere uitae.

. . . of Flaminius . . .nsa
. . . dominate
. . . always in cold
. . . frost
. . . who himself
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . broken
. . . to you for
. . . (spare?) for
. . . Flaminius . . .
. . . shed
. . . light . . . he wanted
. . . of life.

The poem, or so it would appear from its scarce remnants, referred to frosty conditions twice, once through the adjective gelidus (line 3–4), and then again by means of the noun pruina (line 4).

Frosty temperatures at Vindolanda in winter 2014. – Image source: https://twitter.com/vindolandatrust/status/540147824747622400.

Frosty temperatures at Vindolanda in winter 2014. – Image source: http://twitter.com/vindolandatrust/status/540147824747622400.

The presence of pruina (‘frost’) makes it exceptionally unlikely that the poet was talking about anything else than actual climate conditions: it would be rather out of place to use this specific word in the context of the underworld or death or some such, and wherever else it appears  in the Latin inscriptions, pruina always refers to actual places (cf. AE 1991.408; ICERV 349).

Chances are that Flaminius …nsa – a foreigner to Britain and soldier, most likely – complained about the constantly cold (semper!) weather north of Hadrian’s Wall during his life time to such an extent that his concerns even found their way into his commemorative inscription: why else would this matter be mentioned at all!

Or should one go even further and consider that he died of a cold, pneumonia, or hypothermia? Reports of Roman soldiers who froze to death  are certainly attested in the ancient sources, if related to other geographical contexts of the Roman empire – note, for example, Tacitus’ famous description of the hardship endured by Roman soldiers under Corbulo‘s command (Tac. Ann. 13.35):

retentusque omnis exercitus sub pellibus, quamvis hieme saeva adeo, ut obducta glacie nisi effossa humus tentoriis locum non praeberet. ambusti multorum artus vi frigoris, et quidam inter excubias exanimati sunt. adnotatusque miles, qui fascem lignorum gestabat, ita praeriguisse manus, ut oneri adhaerentes truncis brachiis deciderent.

The entire army was kept under canvas,notwithstanding a winter of such severity that the ice-covered ground had to be dug up before it would receive tents. As a result of the bitter cold, many of the men had frost-bitten limbs, and a few died on sentinel-duty. The case was observed of a soldier, carrying a bundle of firewood, whose hands had frozen till they adhered to his load and dropped off from the stumps.

Since I gave my paper (though presumably unrelated to it), a wave of winterly frost has hit Britain: in fact, some regions have already experienced this winter’s first snow, and this made me wonder: to what extent was cold weather, in fact, an issue Roman sources addressed – if potentially in rather less poetic ways than the Habitancum tombstone, above?

Remarkably, Tacitus, in his treatise Agricola, does not appear to see much of a problem with frost in Britain at all when he writes that (Tac. Agr. 12.3–4; translation from here) –

Caelum crebris imbribus ac nebulis foedum; asperitas frigorum abest. Dierum spatia ultra nostri orbis mensuram; nox clara et extrema Britanniae parte brevis, ut finem atque initium lucis exiguo discrimine internoscas. Quod si nubes non officiant, aspici per noctem solis fulgorem, nec occidere et exurgere, sed transire adfirmant. Scilicet extrema et plana terrarum humili umbra non erigunt tenebras, infraque caelum et sidera nox cadit.

The sky in this country is deformed by clouds and frequent rains; but the cold is never extremely rigorous. The length of the days greatly exceeds that in our part of the world. The nights are bright, and, at the extremity of the island, so short, that the close and return of day is scarcely distinguished by a perceptible interval.  It is even asserted that, when clouds do not intervene, the splendor of the sun is visible during the whole night, and that it does not appear to rise and set, but to move across. The cause of this is, that the extreme and flat parts of the earth, casting a low shadow, do not throw up the darkness, and so night falls beneath the sky and the stars.

A child's sock from Vindolanda. – Image source: https://twitter.com/vindolandatrust/status/537590855037878273.

A child’s sock from Vindolanda. – Image source: http://twitter.com/vindolandatrust/status/537590855037878273.

Even though Tacitus clearly refers to the northernmost regions of Britain in particular in this description, he suggests that temperatures never really drop to excessive levels of cold – an observation that Flaminius …nsa may have disagreed with rather fervently.

At Vindolanda, situated a mere 20 miles southwest of Habitancum, a more realistic view on matters appears to have prevailed as well.

There are two pieces in particular that are of interest in this context, illustrating aspects of the immediate impact (and the potential level of disruption) caused by adverse weather conditions at Rome’s northernmost frontier.

First, in a letter written by Octavius (an entrepreneur) to one Candidus, Octavius proves reluctant to get traveling during adverse road (and thus presumably: weather) conditions, mindful of the hazards that this would pose to his draught animals (Tab. Vindol. 343.19–21):

. . . iam illec petissem
nissi iumenta non curaui uexsare
dum uiae male sunt

I would have already been to collect them except that I did not wish to be cruel to (or: injure) the draught animals while the roads are bad.

The letter does not contain a calendar date for us to establish a clearer understanding of the specific circumstances.

This is different in the second case, a (fragmentary) draft letter of Flavius Cerialis’ (i. e. the prefect of the ninth cohort of Batavians at Vindolanda), in which he speaks of his efforts of winterproofing the outfit (Tab. Vindol. 234):

column I:

Flauius Cerialis Septembri
suo salutem
quod uis domine cras
id est iii Nonas Oc[t]ó-
bres merc.. pa..[

. . . . . . . . .

column II:

qui feramus tem
pestates [[et hiem]] etiam si
molestae sint

Flavius Cerialis to his September, greetings. Tomorrow, which is 5 October, as you wish my lord, I will provide some goods (?) … by means of which (?) we may endure the storms even if they are troublesome.

Several scholars have argued that the correction of et hiem (crossed out by the scribe) to etiam (written above the original writing) was a scribal mistake due to an original mishearing of a dictated text.

This is extremely unlikely, however: not only is there a significant discrepancy between et hiem(em?) and etiam in terms of the vowels (and, to a lesser degree, the presence/absence of aspiration in hiem… vs. et-iam), but also an altogether different spread of word accents (èt híemem vs. étiam).

A significantly more plausible scenario is that the author of these lines, Cerialis, reconsidered his original version as he went along and made a correction along the lines that now survive.

Roman heating arrangements at Housesteads Roman Fort. – Image source: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/04/63/70/eb/housesteads-fort-and.jpg.

Roman heating arrangements at Housesteads Roman Fort. – Image source: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/04/63/70/eb/housesteads-fort-and.jpg.

At Vindolanda, average temperatures in October range from 4.5–11ºC, a significant drop vis-à-vis the conditions in September these days (and clearly marking the approach of much lower winter temperatures), and chances are that this was not fundamentally different during the Roman period. In other words, in early October winter, with its storms, increased precipitation, and lack of sunshine, will have been very much on the prefect’s mind, and it is too easy to blame the evidence for a correction of et hiem on a mishearing scribe.

The point of Cerialis’ letter, however fragmentary in context, is clear: time to prepare for the inclemencies of weather during the winter months (tempestates), so that they may become bearable (qui feramus) even if unfavourable (etiam si molestae sint). This ties in, of course, with other letters discussing items of clothing and such (as well as archaeological evidence for soldiers’ clothing, heating arrangements, etc.).

With winter fast approaching in Britain, it is time to consider – as every year – what we may be able do to help those who still, quite literally, feel the chill: rough sleepers, the elderly and vulnerable, and – sadly – the ever-increasing numbers of refugees seeking shelter:

qui feramus tempestates [[et hiem]] etiam si molestae sint

so they may endure the (sc. winterly) storms even if they are troublesome.

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