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:

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.

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

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:$CIL_08_11300b_2.jpg

Monument of the Flavii at Kasserine. – Image Source:$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:$CIL_06_12059_1.jpg;$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.

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

Every Dog Has His Day

I am a hypocrite. I enjoy eating meat, even though I know about the way it is ‘produced’ (a sterile, technical term, to disguise the suffering and killing of animals, which have been bred under horrendous conditions, drugged, and tortured before they end up on my plate), even though I know about the disastrous impact that our current irresponsible level of meat consumption has on the environment, climate, and world hunger.

I am a hypocrite. I show few signs of distress over the living and dying conditions of animals that are bred for consumption in my own culture. I treat them as if they are no living beings, but things, man-made, without a soul, without a life that is worth preserving. But woe betide anyone who mistreats cute, adorable animals – dogs, cats, birds, fluffy woodland creatures…!

I am a hypocrite, and Homer Simpson seems to sum up my frame of mind perfectly in Lisa the Vegetarian: “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. This is lamb, not a lamb.”

Screenshot from 'Lisa the Vegetarian'.

Screenshot from The Simpsons (‘Lisa the Vegetarian’).

In fact, I am a hypocrite to such an extent that I seem to be able to subscribe to a view that certain forms of killing are ‘more humane’ to animals than others, depending on the level of animal suffering that is involved to end a life: at least kill them quick and as painlessly as possible – a bit like George Carlin’s re-written commandmentthou shalt try real hard not to kill anyone.’

These days, I feel agitated by the news about the imminent Yulin Dog Meat Festival (listed under ‘tourism’ on Wikipedia!), which has attracted significant coverage in the media and (perfectly well deserved) outrage in social media, amplified by the involvement of TV celebrities (among others).

I know that what I see is horrible and wrong and must be stopped.

But do I have a right to complain, being such a hypocrite myself? Shouldn’t I put my own house in order first? Would there be a similar outrage, if the cruel execution of animals just went on behind closed doors, like it does for the animals that I eat myself, virtually every day?

I am at a loss, and even turning to the ancient Romans, as I often do, does not give me much joy: they too celebrated the public wounding and killing of animals for spectacle, entertainment, and pleasure.

I derive a little comfort, however, from the fact that, at least sometimes, Romans (like other civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean and elsewhere) celebrated their animals as companions in life and death, from Catullus’ famous sparrow poem to Martial’s slightly lesser known poem for a dog called Issa (Mart. 1.109, translation from here):

Issa is more playful than the sparrow of Catullus. Issa is more pure than the kiss of a dove. Issa is more loving than any maiden. Issa is dearer than Indian gems. The little dog Issa is the pet of Publius. If she complains, you will think she speaks. She feels both the sorrow and the gladness of her master. She lies reclined upon his neck, and sleeps, so that not a respiration is heard from her. And, however pressed, she has never sullied the coverlet with a single spot; but rouses her master with a gentle touch of her foot, and begs to be set down from the bed and relieved. Such modesty resides in this chaste little animal; she knows not the pleasures of love; nor do we find a mate worthy of so tender a damsel. That her last hour may not carry her off wholly, Publius has her limned in a picture, in which you will see an Issa so like, that not even herself is so like herself. In a word, place Issa and the picture side by side, and you will imagine either both real, or both painted.

Not everything is terrible everywhere all the time!

Inscription for Helena (CIL VI 19190) with dog relief. – Image source here.

Inscription for Helena (CIL VI 19190) with dog relief (but probably not for a dog called Helena). – Image source here.

So, in honour of all the dogs that will needlessly suffer and die in Yulin this year so that humans may rejoice, I offer my readers a little ancient Roman dog cemetery (to which one may add Margarita, the lap-dog, about whom I have written before):

  • Tombstone for a dog called Aminnaracus (CIL VI 29895; Rome)
Inscription for Aminnaracus. – Image source here.

Inscription for Aminnaracus. – Image source here.


  • Tombstone for a dog called Heuresis (‘Tracker’) (CIL VI 39093; Rome)
Inscription for Heuresis. – Image source here.

Inscription for Heuresis. – Image source here.


  • Tombstone with a poem for a (female) dog called Aeolis (AE 1994.348; Praeneste/Gallicano nel Lazio)
Inscription for Aeolis. – Image source here.

Inscription for Aeolis. – Image source here.

Aeolidis tumulum festivae
cerne catellae,
quam dolui inmodice
raptam mihi praepete

Behold the tomb of Aeolis, the cheerful little dog, whose loss to fleeting fate pained me beyond measure.

  • Tombstone with a poem for a dog called Fuscus (AE 1994.699; Concordia)

Hac in sede iacet post reddita fata catellus(!),
corpus et eiusdem dulcia mella tegunt.
nomine Fuscus erat, ter senos apstulit annos.
membraque vix poterat iam sua ferre senex.
[- – -]verit [- – -]

In this place lies a little dog after an accomplished life, and sweet honey covers his body [sc. to preserve it?]. His name was Fuscus, and he was eighteen years old. Barely could he move his limbs in his old age . . .

  • Tombstone with a poem for an anonymous dog (CIL IX 5785 = CLE 1174; Ricina/Recina)

Raeda[r]um custos
numquam latravit
inepte. nunc
silet et cineres
vindicat um-
bra suos.

This guard of the coaches never barked unsuitably. Now he is silent and his shade protects his ashes.

  • Tombstone with a poem for a dog called Myia [‘Midge’] (CIL XIII 488 = CLE 1512; Eliumberrum/Ausci/Auch; translation E. Courtney)
Inscription for Myia. – Image source here.

Inscription for Myia. – Image source here.

Quam dulcis fuit ista quam benigna
quae cum viveret in sinu iacebat
somni conscia semper et cubilis
o factum male Myia quod peristi
latrares modo si quis adcubaret
rivalis dominae licentiosa
o factum male Myia quod peristi
altum iam tenet insciam sepulcrum
nec sevire potes nec insilire
nec blandis mihi morsib(us) renides.

How sweet and friendly she was! While she was alive she used to lie in the lap, always sharing sleep and bed. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! You would only bark if some rival took the liberty of lying up against your mistress. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! The depths of the grave now hold you and you know nothing about it. You cannot go wild nor jump on me, and you do not bare your teeth at me with bites that do not hurt.

  • Tombstone with a poem for a dog called Patrice (CIL X 659 = Inscr. It. I 1.228 = CLE 1176; Salernum/Salerno; transl. E. Courtney)

Portavi lacrimis madidus te nostra catella,
quod feci lustris laetior ante tribus.
ergo mihi, Patrice, iam non dabis osculla mille
nec poteris collo grata cubare meo.
tristis marmorea posui te sede merentem
et iunxi semper manib(us) ipse meis,
morib(us) argutis hominem simulare paratam;
perdidimus quales, hei mihi, delicias.
tu dulcis, Patrice, nostras attingere mensas
consueras, gremio poscere blanda cibos,
lambere tu calicem lingua rapiente solebas
quem tibi saepe meae sustinuere manus,
accipere et lassum cauda gaudente frequenter
– – – – – –

Bedewed with tears I have carried you, our little dog, as in happier circumstances I did fifteen years ago. So now, Patrice, you will no longer give me a thousand kisses, nor will you be able to lie affectionately round my neck. You were a good dog, and in sorrow I have placed you in a marble tomb, and I have united you forever to myself when I die. You readily matched a human with your clever ways; alas, what a pet we have lost! You, sweet Patrice, were in the habit of joining us at table and fawningly asking for food in our lap, you were accustomed to lick with your gready tongue the cup which my hands often held for you and regularly to welcome your tired master with wagging tail . . . . . .

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

Departure, Abandonment, and Grief: Latin Poems about Death in Childbirth

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the poem for a Roman lap-dog named Margarita (‘Pearl’), whose splendid inscription I managed to visit in the British museum.

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

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

The text of the inscription – moving, personal, and affectionate – has been on my mind ever since.

Several weeks ago, I revisited the inscription, when I became increasingly intrigued by the poem’s explicit reference to the absence of violence and cruelty from Margarita’s well-protected, carefree life.

There is more to be explored, however.

An aspect that I had not thought through before, but that I was prompted to consider more recently, is related to the poem’s conclusion: a conclusion that I, clearly lacking empathy and delicacy of feeling, did not find all that remarkable at the time:

sed iam fata subii partu iactata sinistro
quam nunc sub parvo marmore terra tegit.

But I have already met my fate, stricken down during ill-omened whelping – me, whom earth now covers under this little marble plaque.

Death – even death under particularly moving circumstances – is such a ubiquitous feature of the Latin verse inscriptions that it, at times, seems to cause a certain numbness in my brain (in addition to its regular numbness, that is).

From an unfeeling academic perspective, there are two things that are clear about a mother’s death in childbirth: first, it was a significantly more common occurrence in the ancient world than it is now in modern societies; secondly, for all its violently traumatic potential, death in childbirth is a prime recurrent motive of story-telling (ancient and modern) – providing a narrative that functions as a feminine counterpart to the theme of paternal abandonment.

From a caring, humane, and plain human perspective, of course, it is hard to think of a scenario in which the long-awaited joys of young parenthood and the sheer horrors of bereavement and helplessness would be intertwined to an even higher degree.

There are several Latin inscriptions that allow a glimpse into this nightmarish scenario.

An inscription from Salona/Solin in Dalmatia, for example, mentions the pains of what turned out to be a deadly, unsuccessful birth after all (CIL III 2267 cf. p. 2260):

D(is) M(anibus). | Candidae coniugi bene me|renti ann(orum) p(lus) m(inus) XXX qu(a)e me|cum vixit ann(os) p(lus) m(inus) VII | qu(a)e est cruciata ut pari|ret diebus IIII et non pe|perit et est ita vita fu|ncta. Iustus conser(vus) p(osuit).

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Candida, my most deserving wife, aged approximately 30 years, who lived with me for approximately 7 years, who was tortured in her attempt to give birth for 4 days and did not give birth and thus died. Iustus, her fellow slave, erected (sc. this memorial).

Equally heartbreaking is the story recorded in a memorial from Sarnum/Sarno, dedicated to a woman named Orestilla by her husband, who also mentions that he does so against what he had promised the gods in case of their not answering his prayers, contra votum (CIL X 1112 = ILCV 4363):

Felix Orestilla qu(a)e | feliciter Crispino Euodio | nupsit puerperio vix | educta infeliciter obiit. | maritus pientiss(imus) ucsori s(uo) | b(ene) m(erenti) fecit | contra votum.

Fortunate Orestilla [rather than Felix Orestilla], who, under good fortune, was married to Crispinus Euodius, died unfortunately, barely emerged from childbirth. Her most dutiful husband had this made for his well deserving wife, even though his prayers were not answered.

A similar story is known for one Aeturnia Zotica from Ankara, which expressly refers to the concept of maternal abandonment (Galatia; CIL III 272 cf. p. 975 = III 6759 = ILS 1914; image available here):

D(is) M(anibus) (sa)c(rum). | Aeturniae Zotic(a)e | Annius Flavianus | dec(urialis) lictor Fufid(i) | Pollionis leg(ati) Gal(atiae) | coniugi b(ene) m(erenti). vixit | ann(is) XV mens(ibus) V | dieb(us) XVIII. quae | partu primo post | diem XVI relicto | filio decessit.

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed. For Aeturnia Zotica: Annius Flavianus, decurialis lictor of Fufidius Pollio, legate of Galatia, for his well deserving wife. She lived 15 years, 5 months, 18 days. She died 15 days after her first childbirth, with the boy left behind.

While adding a sense of pain, tragedy, and helplessness to their account, the texts of these three inscriptions remain relatively factual, down to the level of the (presumably) factual listing of the number of days that were involved when the incidents unfolded.

There are not only prosaic accounts of such experiences, however: poetic forms of expression have also been sought – offering the advantages of refuge and consolation in artifice and a world in which trauma becomes controllable through narrativisation and the incomprehensible becomes fathomable through a supporting framework of familiar imagery.

Only very rarely poeticising approaches remain as short and factual as the following piece from Salaria/Ubeda la Vieja (Hispania citerior; HEp 4.495 = HEp 5.526 =  AE 1991.1076 = AE 1994.1060):

Gemina D(ecimi) Pu-
blici Subici ser(va) an(norum)
XXV h(ic) s(ita) e(st). obi(i)t in
partu. C(aius) Aerariu[s l(ibertus)]
posuit [ci]ppum. pa-
[rca fuer]as. mihi si qu[a]
inferi sapent vi m[e]
abduceres. si me
amasti fac abd[u]-
cas. s(it) t(ibi) t(erra) l(evis).

Gemina, slave of Decimus Publicius Subicius, aged 25, is buried here. She died in childbirth. Gaius Aerarius, freedman, had this cippus erected. You were thrifty. If the gods of the underworld had any reason towards me, you’d take me away by force. If you loved me, have me taken away. May earth rest light on you.

It feels as though Gemina’s thriftiness was depicted in the wording of the text itself (a form of verbal artistry known from other instances as well), allowing little space for mourning.

This, however, is an exception.

The single most remarkable case (to my mind anyway) is a heavily damaged, but plausibly restored inscription from Salona/Solin in Dalmatia, which expresses the trauma and the pain in all its undiluted force (CIL III 9632 cf. p. 2326 = CLE 1438a-b = CLE 2133a = ILCV 2368 add. = ILJug 3.2420):

[Heu, q]uamquam las[si cunctamur]
sca[lpere versus],
utpote qui [maesto funere con]-
[ficimur] idcircoque [omni luctus renovatur in]
audemus tamen haec e[dere cum]
ex iu[- – -]
– – – – – –
[- – – g]e[n]itam.
[huic placidam requiem tri]buat deus omni-
[pote]ns rex [insontique animae s]it bene post obitum.
[multa tulit nimis adversi]s incommoda rebus
[infelix, misero e]st fine perempta quoq(ue)
[quadraginta a]nnos postquam trans-
[egit in aevo].
[fu]nesto gravis heu triste puerperio
nequivit miserum partu depromere fetu(m)
hausta qui nondum luce peremptus abiit,
adque ita tum geminas g[e]mino cum corpore
laetum (!) ferali [transtu]lit hora an[imas].
at nos maerentes coniux natique
carmen cum lacrim[is] hoc tibi [condidimus].

Woe is us! Even though, exhausted, we hesitate to inscribe these verses (for, as we are moved by this sad funeral, our sadness is thus renewed with every stroke [sc. of the hammer/chisel]!), we still dare to make this public, together with our lamentation … [several words missing here] … daughter.

May God, the all-powerful king, grant her peaceful rest, and may he be well-disposed towards her innocent soul after her death.

Ill-fated, she took many inconveniences in an overly harsh world, and she died a wretched death as well, after she had survived forty years in her life. When she was pregnant, woe is us! the sadness!, in calamitous childbirth she was unable to bring forth, through giving birth, the wretched offspring, who left, dead, before he even managed to see the light, and thus a rushed death in a funereal hour took double souls with a doubled body.

But we, the husband and the children and the son-in-law, give you this poem in mourning, together with our tears.

Embedded in opening and closing lines that refer to the artifice of an inscribed poem, likening the forceful process of stone-carving to inflicting pain on oneself, and divided by a central invocation of God the Almighty, the poem reflects on the daughter’s life (fragmented) and the special circumstances of her death.

The deceased’s suffering throughout her lifetime culminates in an extraordinary death by childbirth. The delivery (puerperium) is described as funestum – hinting death and burial, a grotesque, outrageous oxymoron in conjunction with the process of birth. A similar antithesis is contained in the notion that the offspring died before he even got to see the light of day.

A particular verbal gem is to be seen in the expression geminas g[e]mino cum corporeanimas, two souls and two bodies were snatched away, but while the two souls are clearly separate (in the plural), the body is still perceived as one (in the singular), and thus described as doubled.

A similar idea is expressed in a poem from Tusculum, dating to the first century A. D., driving the idea a little further still (CIL XIV 2737 = CLE 1297):

Rhanidi Sulpiciae l(ibertae)
nata brevi spatio, partu subiecta nec ante
testatur busto tristia fata Rhan<i>s.
namque bis octonos nondum compleverat annos
et rapta est vitae, rapta puerperio.
p<ar>entis tumulus duo funera corpore in uno,
exequias geminas nunc cinis unus habet. ||

Sulpicia Trionis l(iberta)

For Rhanis, freedwoman of Sulpicia, our delight.

Born only a short while ago, not accustomed to birth before, Rhanis bears witness to a sad fate on her pyre. For she had not yet completed sixteen years and was snatched away from her life, snatched away in childbirth.

This parent’s tomb contains two burials in a single body, one pile of ashes the remains of two.

Sulpicia Rhanis, freedwoman of (Sulpicia) Trio.

Who is to blame?

Just like its Tusculan counterpart, the poem from Salona/Solin doesn’t seem to ask that question. Life was harsh on the deceased, and she was ill-fated (infelix) – an attitude reflected in an inscription from Satafis/Ain el Kebira in the province of Mauretania Caesariensis (CIL VIII 20288 = CLE 1834 = ILCV 3436):

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
v(ixit) a(nnos) XXV.
causa meae mortis partus fatu[mque malignum].
set tu desine flere mihi kariss[ime coniux]
[et] fil(ii) nostri serva com[munis amorem].
[- – – ad caeli] transivit spi[ritus astra]
[- – -] maritae [- – -].

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

Rusticeia Matrona [or: the matron] lived 25 years.

The cause of my death were childbirth and spiteful fate. But you stop crying for me, my most beloved husband and pay heed to the love of our mutual son. My soul has gone to the stars in heaven [what follows cannot be translated/interpreted; all that remains visible is the word ‘wife’].

Those who were left behind in the inscription from Salona/Solin conceive themselves as having a hard time coming to terms with the incident: memory is painful, and the act of remembering re-opens wounds that are barely healing: the gift of the poem is coupled with the survivors’ mournful tears – perhaps hoping to find a means to contain and compartmentalise their pain in the future, after this act of duty and remembrance has been fulfilled.

Similar expressions of pain can be found in a poem that was discovered in the city of Rome, which, however, is rather less concerned with any attempts to reflect on the duality of life and death as well as on the tragic irony of finding the two juxtaposed: instead, it seeks refuge in art for art’s sake, as the poem itself eventually points out (CIL VI 28753 cf. p. 3536 = CLE 108 cf. p. 854; image available here):

Veturia Grata. ||

Vel nunc morando resta, qui perges iter,
Etiam dolentis casus adversos lege:
Trebius Basileus coniunx quae scripsi dolens,
Vt scire possis infra scripta pectoris.
Rerum bonarum (!) fuit haec ornata suis,
Innocua simplex quae numquam serbabit dolum,
Annos quae vixit XXI et mensibus VII
Genuitque ex me tres natos quos reliquit parbulos,
Repleta quartum utero mense octavo obit.
Attonitus capita nunc versorum inspice,
Titulum merentis oro perlegas libens:
Agnosces nomen coniugis Gratae meae.

Veturia Grata

Perhaps take a break now and rest, as you are about to make your journey, and read of the adverse turns of fate of someone who is in pain: I, Trebius Basileus have written this, in pain, so that you may learn the writings, below, straight from my heart.

She was decorated with her gifts of goodness, innocent, uncomplicated, who never  planned deceit: she lived 21 years and 7 months and she gave birth to three little children of mine, which she left behind: she died, her uterus filled again, for the forth time, in the eighth month.

Thunderstruck now behold the beginnings of the lines, read willingly, I request, the inscription of someone who deserves it: you will learn the name of my dear wife [or, due to wordplay with the etymology of the name: my wife Grata].

Maternal death did not necessarily mean death of the child as well, as the following third-century inscription from Alba Fucens in Samnium shows (CIL IX 3968 = CLE 498):

D(is) M(anibus) [s(acrum)].
Aediae [- – -].
Haec tenet exanimam [tellus natalis, in urbe]
quae nupsit Roma, morbi [sed fraudibus atri]
post annos ueniens uisum La[ris arua paterni]
incidit infelixs pregnax, sa[luamque puellam]
enixa est misera acerbaq[ue decidit ipsa]
lugentesque suos miseros [cum prole reliquit]
et tulit Elysium uiginti e[t quattuor annis].
Eutyches et Hi[- – -].

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

To Aedia …

This land, the land of birth, holds a deceased woman, who got married in the city of Rome, but, cheated by a dark illness, as she visited after years the realm of her paternal household, she died, ill-fated, pregnant:  she, wretched, gave birth to a healthy girl, and bitterly she fell down dead, leaving her family, together with her offspring, in mourning, and she moved into the underworld aged twenty-four.

Eutyches and Hi…

Blaming the deceit of a ‘dark illness’ (morbus ater),  Aedia’s relatives offer the narrative of a woman torn between her native land (Alba Fucens) and the city of Rome, where she married, letting her return to her homeland coincide with her death in high pregnancy – yet the child, a girl, could be saved and was healthy.

The proximity of exanimam (‘deceased woman’) and tellus natalis (‘land of birth’ – incidentally not just for Aedia, but also for her daughter!), if restored correctly, in the first line is rather striking.

The concept of maternal abandonment (again: if the text has been restored correctly!) features prominently, mixing expressions of pity (infelixs, ‘ill-fated’, misera, ‘wretched’) with imagery of deceit and bitterness (fraudibus, ‘cheated’, acerba, ‘bitterly’).

The most poignant expression of despair over maternal abandoment, however, can be found in an inscription from Carthage, commemorating Daphnis, a slave-girl who is presented as interfering with her master’s plans regarding her life on multiple levels (CIL VIII 24734 = CLE 2115 = ILTun 987; image available here):

Daphnis ego Hermetis coniunx sum libera facta;
cum dominus vellet primu(m) Hermes liber ut esset,
fato ego facta prior, fato ego rapta prior.
quae tuli quod gemui, gemitus viro saepe reliqui,
quae domino invito vitam dedi proxime nato.
nunc quis alet natum? quis vitae longa ministrat?
me Styga quod rapuit tam cito eni(m) a(d?) superos.
pia vixit annis XXV. h(ic) s(ita) e(st).

I, Daphnis, Hermes’ wife, was freed. While my master wanted to free Hermes first, I was made free before, by fate, I was snatched away before, by fate. By embracing what I mourned, I left my husband with frequent mourning, as I just very recently gave life to a son, against the wish of my master. Who will now feed the son? Who will cater for him for the duration of his life? For death snatched me so quickly to the heavenly gods.

She lived dutifully for 25 years. She is buried here.

The sense of realism behind this inscription – praising the deceased as dutiful (pia), yet demanding an answer to the question of who is supposed to take care of the boy whom the master did not want – may seem brutal. Then again, to the present day employers seem to have a keen interest in the question as to whether their employees intend to become parents, focusing on the economic cost (to them!) of the miracle of life and the need for childcare.

Margarita’s owners do not seem to have thought that way, which may suggest that the puppy (or puppies) did not survive either.

The main difference between the dog’s epitaph and all other texts that were presented here is, however, that Margarita’s owners were the only ones who, despite their loss, felt as though they could focus on the delightful time they got to spend with their canine companion – a facet conspicuously absent from all the poems presented here written for women, who tragically lost their lives in childbirth.

How come?

Turns out, Margarita, for all that humanising language used in her epitaph, was ‘just a dog’ after all.

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

Poverty and the Poetics of Underclass Morality

Poverty and morality? Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes of Sinope. – Image source:

Poverty and morality? Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes of Sinope. – Image source here.

Is there a direct (inversely proportional) relation between (desired) material wealth and morality?

The author of the first pseudo-Sallustian letter to Caesar appears to think so ([Sall.] epist. 1.7.3-9; transl. J. C. Rolfe):

But by far the greatest blessing which you can confer upon your country and fellow citizens, upon yourself and your children, in short, upon all mankind, will be either to do away with the pursuit of wealth or to reduce it so far as circumstances permit. Otherwise, neither public nor private affairs can be regulated at home or abroad.

For wherever the desire for riches has penetrated, neither education, nor good qualities, nor talents, can prevent the mind from at last yielding to it sooner or later. Often before this I have heard how kings, how cities and nations have lost mighty empires through opulence, which they had won through valour when in poverty; and such a loss is not at all surprising. For when the good sees the baser by riches made more renowned and more beloved, at first he boils with anger and feels much perplexed; but when more and more each day vainglory prevails over honour, opulence over merit, his mind turns to pleasure and forsakes the truth.

In fact, endeavour feeds upon glory; take that away, and virtue by itself is bitter and harsh. Finally, wherever riches are regarded as a distinction, there honour, uprightness, moderation, chastity and all the virtues are lightly rated. For the only path to virtue is steep; to riches one may mount whenever one chooses, and they may be won by means either honourable or dishonourable.

The author’s logical conclusion ([Sall.] epist. 1.8.5):

Yet if you take away the honour paid to money, the power of avarice, great as it is, will readily yield to good morals.

True or not (though probably true!), the assumption that money and morality are somehow interrelated underlies a number of universal narratives and archetypical characters, including (but certainly not restricted to) –

  • the pauper, whose true wealth consists in their goodness at heart,
  • the greedy old reptile,
  • the honest, hardworking, from-rags-to-riches self-made person, who, despite the sudden success has remained down-to-earth and free from cynicism
  • the sad and lonely (ex-)pauper who has sold out on their ideals, lost all their friends, and is subsequently plagued by deep regrets,
  • the rich person, who is prepared to discard all their wealth in favour of true, uncorrupted goodness (and then usually gets to keep their wealth anyway), and, of course,
  • the noble youth, who remains altogether uncorrupted by the promise of, or in the face of, wealth.

The emotional appeal and persuasive power of narratives that combine references to (lack of) wealth with those to purity of heart should not be underestimated, when it comes to certain segments of the Roman society.

Already on previous occasions, I have touched upon several Latin verse inscriptions that featured manifestations of such types: for example, there was the poor coppersmith from Tarragona who was beloved by his friends and, of course, the noble self-made man known as the Mactar harvester, whom I mentioned in passing when I talked about the Faint Voices of the Poor.

In the context of that latter blog post, I also mentioned three further inscriptions, which unambiguously employ the money-vs-morality device – here they are again:

  • CIL III 2835 cf. p. 1036 = CLE 992 = ILS 2257 (Ivoseci/Burnum, Dalmatia)

T(itus) Cominius
C(ai) f(ilius) Romilia
Ateste miles
leg(ionis) XI anno-
rum XL stip(endiorum) XVI
h(ic) s(itus) e(st). frater
fratri posuit.
vixsi quad potui sem-
per bene pauper honeste,
[fr]audavi nullum. nunc iuvat
[os]sa mea

Titus Cominius, son of Gaius, of the Romilian voting tribe, from Ateste, soldier of the eleventh legion, aged 40, having served the army for 16 years, is buried here. A brother erected this for a brother.

I always lived well, as much as I could, poor, honest, I cheated no one. Now this pays off, meaning pleasure for my bones.

  • CIL VI 2489 cf. p. 3369. 3835 = VI 32649 = CLE 991 = ILS 2028 (Rome)

D(is) M(anibus).
Q(uintus) Caetronius
Q(uinti) f(ilius) Pub(lilia)
mil(es) coh(ortis) III pr(aetoriae) annis XVIII
missus duobus Geminis
sibi et
Masuriae M(arci) f(iliae) Marcellae.
vixi quod volui semper bene
pauper honeste, fraudavi
nullum, quod iuvat ossa mea.
in f(ronte) p(edes) XI s(emis), in agr(o) p(edes) XIII s(emis).

To the Spirits of the Departed.

Quintus Caetronius Passer, son of Quintus, of the Publilian voting tribe, soldier of the third praetorian cohort, retired after 18 years under the consulship of the two Gemini [= A. D. 29], for himself and Masuria Marcella, daughter of Marcus.

I always lived well, as much as I desired, poor, honest, I cheated no one. Now this means pleasure for my bones.

11.5 ft wide, 13.5 ft deep.

  • CIL VI 8012 cf. p. 3853 = CLE 134 = ILS 8436 (Rome)

C(aius) Gargilius Haemon Proculi
Philagri divi Aug(usti) l(iberti) Agrippiani f(ilius)
v(ivus?) paedagogus idem l(ibertus).
pius et sanctus
vixi quam diu potui sine lite
sine rixa sine controversia
sine aere alieno, amicis fidem
bonam praestiti, peculio
pauper animo divitissimus.
bene valeat is qui hoc (!) titulum
perlegit meum.

Gaius Gargilius Haemon, son of Philagrus Agrippianus, freedman of the deified Augustus, while still alive; paedagogus as well as freedman.

Dutiful and august I lived for as long as I could, without lawsuit, without a row, without controversy, without debt, I lived up to my duty to my friends as best I could, poor in terms of personal property, rich in spirit. May he be well, who reads this inscription of mine.

The first two examples, funerary inscriptions for soldiers, work forward from the assumption that a blameless life is its own reward, suggesting that material poverty is easily outperformed by ethical behaviour.

The third example, for a paedagogus and freedman, expands on this motive somewhat further – creating an clear antithesis between material poverty and spiritual and ethical wealth in someone who led a life during which he never was a burden to anyone – someone who was rich and poor at the same time, showing these qualities in the right areas, respectively.

Poverty, paupertas, has thus been introduced as a concept that entailed honestas (honesty) and fides (dutiful behaviour towards friends), an absence of an inclination towards fraus (fraud), refrain from lis, rixa, and controversia (lawsuit, row, controversy), and – perhaps most surprisingly – lack of aes alienum (debt), which in turn may help to get a clearer understanding of how paupertas, as advertised on Roman tombstones, may have to be conceived.

The money-vs-morality device features in further poems, however, which are well worth considering.

A particularly interesting instance can be seen in an inscription from Venafrum/Venafro (CIL  X 4915 = CLE 1319 = ILS 5150):

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
substa, praecor, paulum festina(n)s ire viator
et maea post hobitum rogantis concipe verba,
tale(m) co(m) speres et ipse venire diae(m).
Iustus ego non paterno set materno nomine dictus,
paupere patre quidem set fam(a)e divite vixi.
tibicinis cantu modulans alterna vocando
Martios ancentu stimulans gladiantes in arma vocavi.
qui vixi annis XXI m(ensibus) XI d(iebus) XXVIIII,
Iustus ego morte acerba peri.
parentes filio incomparabili.

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

Halt briefly, please, hastening traveller, and gather my words as those of someone who calls upon you from beyond the grave, as you, too, must expect yourself this day will reach  you. I am Iustus, so called not by my father’s, but my mother’s name, and I lived born from a father who was poor in terms of wealth, but rich in terms of repute.

I called to arms the martial gladiators, challenging them with my tune, marking the changes with the luring tibia-player’s song.

I, Iustus, who lived 21 years, 11 months, 29 days, died a bitter death.

The parents, for their incomparable son.

Iustus, the inscription suggests, was a tibia-player, a circus musician of low origin and status. The memorial, according to its text set up by the parents, refers to his father’s poverty, and, what is even more intriguing, to his name that allegedly had been derived from his mother’s name rather than the  paternal one.

What does this mean?

The main problem is the conundrum as to whether the remark refers to the only part of the name that is known to us due to its mention in the inscription – Iustus: possible, perhaps even likely; certainly not imperative.

Iustus is a cognomen (or supernomen) of sorts, i. e. a relatively highly individualised part of the Roman naming system that, at least in theory, could be imposed freely by the name-givers.

In that regard, if the deceased’s name ‘Iustus’ is a reference to a maternal name (Iusta? Iustinia?), it may be the case that the parents decided to honour the mother’s lineage that way (a practice that is known e. g. for second-born children).

It seems highly odd, however, to emphasise this practice in such a prominent and convoluted way (why not just say ‘the second-oldest son’ or some such?), unless the information does, in fact, carry additional meaning and something that is not self-explanatory is going on.

This may (but need not with any necessity) suggest that it was, in fact, not the cognomen ‘Iustus’ to which the inscription alludes after all: for the part of a Roman name that almost invariably links offspring to their father is not the cognomen, but the nomen gentile, the family name.

If it is not the ‘Iustus’ part, that the inscription refers to, however, then one would have to infer that the inscription refers to the maternal gentile name (which remains unknown to us).

At least at an earlier stage of the Roman name system (to which this inscription does not belong), maternal gentile names were given – against the vastly more common practice to hand down the father’s family name – in only a small number of cases, e. g. for illegitimate children under certain circumstances.

On the other hand, especially in later times (to which the inscription would seem to belong), when the strictness of the Roman naming conventions had already broken down, maternal gentile names certainly appear in the context of legitimate children – for example, and most notably, in cases where the prestige of the mother’s family outperformed the father’s.

Is this what the inscription was hinting at?

Possibly (though the absence of any other listed parts of names in the inscription makes it ultimately impossible to come to any definitive conclusions).

Whatever the case may be, one must note that, despite its comments on the deceased’s nomenclature, both parents chose to remain anonymous in their final tribute for their ‘incomparable son'; yet, it gives the (anonymous) father credit for his personal achievements (famae dives) despite his poverty (pauper … quidem).

A rather less imbalanced and peculiar family background existed in the following case from Pinna Vestina/Penne (Samnium; CIL IX 3358 = CLE 1125 = AE 2004.453):

Ninniae Q(uinti) f(iliae) Primil-
lae sacerdoti Cereriae.
sancta, tibi hunc titulum pueri
posuere merenti. hos[pe]s, si non e[s]t
lasso tibi forte molestum, oramus
lecto nomine pauca legas: sum li-
bertinis ego nata parentibus, ambis
pauperibus censu, moribus ingenuis.
sed m[i]h[i] qua[e potuit] mir[a] pater omnia cura
[largit]ur. [cu]nctis sum decora[ta b]onis
[- – -] an-
nos [- – -] hic defuncta piis sedib(us) ecce mo-
ror. tu qui pr(a)eteri(en)s legisti, lasse viator,
sit tibi lux dulcis et mihi terra levis.

To Ninnia Primilla, daughter of Quintus, priestess of Ceres.

Blessed woman, the pueri [boys? servants?] erected this inscription for you, as you deserved.

Stranger, if it does not happen to inconvenience you, being exhausted, we ask you to read a little more, having just read the name: I was born to parents of libertine origin, both poor in terms of wealth, but of uncorrupted character. But my father bestowed on me everything he possibly could, with amazing care: I have been adorned with every good [ … years … ]. Behold: deceased I dwell here in a blessed abode. You, exhausted wayfarer, who have read this while passing by, may the light of life be sweet to you – and earth be light on me.

This piece does not only combine the poverty-cum-lowly-origin narrative (sum li|bertinis ego nata parentibus, ambis | pauperibus censu) with that of moral flawlessness (moribus ingenuis): it adds the ‘a better future for our children’ spin to it, suggesting that the father, despite his lack of wealth, tried to pave the way for his daughter, trying to facilitate a better life for her (sed m[i]h[i] qua[e potuit] mir[a] pater omnia cura | [largit]ur. [cu]nctis sum decora[ta b]onis), making the father’s efforts seem all the more heroic, selfless, and impressive.

There appear to have been further uses of this device in the Latin verse inscriptions; alas, the remaining texts are too fragmentary to get a clearer idea of their exact wording. In particular, one must mention –

  • CLE 438 mentions de parvis rebus censum (‘wealth, from lowly origin’)
  • CLE 1556 refers to [- – -p]auper ivi | in census, in m[agnis v]ixi mor(i)bus, colui f[id]em, ludo[s soda]les amaui (‘poor I went into the census, I lived with great ethics, I kept loyalty, I loved games and companions’)

However lamentable and despicable, poverty seems to invite the abuse and vitriol of those who are better off. This was no different in the Roman world than it is today, as Helen Lovatt has recently reminded us.

What the texts that are collected here have in common, in the face of such abuse, is that they exhibit a way in which those who self-identified as Rome’s poor (pauperes) felt they could reinvent their existences, aiming to turn a weakness into a strength through a narrative device that allowed them to redefine ‘true’ wealth: a wealth of character, and a wealth that money can’t buy.

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

Latin Poetry and the Limits of Roman Medicine

There is a notorious passage in Plutarch‘s Life of Cato the Elder (23.3-4), in which the Greek philosopher denounces the infamous censor‘s view on Greek medicine:

It was not only Greek philosophers that he hated, but he was also suspicious of Greeks who practised medicine at Rome. He had heard, it would seem, of Hippocrates’ reply when the Great King of Persia consulted him, with the promise of a fee of many talents, namely, that he would never put his skill at the service of Barbarians who were enemies of Greece. He said all Greek physicians had taken a similar oath, and urged his son to beware of them all.

There is, in theory, little point in engaging with this text in great depth. It has been shown with meticulous care by Vivian Nutton (with a focus on Roman medicine), Erich S. Gruen (more generally), and several others that most anti-Greek statements ascribed to Cato are not the result of an actual dislike or hatred of all matters Greek.

Much rather, they are the result of a carefully calculated campaign to (re-)invent Roman national identity at a time in the second century B. C. when the composition, nature, and dynamics of the Roman empire had fundamentally changed and the concept of ‘Romanness’ (at least by some) was felt to require re-defining as well as re-assertion.

What reminded me of this passage, however, were a number of inscribed Latin poems of the imperial age (and their role in relevant scholarship), addressing the interference of proponents of the medical profession with their patients … from the patients’ perspective (or rather the perspective of those left behind).

It all started with an inscription that I was lucky enough to see in person during my recent research trip to Tarragona – an inscription for a charioteer called Eutyches, which is now kept in Tarragona’s wonderful Museu Diocesà (sala I):

Inscription for Eutyches (Tarragona). – (c) Museu Diocesà. Photo PK 2015.

Inscription for Eutyches (Tarragona). – (c) Museu Diocesà. Photo PK 2015.

The funerary altar, worn and damaged in a number of ways, displays an effigy of a victorious charioteer, holding a palm branch in his hands, in its centre. surrounding this image, the following text is to be read (CIL II 4314 cf. p. 973 = CIL II (ed. alt.) 14/3, 1281 = CLE 1279 = ILS 5299 = RIT 444):

D(is) M(anibus).
aurig(ae) ann(orum) XXII
Fl(avius) Rufinus et
Semp(ronia) Diofanis servo b(ene) m(erenti) f(ecerunt).
hoc rudis aurigae requiescunt ossa sepulchro
nec tamen ignari flectere lora manu,
iam qui quadriiugos auderem scandere currus
et tamen a biiugis non removerer equis.
invidere meis annis crudelia fata,
fata quibus nequeas opposuisse manus.
nec mihi concessa est morituro gloria circi,
donaret lacrimas ne pia turba mihi:
ussere ardentes intus mea viscera morbi,
vincere quos medicae non potuere manus.
sparge precor flores supra mea busta viator:
favisti vivo forsitam (!) ipse mihi.

To the Spirits of the Departed.

For Eutyches, the charioteer, aged 22: Flavius Rufinus and Sempronia Diofanis had this made for their well-deserving slave.

In this sepulchre rest the bones of a rough charioteer, who knew very well how to handle the reins with his hand: I would dare to climb into the chariots drawn by four horses, and yet I would not remove myself from mere pairs of horses. The cruel Fates envied my (youthful) years, those Fates, to whom you cannot counterpose your hands. I was denied the glory of dying in the circus, lest the faithful crowd honoured me with tears: blazing illnesses burnt my bowels, illnesses that medical hands [or, if rather less likely: the hands of the female doctor] were unable to overcome.

I beg you, wayfarer, spread flowers over my tomb: perhaps you have favoured me (in the same way) when I was still alive.

The reason why I wanted to inspect this piece in Tarragona originally was not medical (although it is hard to avoid autopsy-related puns in this context): I wanted to get a clear idea of the text-image interaction in this piece – the victorious charioteer depicted centrally on this stone, referred to in the text as mea busta, which draws the reader to the text – into a text that attracts with large letters at the opening prose part and then becomes rather more personal in its poetic part (which is written in smaller letters).

But, as often in my research, I got sidetracked by seemingly minor things – in this case: the mention of the doctor’s inability to help with Eutyches’ inflamation of his bowels.

A defeat for the doctor and patient alike (note the use of vincere … non potuere in conjunction with a mention of the ‘hands’, as Eutyches’ own hands, skillful by contrast, had been mentioned before).

A sad turn of events for Eutyches and his owners – and a rather moderate way of deploring the limits of medical support within the context of the Latin verse inscriptions.

Coming from a literary (rather than an epigraphical) perspective, there is a view that doctors and medical personnel in general, if not the subject of mourning themselves, tend to get a rough deal in Latin epigrams (see e. g. Schatzmann’s comment on scoptic epigrams here [text in German]).

This view is furthered by sentiments such as the elder Pliny’s famous comment referring to medical doctors’ inability to agree on a diagnosis  (Plin. nat. 29.11):

hinc illa infelicis monumenti inscriptio: “turba se medicorum perisse.”

Hence that inscription on a monument for a poor sod: ‘he died of an overdose of doctors’.

When looking at actual inscriptions that commonly get mentioned in this context, however, it turns out that things are not at all as straightforward as they would appear and that the actual picture is a lot more nuanced than commonly believed.

Yes, of course there is the doctor who cannot cure himself (CIL XIII 2414, lines 7-10):

Nomine Felicem me olim dixere parentes,
vita dicata mihi hic medicina fuit.
Aegros multorum potui relevare dolores,
morbum non potui vincere ab arte meum.

My parents used to call me Felix (‘Lucky’) by name, medicine was given to me as my life here. I was able to ease the arduous pains of many: I did not manage to overcome my own illness with my skill.

Yes, of course there are clear instances of accusation of malpractice and manslaughter (CIL VI 37337 = CLE 2140 = ILS 9441; image available here):

D(is) M(anibus).
Euhelpisti lib(erto). qui et
Manes vixit annis XXVII
mens(ibus) IIII dieb(us) XI. floren-
tes annos mors subita
eripuit: anima inno-
centissima! quem
medici secarunt
et occiderunt.
P(ublius) Aelius Aug(usti) lib(ertus) Peculiaris
alumno suo.

To the Spirits of the Departed.

For Euhelpistus, freedman. He and his spirits lived 27 years, 4 months, 11 days.

A sudden death snatched away from him the prime of his life: a most innocent soul! Doctors cut him and killed him.

Publius Aelius Peculiaris, freedman of the emperor, for his foster son.

Or the (prose) text of a bilingual stele from Nicomedia (CIL III 14188):

Φλ(αούιος) Μαξιμῖνος σκουτ[ά]|ριος σινάτωρ ἀνέστη|σα τὴν στίλλην τῷ υἱῷ | μου Ὀκτίμῳ ζήσαντι | ἔτη ε ἡμέρας ιε· τμηθὶς | ὑπὸ ἰατροῦ ἐμαρτύρη|σεν. ||

Fla(vius) Maximinus scu|tarius sinator levavi sta|tu(am) filio meo Octemo. vixit an|nos V dies XV, precisus a medico | (h)ic pos(i)tus est ad martyres.

I, Flavius Maximinus, shield-maker, senator, have erected a statue for my son Octemus. He lived 5 years, 15 days. (With his life) severed by a doctor, he is buried here among the martyrs.

But not all cases (and not even the majority of them) are as straightforward and vindictive as these – and that is true even for texts, which very frequently have been used as evidence for the opposing view.

A notorious piece that gets mentioned frequently in that regard is the epigram for Ephesia Rufria (again) from the city of Rome.

Inspection of the text in full (and not just, as is common, as an isolated half-sentence) shows a remarkably restrained expression of disappointment in this poem  (CIL VI 25580 cf. p. 3532 = CLE 94; image available here):

Ephesia Rufria ma[ter et coniux bona]
hic adquiescit qua[e mala periit febri]
quam medici praeter e[xspectatum adduxerant].
solamen est hoc sim[ulatique criminis]
nec vera vox: tam dulc[em obisse feminam]
puto quod deorum est [visa coetu dignior].

Here rests Ephesia Rufria, a mother and good wife, who died of a bad fever, which doctors had caused unexpectedly. This is solace, not a true expression of an alleged crime: I believe that a woman as sweet as this had to die because she was deemed worthier of congress with the gods.

Similar frustration has been expressed in the following piece from Augusta Rauricorum/Augst (Germania superior) (AE 1952.16 = Zarker no. 68):

Prisca Iulia I[- – -]
ann(orum) XX heic si[ta est].
deflendam semper medici [deflerem ego culpam]
si non et reges idem raperentu[r ad orcum].
deserui coniunx una pat[rem virumque]
[qu]em lugere [decet thalami consorte carentem].

Prisca Iulia … aged 20 is buried here.

I would lament the lamentable guilt of the doctor forever, if it weren’t for the fact that even kings got snatched away to the underworld. As wife, I left behind a father and husband at the same time, who deserves expressions of sorrow, devoid of a consort in the marital chamber.

The careful, vague wording, resembling aphorisms and sentiments expressed elsewhere in surviving ancient literature, certainly is worlds apart from the harsh blame in a notorious prose inscription from Gorsium/Székesfehérvár (CIL III 3355 cf. p. 1685 = RIU 6.1509; image available here):

D(is) M(anibus). | C(aius) Dignius Secundian[us] | natione Rae(tus) v(ivus) f(ecit) sibi Aur[el(iae)] | Decciae coniug(i) et munic[ipi] | piissimae et feminae rarissim[ae] | ac pudicissimae, cuius mortem | dolens per absentiam mei conti|gisse per culpam curantium co[n]que|ror. vix(it) an(nis) XXVIII m(ensibus) X [d]ieb(us) XXIII. et | C(aio) Dignio Decorato fil(io). v[ix(it) an(nis) – – -]II m(ensibus) VIIII | dieb(us) XVII. item viv[enti]bus | Dign[i]ae Decoratae et Aurel(iae) | Secundinae filiabus. | Aug(ustalis) m(unicipii) Brig[etionis].

To the Spirits of the Departed. Gaius Dignius Secundianus, Raetian by origin, had this made for himself while still alive as well as for Aurelia Deccia, his wife, a most dutiful citizen, and a most unique and chaste woman, whose death I mourn in pain to have happened in my absence and due to the fault of those who looked after her. She lived 28 years, 10 months, and 23 days. Also for Gaius Dignius Decoratus, my son. He lived (at least 2) years, 9 months, and 17 days. Also for Dignia Decorata and Aurelia Secundina, my daughters (while still alive). Augustalis of the municipium Brigetio.

It has commonly been assumed that the culpa curantium, the ‘fault of those who looked after her’ to which the inscription alludes, refers to medical personnel – but one must note that the text is anything but explicit about this!

An even more bizarre case can be seen in a rather obscure, partly dialogical inscription, again from the city of Rome. The text, written in hexameters (with a single pentameter as its second line), is commonplace in footnotes about dismissive remarks about doctors in the Roman world – but it is hardly ever quoted in full (CIL VI 30112 cf. p. 3736 = CLE 543 cf. p. 856; for an image click here) :

Quid tibi nunc prodest stricte vixisse
[to]t annis? heredum ratio nuntiat
[ipsa] tibi. prima fuit litis vicesima
[rit]e soluta. de(i)nde rudes homines
[var]ie Saturno morantes delati:
[satag]is [t]amen hoc sub iudice iusto,
[non se]mel sed longis protractibus
arte maloru(m). ‘vici quidem, domine!
victor cum palma relatus semanimis
iacui, medici male membra secarunt
corpori(s).’ ‘quod super est, tumulum tibi
feci libenter: non mihi mandast[i],
sed vivos saepe voleba[s].’

– ‘What good was it for you to have lived a strict life for so many years? The heirs’ account itself tells you!

‘The first fight, solved in accordance with the law, was that about the 5% inheritance tax. Then, there were boorish people delaying matters in manifold ways by their stalling affairs at the treasury: but you keep yourself busy with this matter under a just judge, not just once and for all, but also with long delays due to the craftiness of those rogues.’

– ‘But I won, master! As, half-dead, I lay prostrate, having acquired the palm of victory, the doctors amputated the limbs of my body in an evil fashion!’

– ‘A last respect, I gladly built the tomb for you: you did not ask me to, but you used to desire it many a time when you were still alive.’

The text would indeed appear to talk about doctors, vultures, and body strippers – but it is not at all clear that it refers to actual doctors performing actual amputations.

In fact, considering the general line of thought in this poem, it would appear to mean something else entirely: a client who has died gets honoured by his patron (dominus, ‘master’), who addresses the deceased: his strict, frugal style of life turned out to be nothing but self-punishment, as, after his death, the heirs started to fight.

Following taxation and some drawn-out administrative process (the wording is not entirely clear, but would appear to refer to the Roman treasury housed in the temple of Saturn), legal battles ensued.

The text then allows the deceased to speak, who – in the fashion of a victorious, but heavily wounded gladiator – says that he won after all, even if it came at a horrendous cost (the term Pyrrhic victory springs to mind). This, one could argue, might refer to the final settlement, tearing up the inheritance and leaving the original body heavily mutilated (invoking an evil doctor imagery, without referring to actual mutilation).

The final movement, re-introducing the patron as its speaker, then offers relief, suggesting that the master, with a grand gesture, at least managed to fulfill the deceased’s will and provided a tomb for him.

Heart-balm for the anonymous deceased after all – just like the following person is described to have acted in real life according to an inscription from Capua (CIL X 4494 = CLE 1360 = ILCV 3375):

Meremur Fabea Scerniola
nobis semper amata,
l(a)etitia sen[ib]us et medic-
ina m(a)estis. confidimus
(in Christo) te vivere semper quem
cons[tat inf]ernis sic
refugisse mala. vixit
ann(os) pl(us) m(inus) XIV d(e)p(osita) s(ub) d(ie)
IIII Kal(endas) Maias cons(ulatu)
Probini v(iri) c(larissimi).

We mourn Fabea Scerniola, always beloved by us, a delight for the old and medicine for the sad. We have faith that you live forever in Christ, as it is certain that you have thus escaped the evils in hell.

She lived approximately 14 years and was buried on 29 April under the consulship of Probinus, vir clarissimus.

Also from a Christian context – in fact, from St. Peter in the Vatican, where the following text is reported to have been inscribed with an effigy of Constantine – comes the final piece, which suggests that, in this case, all human medicine proved useless and counterproductive (CLE 901 = ICUR II 4123 = ILCV 3480):

Credite victuras anima remeante favillas
rursus ad amissum posse redire diem.
nam vaga bis quinos iam luna resumpserat orbes,
nutabat dubia cum mihi morte salus.
inrita letiferos auxit medicina dolores,
crevit et humana morbus ab arte meus.
o quantum Petro largitur Christus honorem:
ille dedit vitam, reddidit iste mihi.

Have faith that the ashes that are to live, when the soul goes back (to heaven), may come back again to the light they have lost. For the wandering moon had already completed ten orbits, when salvation gave me a nod as death was looming. Useless medicine had increased my lethal pains, and my illness had grown under the influence of human craft. Oh what honour Christ bestowed upon Peter: the former gave me life, and the latter brought it back to me.

Snide remarks, directed at the skills of medical professionals (especially if related to invasive and amputative surgery), have a long tradition and are motivated by a wide range of reasons – before and after the Elder Cato.

The imagery of this line of thought has become topical.

Overall, however, in the Latin verse inscriptions – just like in the initial case of the charioteer from Tarragona – equanimity and stoic composure appear to have prevailed in the face of ancient medicine and its obvious and well-known limits.

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

Oh the Humanity!

Several months ago, I received a letter from the Vatican which had been sent by His Eminence Pietro Parolin, Cardinal Secretary of State.

The letter included my appointment to the position of Academicus Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy for Latin (Pontificia Academia Latinitatis) – a tremendous honour to me as currently the only German member of this newest Pontifical Academy.

This morning, when I woke up (still somewhat exhausted from my research trip to Tarragona), I came across the name of Cardinal Parolin again – this time in a context that made me feel rather less cheerful.

In response to the Irish referendum on marriage equality, Cardinal Parolin was quoted to have said that –

‘La Chiesa deve tener conto di questo risultato, ma nel senso di rafforzare  il suo impegno per l’evangelizzazione.’

The Church must take this result into account, but in the sense of reinforcing its commitment to the evangelisation.

and –

‘Credo che non si può parlare solo di una sconfitta dei principi cristiani, ma una sconfitta dell’umanità.’

‘I believe that one cannot just speak about a defeat of Christian principles, but (sc. that one must speak) about a defeat of humanity.’

It is not my job to judge as to what counts as a defeat of humanity: to allow, or to deny, two people, who love each other, to formalise, celebrate, and commit to their lasting love relationship in a solemn, dignified ceremony for others to witness.

But the use of the term umanità, oscillating between humaneness (human-ness) and humankind, stood out to me.

Humanitas, the Latin term that gave rise to the concept of umanità, ‘humanity’,  has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it, as a school boy, when reading the opening of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum (Caes. Gall. 1.1.1-3; translation from here):

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt. Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit. horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt, minimeque ad eos mercatores saepe commeant atque ea quae ad effeminandos animos pertinent important, proximique sunt Germanis, qui trans Rhenum incolunt, quibuscum continenter bellum gerunt.

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war.

Humanitas – the refinement of life, a style of life that not only sets apart humans from other animals, but removes inconvenience and hardships from our daily experience.

Humanitas, whose absence (according to Caesar’s propaganda) makes people brave and focused.

Humanitas – the lifestyle of the city of Rome, advertised in roadside inscriptions for bathhouses across the Roman empire, in Ficulea/Casale Cesarina just outside the gates of Rome (CIL XIV 4015 = ILS 5720) –

In [hi]s praedi(i)s Aure|liae Faustinianae | balineus: lavat(ur) mo|re urbico et omnis | humanitas praesta|tur.

On these premises of Aurelia Faustiniana, there is a bathhouse: bathing in the style of the city, and every amenity is provided.

… just as much as in far-away Equizetum/Ouled Agla (Algeria, Mauretania Caesariensis) (AE 1933.49 = AE 2002.161):

In his praediis Cominiorum | Montani et Feliciani Iun(ioris) | et Feliciani patris eorum | balneum [et] omnis humani|tas urbico more praebetur.

On these premises of the Cominius Family – Montanus, Felicianus Iunior, and Felicianus, their father – there is a bathhouse, and every amenity in the style of the city is provided.

Naturally, when I embarked on my current research project on the Latin verse inscriptions, the use of the term humanitas was among the first things I checked – and today may finally be the day to share the instances that came to light.

Interestingly enough, all three examples that are mentioned in Franz Bücheler’s and Ernst Lommatzsch’s collection of the Carmina Latina Epigraphica date from the early medieval rather than a late antique period, are of decidedly Christian background, and come from the same find context of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis:

  • CIL XIII 2476 =  ILCV 1169 = CLE 2208 = RICG 15.263 = CAG I p. 98 = ILTG 304 (Ambarri/Briord)

Hic requiiscit bon(a)e me|moreae in Chr(ist)i no(mine) Carusus | pr(es)b(yteru)s qui fuit ad dei officio (!) | paratus. umanetas in eo sa|tes laudanda, amicus omne|bus, qui vixit in pace | annus (!) LXV. transiet (!) | XV K(alendas) Novembris (!) an(no) XXXXVI | rig(no) Clotario i(n)d(ictione) III.

Here rests, in good memory, in the name of Christ, Carusus, presbyter, who was prepared for the duty of god. The humanity in him was sufficiently praiseworthy, a friend to everyone, who lived in peace for 65 years. He died on the 18th of October in the 46th year of the reign of Chlotarius in the third indiction.

  • CIL  XIII 2481 = ILCV 4824 = CLE 2208 = RICG 15.267 = CAG I p. 98 = AE 1964.49 (Ambarri/Belley)

Hic requi(e)scit bon(a)e | memori(a)e Eunandus. | amicus omnevos (!), umane|tas laudanda nemis, mi|randa voluntas. qui | vixit in pace an(nos) LX,| obi(it) III K(a)l(endas) Fibruarias | (in)d(ictione) VII.

Here rests, in good memory, Eunandus. A friend to everyone, his humanity ever so praiseworthy, his good will admirable. He lived in peace for 60 years, died on 30 January, in the seventh indiction.

  • CIL XIII 2482 = ILCV 4825 = CLE 2208 = RICG 15.270 = CAG I p. 99 (Ambarri/Belley)

In oc tom[ulu]m (!) requiiscet (!) bon(a)e | memorea[e] amicus | omnebus, fe[d]es et humanatas | sates laudanda. qui vixet in | pace annus (!) XXX.

In this grave rests, in good memory, a friend to everyone, faith and humanity sufficiently praiseworthy: he lived in peace for 30 years.

Peter Brown, in his book Through the Eye of a Needle, rightly stresses intellectual and ethical continuity since rather more ancient times when he claims that –

“We should not dismiss as hypocritical the lists of social virtues which, in many regions, continued without a break from pagan times up to the end of our period. Clemens, patiens, mancipiis benigna, miranda voluntas, umanetas in eo sates laudanda – “clement”, “patient”, “benign to her slaves”, “of admirable good will”, “endowed with thoroughly praiseworthy humanity”: crudely carved on gravestones from the Rhone valley of the early seventh century A. D. and expressed in distinctly homespun Latin, the laudatory phrases in these inscriptions reach back for centuries.”

Unlike some of the other terms, however, mention of humanitas in a deceased person is something that is still rather special to these inscriptions.

What is even more exciting to me is to see the term in a context of universal friendship and admirable good will – a long, profound development of the humanitas concept that has taken place since its use in Caesar and in Roman advertising!

If universal friendship and admirable good will, tolerance for others and openness of the mind, are concepts that can be celebrated alongside humanitas, then perhaps Cardinal Parolin should not give up on humanity quite yet – and perhaps not even on Christian principles.

Instead of being driven by fear, spite, or even hatred, we may wish to embrace human life in all its colourful, non-binary diversity – and we, as humankind, may wish to demonstrate our humanitas together with profound friendship and an admirable good will.

If the term humanitas can evolve in such breathtaking ways across time and space, then perhaps so may our frame of mind that comes with it.

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

The Riddle of a Poor Man’s Epitaph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this text of particular interest to me?

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

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

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

Covered by these mounds lies a young man here –

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

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

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

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

Farewell forever and in perpetuity, my sweetest son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened next is rather less clear.

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

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

There are three events, however, that require attention:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funerary poem from Carsulae. – Image source:

Funerary poem from Carsulae. – Image source:

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

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

Left panel (lines 1–10):

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

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

Right panel (lines 11–20):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two scenarios have been discussed in particular:

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

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

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

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

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

How to create a narrative...

How to create a narrative…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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