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.
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.
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 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.