End Violence against Women!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Prose | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

column I:

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

. . . . . . . . .

column II:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War, Combat Trauma, and Poetry: Evidence for PTSD in the Latin Verse Inscriptions?

In my previous blog post, I introduced a text that provides an (albeit anecdotal) unusual view on the Roman army, its drill, its effectiveness, and the dehumanising, romanticising narratives that prevail around it.

The further one delves into the world of the Latin verse inscriptions, however, the more remarkable the material that one gets to encounter.

Recent years have seen a certain amount of professional and more general interest in evidence for combat stress reaction (WW I’s ‘shell shock’) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the classical world (see e. g. here, here, and here for such approaches, to offer but a small selection – a topic that created a more general media interest also).

Generally, while some interesting material has been compiled (and even utilised in attempts to provide treatment to soldiers and veterans suffering from such conditions), there remains a great deal of scepticism as to whether the evidence is strong enough to support the idea that PTSD really was a big(ger) issue in the ancient world or at least substantially comparable.

A source that – to my knowledge anyway – has not been mentioned before in this context is the following one, a funerary inscription (40 x 56 cm) from Henchir Suik / Tagremaret (Cohors Breucorum) in northwestern Algeria, where a Roman fort secured the Roman border of the province of Mauretania Caesariensis.

The inscription, written in somewhat irregular hexameters and dating to the third century A. D., reads as follows (CIL VIII 21562 = CLE 520):

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
hic situs est quondam iuvenis
generoso nomine miles Ulp(ius) Op-
tatus quiq(ue) regens virgam decus et
virtutis honorem gestavit, proles
laudanda propagine longa. hi[c]
multos domuit stravitq(ue) per hos un-
diq(ue) montes infandos hostes teme-
rataque bella subiit et quid n[on m]ulti
poterant iuvene[s] hic semper [solus a]-
gebat. cum suam totam nimium
depend[ere]t iram obvius ipse furo[r]
pugnae Romanum iuvenem per
hostica vulnera misit. ipse tam[en]
victor telis undiq(ue) clus[us – – -]
gentis nequid fe[ra- – -]-
renit ipse suis [- – -]
cladiq(ue) et vita [- – -].

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

Here lies a young man in former times, of noble name, a soldier, Ulpius Optatus. He sported a staff as an accolade and held a distinction of bravery, a praiseworthy offspring of an old lineage.

He vanquished and struck down many unspeakable enemies across these mountains around here, he engaged in many disgraceful campaigns, he always achieved entirely on his own what many young men could not do as a group.

As he unleashed his excessive anger in its entirety, that familiar rage of battle itself sent this young Roman straight into enemy-inflicted wounds.

Victorious, trapped by missiles everywhere, . . .

. . . of the tribe . . . nothing . . . wild . . . he himself for his . . .

. . . to the downfall and life . . .

Ulpius Optatus (presumably of African origin, as the name Optatus suggests), sporting both the noble name (generosum nomen) Ulpius – resembling that of Rome’s famous emperor Trajan! – as well as his military decorations, is described (presumably by his former fellow soldiers rather than his relatives, as the account contains little personal detail) as a daredevil soldier: he killed many enemies and thus distinguished himself.

But why are the enemies ‘unspeakable’ (nefandi)? Were they just deemed horrible – or is there more to this phrase? And why are the battles or wars that Ulpius Optatus fought described as disgraceful (temerata)? Was it the disgrace, the defilement (a meaning to which temeratus easily stretches), brought upon Ulpius Optatus, member of an African – perhaps even local? – elite (the inscription records his lineage as such!), because he had to fight against members of related tribes?

The wording seems too peculiar and emotional to be a mere criticism of a tactician’s planning. (Nothing much is known about the exact campaigns that are mentioned in this inscription; prior to the fouth-century revolt of Firmus, there is evidence for local insurgencies in this area of the Roman empire in the second half of the third century.)

Yet, despite all this, Ulpius Optatus managed to distinguish himself – to achieve single-handedly what even groups of young men could not achieve collectively.

And then the remarkable happened, it seems almost as though Ulpius Optatus snapped – he unleashed his entire exaggerated anger (cum suam totam nimium | depend[ere]t iram), and a familiar (obvius) rage of battle (furor | pugnae) sent him off into what, on the basis of the inscription’s account, sounds like a suicidal mission resulting from combat trauma – leaving Ulpius heavily wounded by the enemy, trapped under missile attacks from all around him.

The fragmentary nature of the text does not allow us to understand how the story ended for Ulpius Optatus – the few terms that stand out, though, suggest that it did not bode well for him: surrounded by enemies and under missile attack, he appears to have been able to achieve an initial victory – but what follows sounds less promising: we hear of a tribe (gens), of animal-like wildness (fera…), of a downfall or disaster of sorts (clades), and of life (vita) – a life lost, most likely, lost to exaggerated anger (ira) and battle-inflicted rage (furor).

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future, they say.

An almost equally difficult task is to diagnose illnesses and conditions of people who lived in the past without autopsy, without their account of what had happened, and, of course, without a degree or any other relevant qualification in medicine or psychology.

Lack of specialist knowledge in adjacent or not-so-adjacent disciplines, however, never seems to be much of an obstacle to the notoriously über-confident classicist.

In that regard one may be bold and suggest, on the basis of the terminology, that – at least in the eyes of his fellow soldiers – something must have snapped in Ulpius Optatus. Perhaps this was caused by the nature of his assignments (which are described as disgraceful and defiling in this inscription), something that already before had made him seek extreme dangers, and that eventually sent him off on a more or less predictable suicide mission, killing himself alongside a maximum number of enemy fighters.

Just like the inscription of an ultimately unsuccessful eques singularis that I discussed in my earlier blog post, I see this inscription as a valuable addition to our overall concept of what service in the Roman army – especially in extreme regions of the Roman Empire – was like.

Mentally and physically exhausting, the demands of serving the Roman army did indeed leave individuals in difficult personal conflicts over the nature of their assignment (as certainly appears to be the case in the inscription, above). What is more, this was hardly a one-off scenario, as the inscription refers to the furor pugnae that killed Ulpius Optatus as obvius, ‘familiar’.

The account does not give enough information to be confident in one’s diagnosis. Moreover, one would have to be extremely cautious in such diagnoses anyway, avoiding assumptions along the lines of ‘every veteran is a ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode’ – a devastating and statistically entirely unjustified generalisation.

What gives a certain amount of safety in the assumptions over Ulpius Optatus, however, is the way in which his entire career is summarised as well as the way in which his exaggerated levels of sudden outbursts of aggressions are characterised.

Last but not least: one must not forget that the inscription is more than a historical document. It is a poem, commemorating Ulpius Optatus. It does so by using a lexicon of Roman epic and tragic poetry – creating a noble, brave, and distinguished persona of the deceased, a persona that then is confronted with sacrilegious personal conflict and overwhelming emotions beyond his personal, rational control.

Thus poetry and the language of images and metaphors became an opportunity for those who chose to commemorate Ulpius Optatus to give meaning and sense to his life – and his death.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lest We Forget

Until I moved to Britain, just over ten years ago, 11 November exclusively marked one thing for me: the beginning of the carnival season. In the United Kingdom, however, as well as in many other states, 11 November marks an altogether different occasion – it is Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.

A difficult day for a German citizen in Britain – even seventy years after WW II.

For me, this day is about remembering those who fought in battles and wars, led (or mis-led) by their betters, in the hope of achieving the best for their respective fatherlands – as well as to distinguish themselves; remembering those who got injured, those who suffered, those who died; remembering the horrendous cost of human life during the atrocities of war.

A day devoted to the human side of war. A day to be mindful of those who are engaged in armed conflict now (as well as their relatives!), and a day to show respect to those who did and who have paid a huge price for it.

A day and an aspect of human life we need not glorify or romanticise or promote, but must acknowledge and include in our thoughts if we would like this world to become a better place – not just a day when everyone must wear a poppy and bow down lower than Jeremy Corbyn did.

The human side and cost of war and military service is something one does not hear a lot about when it comes to the Roman army – one can tell from the levels of amazement surrounding the mostly trivial messages that survived in the Vindolanda writing tablets, showing that Roman soldiers and their relatives were just as bored, cold, and hungry as one would have expected of them in an outpost at the north-westernmost frontier.

Rome and her great literary writers were better at celebrating and showcasing their military endeavours in broad strokes.

But occasionally, very rarely, we get to listen to voices that tell us of the other side of things – voices like that of the following inscribed poem that was discovered in the city of Rome and that commemorates one Ulpius Quintianus (CIL VI 32808 cf. p. 3385 = CLE 474):

Respice praeteriens, uiator, consobrini
pietate parata: cum lacrimis statui, quan-
to in munere posto uidetis. Pannonia terra
creat, tumulat Italia tellus ann(is) XXVI. ut sibi
castris honorem atquireret ipse, dolori ma[g]-
no substentauit tempore longo. postea cum
sperans dolorem effugisse nefandam, ante
diem meritum hunc demersit at Styga Pluton.
quotsi fata eo sinuissent luce uidere,
ista prius triste munus posui<sset> dolori repletus,
munus inane quidem. terra nunc diuidit ista
ossua sub titulo potius. tu opta, uiator, cum pie-
tate tua ipso terra leue, nobis fortuna beata,
ex qua tu possis obitus bene linquere natos.
Val(erius) Antoninus et Aur(elius) Victorinus hered(es)
Vlpio Quintiano eq(uiti) sing(ulari) ben(e) mer(enti) posuer(unt).

Behold as you pass by, traveller, the offerings made by a cousin’s dutifulness.

Under tears I erected what you see placed here as an offering.

Pannonian land begot, Italian land buries him at the age of 26. To acquire for himself by his own efforts the honour of having served the army, he endured great pain over a long time. Later, when he hoped to have escaped that unspeakable pain, Pluto plunged him into the underworld before his time was up.

Had the Fates allowed him to see the light, he himself, filled with pain, would have preceded me in the duty – an unrewarding duty, too! – to erect such [a memorial]. Now this soil spreads out his bones instead.

You, traveller, wish him, in your dutifulness, earth that rests lightly on him, (wish) us a blessed fate, so that you may safely relinquish your offspring after you died yourself.

Valerius Antoninus and Aurelius Victorinus, the heirs, had this set up for Ulpius Quintianus, Imperial Horseguard, who deserved it well.

From Pannonia (i. e. the area of modern-day Hungary) originally, Ulpius Quintianus – so his cousin tells us – tried to distinguish himself, seeking the honour of having served the army (ut sibi | castris honorem atquireret ipse).

One way of looking at this piece and its sculpture of an armed horseman, crushing the bodies of his defeated enemies with a ferociously barking dog to accompany him, would be simply to acknowledge and he was successful, too, having become a member of the equites singulares, the imperial horseguards. (Pannonians and Dacians were made members of this prestigious unit from the time of Septimius Severus, and soldiers who joined this unit, typically signing up for 25 years, were given Roman citizenship straight away.)

But in his striving for honour, according to the stone, Quintianus’ service in the Roman army mostly meant one thing for him: major pain, magnus dolor, endured for a long time (tempore longo) – and, in fact, unspeakable pain (dolor nefandus). While the stone does not tell us what had happened or what had caused the pain, it seems to be clear that Quintianus eventually resigned his service (postea … effugisse), in the hope that things would improve.

He hoped in vain, as he died shortly thereafter, far away from home, with his cousin as his closest family member around who would erect this stone in Quintianus’ honour.

Military service, pain, separation from one’s loved ones, and premature death – things we choose to remember on 11 November.

They were not alien to Rome’s armed forces – armed forces that are rather better known for their inflicting suffering and pain on countless peoples around the Mediterranean and beyond for centuries.

The true(r) picture is just very hard to spot indeed behind the layers of imperial propaganda and the deeply romanticising accounts of Rome’s imperial historians and inscriptions: they typically focus on the glorious generals and their outstanding centurions rather than those men who actually fought the battles for them, having joined the army for reasons romantic, honourable, or even entirely selfish – distinction, honour, glory, and citizenship.

In a world in which armed conflicts are increasingly taking the shape of an extended sick computer game, it is indeed important to remember that the first rule of war is that people get injured and die, and that pain, suffering, and death do not distinguish between right and wrong, justified and unjustified.

Our narratives may romanticise war and create dreams of honour, distinction, but reality will always remain brutal, painful, and best captured in casualty statistics: the very dichotomy that is at the heart of Quintianus’ epitaph as well as the very contradiction that is at the heart of our nations’ luring young people into military service and then leaving them and their families without necessary means and support.

Image source: http://i.imgur.com/r0eGs0c.jpg?1.

Scene from M*A*S*H. – Image source: http://i.imgur.com/r0eGs0c.jpg?1.

And while we are in the remembering business: let us not forget all the innocent bystanders of war – civilian victims, people who get injured and/or lose everything, refugees, widows and widowers, orphans . . .

They all are part of the human cost of war, and they all are worthy of our commemoration.

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fruit of the Doom: an Image of Life, Death, and Letting Go in Roman Poetry


Fruit of doom (artist’s impression). – Image source: http://www.zeixs.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/fruit_skull_1.jpg.

Death has been on my mind lately, having recently learnt of the untimely passing of two of my colleagues at the University of Reading.

Whether death was imminent or came suddenly, whether it hits the old or the young – sensations of unpreparedness, abandon, and unfinished business are likely occur, coupled with feelings for those whose lives are changed more dramatically still than one’s own due to someone’s passing away.

Little does it seem to matter that death is inevitable, part of the human experience, part of who we are, and part of how we live our lives. Little does it seem to matter that death is constant part of my own research – not so much because Latin is regarded a dead language, but because funerary poetry is at the heart of my research into the Carmina Latina Epigraphica.

You live. You die. Nobody knows what comes after that (or, in fact, what lies before it). As simple as that.

Or is it?

One could be inclined, of course, simply to accept and to embrace this. The result might look a bit like the sobering conclusion provided by following poem from a tombstone from the city of Rome (CIL VI 22215 cf. p. 3527 = CLE 801):

M(arcus) Marius M(arci) l(ibertus) Sa[- – -]
M(arco) Mario M(arci) l(iberto) Th[- – -]
suo et Mariae M(arci) l(ibertae) Faus[- – -]
Rufo uitai consolata [- – -]
quid sumus aut loquimur uita est quid deniq[ue nostra,]
uel modo nobis cum uixit homo, nunc homo no[n est]:
stat lapis et nomen tantum, uestigia nulla.
quid quasi iam uita est, non
est quod quaerere cu[res].

Marcus Marius Sa…, freedman of Marcus, for his Marcus Marius Th…, freedman of Marcus, and Maria Faus…, freedwoman of Marcus … (to Rufus … life’s … consoled …)

Who we are or what we say that our life is at last
just as a man was living with us just now, and now he is no more:
the stone stands and his name alone; no further traces.
Just what exactly life is – that is nothing you wish to enquire about.

But then there is something deeply unsatisfactory about this – uestigia nulla, ‘no further traces’: was it really all in vain, was it really all without meaning, without consequence? Should we seek to create meaning where there was none before to make our existences bearable and even worthwhile?

Death – and unexpected, untimely death in particular – raises profound questions: questions for which there are no definitive answers.

There are many ways in which one may approach such questions, of course, ranging from despair to scientific investigation.

What we, as humans, appear to be craving most of all, however, in our quest for meaning and guidance, are images and narratives – meaning-laden, yet easily accessible, intuitive reflections of real-life experiences that provide structure and direction to what we cannot (or do refuse to) otherwise fathom.

Such images and narratives are likely to succeed in cases in which they match an obvious, common everyday life experience to some of life’s biggest questions of them all: questions in which discrepancies between ‘academic’, philosophical responses on the one hand and popular wisdom on the other hand are especially noticeable.

A particularly interesting example for this can be seen in the context of the question ‘why do people die before old age?’ – a scenario, in which the sensation of ‘unfinished business’ prevails and in which an unjust, greedy fate receives many a scolding.

A striking verbal image, however, may provide a rather different perspective on matters, as the following poem suggests (CLE 1543; Rome):

Meam amice ne doleas sortem:
moriendum fuit,
sic sunt hominum fata,
sicut in arbore poma
immatura cadunt
et matura leguntur.

My fate, dear friend, mourn not: I had to die. That’s our human fate, just like on a tree fruits either tumble to the ground before their time has come or get collected when ripe.

There are two ways, the poem suggests, in which fruits – as a metaphor for human fate – will abandon the nourishing tree of life: either they tumble before ripe (immatura cadunt), or they will get collected (whether still on their branches or not) when the right time has come (matura leguntur).

This is usually the point where people say: ‘but that’s a commonplace, something from a textbook for the composition of inscribed funerary verse – it has been discovered in many places across the Roman Empire’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the image is a familiar one. But not only do we not have any credible evidence for the existence of such pattern books: we also have no reason to believe that the surviving instances for the use of this verbal image are interchangeable or even remotely the same.

Images, verbal or otherwise, commonplace or not, are surprisingly adaptable and accommodating – and every single onlooker will focus on what resonates most with their own experience.

Also from the city of Rome, just as the previous example, comes the following inscription (CIL VI 7574 cf. p. 3431 = CLE 1490):

– – – – – –
[- – -]RA[- – -]IA is quo modo
mala in arbore pendunt,
sic corpora nostra
aut matura cadunt aut
cito acerva ruunt.
Domatius Tiras
filiae dulcissimae.

. . . just in the same way that apples are hanging in a tree, thus our bodies either tumble to the ground when ripe or plummet to the ground quickly, unripe still. Domatius Tiras for his sweetest daughter.

At first glance, this expresses the exact same sentiment, through which a father, Domatius Tiras, apparently tried to console himself over the loss of his daughter. But there are noticeable differences. Not only were the poma (fruits) replaced with the more specific mala (apples); it is no longer a story about human fata, fates, but one about human bodies (corpora). Moreover, it is not about harvest and reaping of fruits (leguntur in the previous inscription), but one of their general falling down, either when ripe (matura) or, all too soon, while still unripe and unpalatable (acerva ~ acerba).

The differences may be deemed small – but they open up an opportunity to expand the fruit-related imagery, as acerba, denoting a form of being unpalatable commonly through bitterness, is a quality that in Latin is very commonly being associated with mors, death: mors acerba is among the most common figures of speeches in Latin funerary inscriptions.

Slightly different still, the image employed in a verse inscription from Cordoba in Spain (CIL II ed. alt./7.567; image here):

[D(is) M(anibus)] s(acrum)
[- – -] an(norum) XVIIII
[- – – h(ic)] s(ita?) e(st) s(it) t(ibi) t(erra) l(evis).
[doleas tu qu]i stas et releges titu-
[lum monu]menti mei qu(a)e XVIII anno
[iam finito] dulcissimae matris meae
[gaudium e]xcidi animo. et noli do-
[lere mate]r: (?) moriendum fuit sic
[ut sunt pom]a sic et corpora nostra
[aut matu]ra cadunt aut nimis
[acerba r]uunt.

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

. . . , 19 years old, lies buried here. May earth rest lightly on you.

May you, who stands here and reads out my memorial’s inscription, feel the pain: having just finished my 18th year, I cut joy out of my sweetest mother’s heart. Do not be in pain, mother: I had to die: as if they are fruits, thus our bodies too either tumble to the ground when ripe or plummet, all too unripe still.

In this case, it is no longer just the similarity of the action (dangling, dropping) that provides the comparison between fruit (or apple) and human body (or human fate), but the human body is now declared to be tantamount to a fruit (sic ut sunt poma), therefore following the same principles of falling down at some point, whether when ripe or before that.

Moriendum fuit, I had to die – an unavoidable necessity, expressed before the image itself is introduced, just as in the following poem from Lucca in Etruria (CIL XI 7024 = CLE 1542):

D(is) M(anibus)
Achelous et Heorte
filiae dulcissimae.
tu [hic q]ui [stas atque spectas] monimentum
meum, [aspice quam indign]e sit data
vita m[ihi. quinque] annos
sui[- – – pare]ntes.
sextu[m annum insce]ndens
anim[am deposui mea]m.
nolite no[s dolere, paren]tes: mori-
endum fuit. pro[pe]rav[i]t aeta(s). Fatus
hoc voluit meus. sic quomodo mala
in arbore pendent si(c) corpora nostra
aut matura cadunt aut cit(o) acerba [r]uunt.
te, lapis, optestor leviter super ossa [re]sidas,
ni tenerae aetati tu [ve]lis gravis.

To the Spirits of the Departed of Nymphe. Achelous and Heorte (sc. had this made) for their sweetest daugther.


You, who stand here and look at my memorial, behold how undignified a life was given to me. For five years . . . the parents. As I was approaching the sixth year, I departed from my life. Do not vex yourselves, parents: I had to die. My lifetime was rushed. My fate desired this. Thus, how apples hang in a tree, thus our bodies either tumble to the ground when ripe or, all too quickly, they plummet, unripe still.

I ask you, stone, to rest lightly above my bones, lest you wish to be a heavy burden to a tender age.


The phrasing in the three aforementioned cases contrast cadere (‘tumble to the ground’) and ruere (‘plummet’). Both words denote the fruit’s downward movement from the branch to the ground. What exactly is the distinction? In the Digests, there is an interesting passage that might help to understand (Dig. 39.2.43.pr.6):

non videri sibi ruere, quod aut vento aut omnino aliqua vi extrinsecus admota caderet, sed quod ipsum per se concideret.

An object does not appear to ruere (‘to plummet’) when it drops (cadere, ‘tumble to the ground’) either through the wind or altogether driven by some other external force, but (sc. it does so) when it collapses (concidere) of its own accord.

The distinction, though from a different context, may, in fact, be important: when ripe (matura), fruits will come off easily e. g. by wind; when unripe still (immatura, acerba), there would appear to be some internal cause for the sudden, unexpected drop – quod ipsum per se concideret, as the Digests put it.

This maps on to a passage from Cicero’s treatise Cato Maior on old age, where Cato is represented as saying the following (Cic. Cato mai. 71, transl. W. A. Falconer):

Itaque adulescentes mihi mori sic videntur, ut cum aquae multitudine flammae vis opprimitur, senes autem sic, ut cum sua sponte nulla adhibita vi consumptus ignis exstinguitur; et quasi poma ex arboribus, cruda si sunt, vix evelluntur, si matura et cocta, decidunt, sic vitam adulescentibus vis aufert, senibus maturitas; quae quidem mihi tam iucunda est, ut, quo propius ad mortem accedam, quasi terram videre videar aliquandoque in portum ex longa navigatione esse venturus.

Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples [a judicious translation; the Latin has, in fact, poma, fruits] when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this ‘ripeness’ for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.

Ripeness for consumption, re-conceptualised by Cicero’s Cato as a reassuring thought for old age, is something that inspires little hope in those who think of themselves (or their beloved) as far away from that age still; Cicero’s Cato offers advice to those who are rather closer to old age than those who got commemorated through the aforementioned memorials.

In a way then, those who chose the sentiment and its imagery for those memorials and developed it further, thinking it through, noticing that death does not only come to those who are old, and expanding the image accordingly along the lines suggested by nature herself. There is not just vis, force, alone that may cause unripe fruits to plummet: it may be a quality of the fruits themselves, whether or not determined by fate, that initiates their untimely fall from the nourishing tree.

Thus far, it seemed logical to assume that the tree itself, with its fruit, is a general, unspecific provider of life to everyone alike – whether they die young or old. But it is possible to push the imagery even further still. As early as in the Iliad, the image of the (family) tree has been used – not with reference to the fruit it bears, but with regard to its ever-changing foliage, as an image for the many subsequent generations that make a family’s lineage (Il. 6.144–9; transl. A. T. Murray):

τὸν δ᾽ αὖθ᾽ Ἱππολόχοιο προσηύδα φαίδιμος υἱός:
‘Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ᾽ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ᾽ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ᾽ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ᾽ ἀπολήγει.

Then spake to him the glorious son of Hippolochus: ‘Great-souled son of Tydeus, wherefore inquirest thou of my lineage? Even as are the generations of leaves, such are those also of men. As for the leaves, the wind scattereth some upon the earth, but the forest, as it bourgeons, putteth forth others when the season of spring is come; even so of men one generation springeth up and another passeth away.’

But what if we ourselves were to be the tree in this ever-changing, ever-shifting image . . . ?

The author of the stoic treatise De remediis fortuitorum (‘On remedies against happenstance’), sometimes assigned to the younger Seneca, advises in the case of child-loss without any display of gratuitous kindness (Rem. fort. 13.1–3):

‘Amisi liberos.’ Stultus es, qui defles mortem mortalium. quid istic aut novum aut mirum est? quam rara est sine isto casu domus? Quid, si infelicem voces arborem, quod stante ipsa cadunt poma? et hic tuus fructus est. Nemo extra ictum vulneris positus est: ducuntur ex plebeia domo inmatura funera, ducuntur et ex regia. Non est idem fati ordo, qui et aetatis. non quomodo quisque venit, emittitur. quid hic tamen est, quod indigneris? quid contra exspectationem tuam evenit? periere perituri. ‘sed ego illos superstites optaveram.’ sed hoc nemo tibi promiserat.

‘I lost my children.’ You are stupid, as you weep over the death of mortals. What is new or strange here? How rare is a household without such an incident! What if you were to call a tree ill-omened, as its fruits tumble to the ground while itself still stands? And this is your fruit! No one is above the blow of such a wound: there are premature burials in a plebeian household, and they exist in royal ones as well. Fate does not form the same orderly queue as does age. One does not get to leave in the same way one arrived. What is it anyway that you take offence with? What happened against what you were expecting? Those who were to die … they died. ‘But I had hoped that they would outlive me.’ But no one promised you that!

Harsh words, no doubt – emphasising the supreme rule of order as established by fatum, fate (rather than one established by one’s date of birth). This recurs in a poem from Aix-en-Provence commemorating a physician (CIL XII 533 cf. p. 814 = CLE 465; images here):

Paulo siste gradum, iuvenis
pie, quaeso, viator, ut mea per
titulum noris sic invida fata. uno
minus quam bis denos ego vixi per ann(o)s,
integer innocuus semper pia mente
probatus, qui docili lusu iuvenum
bene doctus harenis pulcher et ille fui
variis circumdatus armis. saepe feras lusi,
medicus tamen is quoque vixi et comes
ursaris, comes his qui victima(m) sacris
caedere saepe solent et qui novo tempore
veris floribus intextis refovent
simulacra deorum. nomen si quaeris
titulus tibi vera fatetur:
Sex(tus) Iul(ius) Felicissimus.
Sex(tus) Iulius Felix
alumno incompara[bili et]
Felicitas f[ec(erunt)]. ||

Tu quicumque legis titulum
ferale(m) sepulti,
qui fuerim, quae vota mihi,
quae gloria disce:
bis denos vixi depletis
mensibus annos,
[e]t virtute potens et pulcher
flore iuventae
[e]t qui praefferrer (!) populi
laudantis amore.
[q]uit mea damna doles? fati
non vincitur ordo.
[res] hominum sic sunt ut
[citre]a (?) poma:
[aut matur]a cadunt aut
[immatura] leguntur.

Stall your travels a little, dutiful young man, I ask you, wayfarer, so that you get to know, through my inscription, just how invidious my fate was. I lived for one fewer than twenty years, unharmed, without a fault, always under the guidance of a dutiful mind – I was the beautiful one, well taught in the arena through the skillful game of the young, also clad in varying armour. Often I challenged wild beasts, and yet I led a life as a physician as well, joining the bear-baiters also, and accompanying those who usually to slay the beasts for sacrifices and to those who during the time of a new spring redecorate the statues of the gods with interwoven flowers. If you ask my name, the inscription will reveal it truthfully: Sextus Iulius Felicissimus. Sextus Iulius Felix and Felicitas had this made for their incomparable foster-child.

You, whoever you read this funerary inscription of this deceased, learn who I was, what my fate was, and in what honour I was held: I lived for twenty years, with just a few months short of that, mighty in bravery, beautiful in the flower of my youth, and a favourite in the love of the people and their praise. Why does my loss cause you pains? One cannot overcome the order imposed by fate. Human affairs are just like those golden fruits: either they tumble to the ground when ripe or they get collected before.

What at first glance may seem like yet another manifestation of the same sentiment is, however, its exact inversion: the poem from Rome that was used as a starting point for our considerations, above, put it in the opposite order:

sic sunt hominum fata,
sicut in arbore poma
immatura cadunt
et matura leguntur.

That’s our human fate, just like on a tree fruits either tumble to the ground before their time has come or get collected when ripe.

How come?

There are three possible explanations:

  • The (alleged) inversion may be a mere oversight of the scholar who restored the text (one might just as well supply something along the lines of [immatur]a cadunt aut | [iam matura] leguntur, maintaining the established order), or
  • the writers had different types of fruit in mind, or
  • the writers had different approaches to what a premature death meant in the grander scheme of things: forceful removal from the stem (in the case of the inscription from Rome) vs. careful selection at the time of one’s physical peak (in the case of the inscription from Aix-en-Provence), before, past one’s prime, the only way was down.

The last explanation may well be the most likely one, connecting this text with the well-known principle that those whom the gods love die young.

Verbal imagery, however close it gets to resembling uninspired commonplace thinking, can be surprisingly flexible and accommodating, depending on how far authors are prepared to push their metaphors.

The verbal image that draws on the observation of varied behaviours of fruits on a tree, employed as a means to explain how it is that some people die sooner than others, is no exception to that.

Does it help us to address, or even to overcome, the sensations of unpreparedness, abandon, and unfinished business that emerge when confronted with death (and premature death in particular)? And how much of a difference does it make whether one gets to read about it in the context of a philosophical treatise or adopted as a motto by someone who personally experienced such loss?

You tell me.

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

Howdy, Stranger . . . !

As the current debate over refugees, migrants, EU-wide quotas, and immigration-vs-national identity strikes increasingly bizarre, shrill, and discordant notes, I recently had the pleasure to contemplate in somewhat greater depth a remarkable funerary inscription from Aquileia in north-east Italy:

CLE 2199. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder.php?bild=$InscrAqu_03_03180.jpg.

CLE 2199. – Image source here.

The inscription’s text, engraved on a medium-sized marble panel (66 x 47 cm) that would appear to date to the fifth century A. D., a text that shows several dactylic runs without ever altogether amounting to a poem written in hexameters, reads as follows (CIL V 1703 = CLE 1878 adn. = CLE 2199 = ILCV 4813a):

Hic iacet Restutus peleger in pace fidelis.
ex Africa venit ut istam urbe(m) videret.
hec invisa tellus istum voluit corpus habe-
re. hic quo natus fuerat optans erat illo
reverti. id magis crudelius ut nullum suo-
rumque videret. invenerat satis amplius
quam suos ipse parentes. nec iam erat exter, si-
cut provenit ut esset ab ipsis. sed quo fata vocant
nullus resistere possit. huic sodalicium Floren-
sium contra votum fecerunt.

Here lies, faithful in peace, Restutus, a foreigner.

He came from Africa, so as to visit that city. This spiteful soil desired to hold on to him as a corpse. He held the desire to return there from where he hailed. The situation was made a lot worse still by the fact that he did not get to see any of his family members again. Yet he had got to meet rather more still than his parents (sc. here): no longer was he an alien, but he was to live as if he was an offspring of ourselves. Yet, no one may resist (sc. going) where fate is calling.

For him the sodalicium Florensium had this made, against their vow.

The inscription honours one Restutus who is described as peleger, which has been (sufficiently credibly) explained as a variant of Classical peregrinus (cf. Ital. ‘pellegrino’, Engl. ‘pilgrim’) – suggesting that he was a foreigner of sorts at least to this part of the Roman Empire (without necessarily implying any specific legal status to the man or even suggesting that he was not a Roman citizen: in fact, the name that he is given in this inscription, Restutus, is perfectly Roman and reasonably well attested).

In addition to that, the opening line also suggests that Restutus was of Christian faith – the phrase in pace fidelis is an unambiguous giveaway for that.

Restutus’ origin was in Africa – not very specific information, of course, though one must wonder if this refers to the province of Africa proconsularis more specifically, where the name Restutus is well attested otherwise as well.

Why did he come to Aquileia? The inscription is not altogether clear about that – all it says is that he desired to see ista urbs, ‘that city’: was that city Aquileia? Or Rome, in fact? (And if the latter, why would he take such a detour from Africa, going via Aquileia? Was this part of his pilgrimage?)

The word used for the pilgrimage-related context of Restutus’ travel is videre, ‘to visit’ – a paradigm that is immediately picked up in the next sentence in the term invisus, literally ‘un-seen’, denoting something that conveys an evil, spiteful gaze: the tellus, the soil of Aquileia, that had its own plans for Restutus – to hang on to him forever … as a corpse (assuming that istum is, in fact, a reference to Restutus, and not an alternative form for istud, which would give a slightly different nuance to the text: ‘to hold on to that body’).

Restutus appears to have dwelled in Aquileia for an extended period of time – a period of time, however, during which he never gave up hope of returning home. The intensity of his desire to return is expressed in the phrase optans erat, ‘he held the desire’, as in ‘he was wishing (all the time)’ – heightening the immediacy of the phrase vis-a-vis the more common way of expressing an action that went on for a longer period of time in Latin: optabat.

Quite apart from Restutus’ inability to return home, what appears to have tormented him in particular (note the hyper-characterisation of his pains in the double comparative magis crudelius!) was the physical separation from his family (expressed in an ut-clause rather than a Classically elegant accusative-cum-infinitive: times for prescriptive grammar rules are a-changin’!).

But what was magis crudelius, more crueller (if you will), was also a blessing in a way (or so the inscription wishes to make us believe): for Restutus found satis amplius (‘sufficiently more’, quite literally – another hyper-characterisation) in terms of a replacement at Aquileia for what he had been forced to leave behind in Africa: his parents!

No longer was he regarded an outsider, an alien: nec iam erat exter – he was treated as if he was an offspring of the community where he was grounded against his plans, as the rather convoluted phrase sicut provenit ut esset ab ipsis, barely rendered as ‘he was to live as if he was an offspring of ourselves’ is trying to explain to its readership.

But no one can escape death – and so the (otherwise unknown) sodalicium Florensium (which could be anything from a burial society to a religious community of some sort) decided to do the decent thing, much against what they had hoped to do: they organised his burial and gave him this monument contra votum (‘against their vow’, a phrase that is a not altogether uncommon expression in contexts in which friends rather than family members took care of a burial).

One may easily overlook this text as one of hundreds of thousands of Latin inscriptions – as one of thousands of poetic and poeticising Latin poems on tombstones.

Doing so, however, means overlooking a text that, more so than most other ancient Latin texts, captures perfectly the worries of staggering numbers of displaced people (back then just as much as nowadays): the fear of dying far away from one’s home, without any hope of seeing one’s native soil and one’s family again; the fear of permanently remaining an alien, without a domicile, without a network of friends, without being part of a community.

The sodalicium Florensium, whoever they were, claim to have made a difference in the life of Restutus – and they have made a difference beyond the time of his life, in the commemoration of his death.

They gave him dignity in a foreign place, and they claim to have given him the same support, and more, that he could have expected from his own parents, so that he no longer had to feel like an alien – he had become one of them (and still he always desired to go home!).

What a beautiful statement to make, and what a beautiful way to be commemorated.

Will our own communities be able to write similarly touching, unquestioningly welcoming statements on the tombstones of those foreigners who die far away from their home and family?

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 64 Comments

And the Owl doesn’t care…

The internet is a strange place – full of the most wondrous things and inspiration.

Over the last year, I have published a number of blog posts to do with (mostly poetic) memorials for dogs in the Roman world – you can find them here, here, and here.

Today, my blog has seen a certain amount of traffic coming from a Russian webpage, which refers to an earlier blog post written by Mary Beard, then to one of mine (stating Ну, и собачки, конечно – куда ж без них, ‘well, the dog, of course … where would we be without them’), and finally says А вот сов никто не любит (‘but no one likes owls’).

I certainly did not want to give the impression that I discriminate against owls – they are just not particularly common in ancient Latin inscriptions. So, for all you owl lovers out there (and everyone else, of course), here are a few Latin inscriptions that do mention owls – you will be delighted to see that they include some pretty funky items!

1. Mosaic from Thysdrus (El Djem, Tunisia), AE 1995, 1643 = AE 2007, 1684 adn.

Owl Mosaic, El Jem. – Image source: http://www.reinhardkargl.com/iBlog/owldoesnotcare016.jpg.

Owl Mosaic, El Jem. – Image source: http://www.reinhardkargl.com/iBlog/owldoesnotcare016.jpg.

Invidia rumpuntur aves, neque noctua curat.

The birds are bursting with envy, and the owl does not care.

Others have written about this piece before me (see e.g. Sarah E. Bond’s great blog post about the evil eye), and there is no need to go into great detail here: the owl, front and centre, wearing a toga, is surrounded by dead songbirds.

The mosaic was discovered in a bath house complex, and it displays the insignia of the Telegenii, a group of local showmen and performers at Thysdrus, who very clearly felt proud of their status and their organisation – in fact so proud that they must have deemed themselves immune to jealousy and attacks of those who tried to outperform them in terms of spectacle.

The owl in the mosaic – a proud Roman citizen rather than any kind of migratory fowl – is not bothered, neither in its musive depiction nor according to the text itself: neque noctua curat.

2. Graffito from Pompeii, CIL IV 9131 = CLE 1936

Owl-related graffito from Pompeii. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder/$CIL_04_09131.jpg.

Owl-related graffito from Pompeii. – Image source: http://db.edcs.eu/epigr/bilder/$CIL_04_09131.jpg.

Fullones ululamque cano | non arma virumq(ue).

Of fullers and the owl I sing … not of arms and the man.

An obvious pun on the opening line of Vergil‘s Aeneid, this graffito invites its readership to follow the writer away from the realm of learned, yet highly popular epic poetry to the mundane, yet highly important workshops of the fullers at Pompeii.

More specifically still, the piece was discovered outside the workshop of one Marcus Fabius Ululitremulus (‘Owl-Quaker’), in the context of an image that depicted Aeneas himself – allowing for a remarkably intelligent ironic interaction between text and image.

The owl was important in this context not merely as a pun on the name of the workshop’s master, however; the owl also was a visual feature in the display of the Roman goddess Minerva, patron of the fullers’ guild.

3. Graffito from Pompeii, CIL IV 4118 = CLE 1936 adn. = ILS 6441e

Discovered in another building, but belonging to the same sphere, there is a second graffito from Pompeii that links the fullers and the owl; written by one Crescens (who is notorious in that building), the graffito reads thus:

Cresce(n)s fullonibus et ululae suae sal(utem). ||  ulula est.

Crescens to the fullers and his owl: greetings! || It’s an owl!

This set of texts was accompanied by a drawing:

Drawing of an owl. – Image source: Langner, Graffitizeichnungen.

Drawing of an owl. – Image source: Langner, Graffitizeichnungen.

As some scholars have pointed out before: the drawing looks so inept, that one might regard the comment ulula est, it’s an owl, as a clarification in response to the drawing rather than a planned label.

4. Funerary monument from Benevento, CIL IX 1973 (cf. p. 695)

Not a mention of the owl, as such, in this final piece, a tombstone from Ravenna (on whose text see Mika Kajava’s excellent short note), but a reference to the owl-like howling sound (ululatio) that gave this species of animal one of its ancient names (ulula):

L(uci) Stenni Ann[ei] | Africani inf[an]|ti[s] dulcissimi | qui vix(it) ann(is) XI | mens(ibus) VIII dieb(us) XI | parentes infeli|cissimi amissio|ne eius perpetu|is tenebris et co|tidiana misera|bili ululatione | damnati.

Of Lucius Stennius Anneius (?) Africanus, the sweetest child, who lived 11 years, 8 months, 11 days, (set up by) the parents, most unhappy due to their loss, condemned to eternal darkness and daily, woeful lament.

As this piece took its starting point from the lament over the absence of owls, it seems only appropriate to conclude it by a reference to the sound of owl-like lament, even if otherwise owls in Latin inscriptions appear somewhere between ‘just not bothered’ and ‘pretty damn cool and down to earth (as opposed to that Aeneas guy)’ . . .

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

Restoring a Ghost Inscription from Reading

I have deep respect for the immense learning, skills, and achievements of many of my academic teachers as well as other scholars with whom I was fortunate enough to cross paths at various stages of my professional life.

An example of this is my irrationally profound admiration for the late Géza Alföldy‘s repeatedly proven skill in restoring ‘ghost inscriptions’ from pin holes – interpreting the cluster of pin holes once used to attach metal letters to monumental surfaces and thus allowing for ancient texts that could not be read for centuries to be studied again.

For a few years now I had been planning to do something similar for an inscription that I had spotted (or rather: whose absence I had spotted) at the pedestal of a monument on St. Mary’s churchyard of Reading (Berkshire):

Jubilee Cross, Reading. -- Photo: PK, September 2015.

Jubilee Cross, Reading. — Photo: PK, September 2015.

The structure is a Grade II listed building and described as a ‘jubilee cross’.

On one of the steps, facing the street, one sees the following cluster of pin holes:

Jubilee Cross, Reading: Inscription. -- Photo: PK, September 2015.

Jubilee Cross, Reading: Inscription. — Photo: PK, September 2015.

The inscription, once mounted to the surface with small metal letters in a typical local fashion, has almost entirely disappeared – all that is left are a few traces of letters in the very final line of this inscription that was written over seven lines.

Careful examination of the pin holes allows to restore the text as follows:

by public subscription and by munificence of
Isaac Harrison Esq.
by which the monuments in St. Mary’s Butts
were brought to a successful completion.
A.D. 1887
The year of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

Isaac Harrison Esq. was a surgeon, who resided in Reading’s Castle Street for the better part of the 19th century, and his benefactions as well as his medical writings are well documented.

The Jubilee Cross, designed by Slingsby Stallwood, is conceived as one of the ‘monuments in St. Mary’s Butts’ that were successfully completed in 1887 – it thus sits alongside the entirely secular Jubilee Fountain on the island of St. Mary’s Butts and (one may infer) the then only recently completed refurbishment of Reading Minster itself.

View of St. Mary's Butts, 1912. – Image source here.

View of St. Mary’s Butts, 1912. – Image source here.

In conjunction with the Jubilee Fountain and the statue of Queen Victoria at St. Laurence Church (about which I have written in my recent book The Writing on the Wall: Reading’s Latin Inscriptions), the Jubilee cross is thus a third monumental structure to commemorate the golden jubilee of Britain’s now second-longest serving monarch in Reading.

With its largely vanished script, the Jubilee Cross is, however, also a memorial to Reading’s continuing reluctance to honour its past and to preserve its collective, cultural memory.

[I am grateful to Emma Holding, who helped me with the decipherment of the inscription.]

Posted in Epigraphy, History of Reading, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What have the Syrians ever done for us…?

Things are difficult – and not particularly cheerful – at the moment.

The so-called migrant crisis, the barbarism of ISIS troops in Syria and elsewhere, the humanitarian and fiscal crisis of Greece, Europe’s politicians’ utter inability to defend the human(e)ly necessary against nationalist and populist voices as well as against those of the world of finance . . . depressing, shocking, and utterly soul-destroying news everywhere.

Things took a dramatic turn this week due to the power that comes with masterfully arranged images – a medium so much more immediate and full of impact than any text can ever be.

First, there were the images of ISIS felons blowing up the ancient ruins of Palmyra for the sake of it (i. e. to hurt the Westerners in their love for everything ancient as well as to sell everything they can on the antiques market, in order to finance future heinous efforts).

Aylan and Galip during happier times. – Image source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/refugee-crisis-syrian-boy-washed-up-on-beach-turkey-trying-to-reach-canada.

Aylan and Galip Kurdi during happier times. – Image source here [caution: graphic images on the linked webpage].

Secondly, significantly more overwhelming and unbearable still, there were the photos of a three-year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose corpse had been washed ashore after he (together with his older brother and his mother) had fallen off a dinghy on his way to what the family had hoped would be a better, secure future in Canada, reunited with other family members.

The photos of Aylan Kurdi’s corpse may well prove to have been a game changer. David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister and Supreme Blowhard when it comes to foreign affairs (from Britain’s EU membership to immigration), announced that – against his earlier statements – Britain will now take a share of Syrian refugees after all.

Too late, too little, of course, but then basic principles of compassion and humanity tend to fly out of the window whenever there are elections to be won, nationalist parties to be fought, and that particular brand of narrow-minded, selfish, and paranoid people (you know, those who always think that everyone out there has nothing better to do than to inconvenience them personally and to take away their hard-earned money) to be impressed – against all ethics and the convictions of a vast (if not always necessarily particularly vocal) majority of the British people.

In fact, even Britain’s deeply hypocritical rags and wannabe-representatives of the vox populi, The Sun and the Daily Mail, could no longer sustain their extended anti-immigration campaigns.

The study of history does not teach us much (if, in fact, anything): it never has, and presumably it never will. But every now and then, the study of history provides us with remarkable little stories that put current events into an interesting light and a long-term perspective – and challenge us to reflect a bit about our own behaviour (though, chances are, no one will change their behaviours as a result of it anyway).

The historical presence of Syrians in Britain is one such story, however – and it dates back a lot further than one might at first expect. In fact, it dates back – at least! – to Roman times, when Syrians, as part of the Roman auxiliary forces, helped to establish and to build the province of Britannia.

In the corpus of Roman inscriptions from Britain, there are numerous examples of individuals who self-identify as Syrians by nationality. The single most remarkable instance is attested on a lavish (and undoubtedly expensive) memorial that was discovered at Arbeia (South Shields), by the Eastern end of Hadrian’s wall:


RIB 1065. – Image source here.

The piece – a tombstone for a woman called Regina of uncertain date (possibly second century A. D.?) – consists of three essential components, only two of which may immediately appear to the untrained eye: a sculpture, and two inscriptions (yes, two, not just one).

The ‘main’ (as in: ‘bigger, framed’) inscription is written in Latin and reads as follows (RIB 1065):

D(is) M(anibus). Regina(m) liberta(m) et coniuge(m)
Barat(h)es Palmyrenus natione
Catvallauna(m) an(norum) XXX.

In English:

To the Spirits of the Departed. Barathes of Palmyra (sc. buries here) Regina, a freedwoman and his wife, a Catuvellaunian by origin, aged 30.

Barathes, a Syrian, who self-identifies in this inscription as a native of Palmyra, would appear to be a foreigner (peregrinus) not only to Britain, but to the Roman Empire – and one may well wonder what he and his wife Regina were doing in Roman Britain near  Hadrian’s wall.

Another inscription from Hadrian’s wall, discovered at the Roman fort of Coria (Corbridge) just over 25 miles away from the above item and substantially less well executed, mentions another citizen of Palmyra. Due to its fragmentation, the stone does not exhibit his name in full – all that survives is the second half of it: [- – -]rathes (RIB 1171):

RIB 1171.

RIB 1171. – Image source here.

It is tempting (and perfectly plausible) to supplement this as [Ba]rathes. But is this the same man as the Barathes of the inscription above? After all, Barathes is not an altogether uncommon name in Palmyrene nomenclature. But how many of them will have been at Hadrian’s wall at the time…?

If – and that is a big if – the two Baratheses are identical, then the second stone reveals the man’s occupation: according to the Corbridge stone he was a vexil(l)a(rius) and died aged 68 (vixit an(n)os LXVIII).

The most obvious understanding of vexil(l)a(rius) is ‘standard-bearer’ or ‘flag-bearer’, i. e. a military position. As suggested before, however, there are very good reasons to assume that neither Barathes (whether or not they were identical) were a Roman citizens, but peregrini instead. In that case, one must wonder if the Barathes of RIB 1171 was a military man at all, or whether vexillarius was a title for either a merchant in flags and other signs (unattested otherwise, but not to be ruled out a priori) or whether he held a ceremonial function in a collegium fabrorum (‘guild of engineers’), for example.

The discrepancy in lavishness between the stone for the wife and for Barathes himself (if identical!) could thus be explained by a decrease in wealth, once Barathes had reached a certain age and could no longer work as a craftsman.

Returning to the stone from South Shields, one must wonder about another detail: Regina, the wife, is described as a native of the Britannic tribe of the Catuvellauni as well as a freedwoman. The Catuvellauni were a Celtic tribe that inhabited an area north of modern-day London, roughly covering modern-day Hertfordshire and stretching as far north as Cambridgeshire.

How did she end up (i) at Hadrian’s wall and (ii) in Barathes’ possession, so that he could act as her patron (though not under Roman but, presumably, under Palmyrene law)?

The first question is impossible to answer. The second question cannot be answered with any certainty, but there are two main options: either she was captured and sold into slavery as a result of a Roman military campaign, or – equally possible – she was sold into slavery by her own family.

It is not clear as to whether Barathes was the ‘first’ owner of Regina as a slave, or whether he acquired her from someone else. As Regina (‘queen’) is a Latin name unlikely to be her native Celtic name (and hardly a Palmyrene name, unlike Barathes’), one must assume that she took this name during her enslavement.

The way in which Barathes chose to have his former slave and then wife represented in the sculpture of her tombstone lives up to the notion of, if not a queen, an eminently dignified, upper-class lady. The editors of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain describe the artwork of the stone as follows:

‘[T]he deceased sits facing front in a wicker chair. She wears a long-sleeved robe over her tunic, which reaches to her feet. Round her neck is a necklace of cable pattern, and on her wrists similar bracelets. On her lap she holds a distaff and spindle, while at her left side is her work-basket with balls of wool. With her right hand she holds open her unlocked jewellery-box. Her head is surrounded by a large nimbus (…)’.

Regina may not have been a queen in real life, but Barathes certainly presents her as almost sitting on a throne – presented in the garments and posture of a lady from Palmyra, dignified, wealthy, leading a distinguished, civilised life up to the time of her (relatively young) demise.

There is another aspect to the memorial, however, that is quite indicative of both Barathes’ attitude towards identity and his relationship with Regina. As mentioned initially, the monument does not only exhibit one (Latin) inscription, but two. Underneath the framed Latin inscription, there is a second one, written in Barathes’ native tongue, Palmyrene, which reads as follows:


In English:

Regina, freedwoman of Barathes: alas!

The Latin inscription pays heed to circumstance – an environment in which Latin had become the language of the rulers and in which the couple had learnt to survive (and apparently to do reasonably well – at least to a certain point in Barathes’ life). It operates with official terms such as liberta (‘freedwoman) and coniux (‘wife’) – though they are unlikely to be labels under Roman law (as mentioned before).

In letters rather less awkwardly written than the Latin (leading some scholars to believe that this was carved by an Eastern craftsman rather than a local one), the inscription does not merely repeat the essential information in the widower’s own language – it adds the personal expression of grief, ‘alas!’ to it, visible only to those who pay attention to the ‘fine print’ at the bottom, understandable only to those who know the script and the language, meaningful only to Barathes himself. It is the personal aside of someone who has largely accepted the leading culture for himself, without being prepared to bid farewell to his own identity – that of a foreigner, thousands of miles away from his native Palmyra in Syria.

Barathes, the Syrian in Roman Britain, has done something beautiful. He acquired, freed, and married a girl from Britain, whose life had taken a disastrous turn – becoming a slave, either as a result of Roman campaigns or as a result of her family’s poverty (or greed) in uncertain times. He, as the tombstone suggests, gave her dignity, safety, and made her his queen, not only in name.

Times have changed a lot. Regina’s story is one that, nowadays, happens on a daily basis in Syria, in Palmyra, in the war-torn Near East, under the vicious regime of ISIS fighters and other parties.

Who will save those people from their predicament and restore their well-being and dignity?

Who will be their Barathes?

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Reading’s Latin Inscriptions

May I be forgiven some shameless self-advertising? My latest book has just been published by Reading’s wonderful Two Rivers Press!

WotWThe book contains an anthology of 48 Latin inscriptions that are on display in Berkshire’s county town of Reading (as well as an extra four that have disappeared some time ago!) – covering some 1,800 years of Latin in use as a language of authority, of the church, of business, of learning, and – of course – as a language to honour the dead.

The book, showcasing the very finest examples of a body of some 200 inscribed Latin texts altogether from the Reading area, is the result of several years of fieldwork (about which I have occasionally blogged on here) – and if you wish to follow my walking routes, there is even a handy map that shows you the location of the various pieces that are covered in my book on Google Maps!

The book, beautifully designed and illustrated, is available from the publisher, Inpress Books, Waterstones, and – soon –  Amazon.

For anyone in and around Reading: I will be signing copies of my book at Reading’s Broad Street branch of Waterstones next Saturday (12 September, 3-4pm) as part of Reading’s activities during the 2015 Heritage Open Days (further information can be found here).

Posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Education, Epigraphy, History of Reading, Poetry, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments