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:$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. ‘pelegrino’, 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 , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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:

Owl Mosaic, El Jem. – Image source:

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:$CIL_04_09131.jpg.

Owl-related graffito from Pompeii. – Image source:$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:

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?

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

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

Displaced Human Beings: Seneca, the Refugee Crisis, and Human Migration

Herma of Seneca (on the opposite: Socrates). – Image source here.

Herma of Seneca (opposite: Socrates). – Image source here.

In A. D. 41, long before he became one of Rome’s most powerful political figures, the Roman politician, Stoic philosopher, and writer Lucius Annaeus Seneca got to experience first hand what hundreds of thousands of people are enduring at the moment: a change of scenery, forced upon him by political circumstances.

Somewhat deviously charged with adultery with Julia Livilla, Emperor Caligula’s youngest sister, who had fallen out of favour with Messalina, Seneca in a fait accompli was exiled to Corsica. Being the cause of grief to his mother Helvia, Seneca in his work De consolatione ad Helviam matrem reflects on the nature of his forced displacement, on the nature of displacement in general, and on the nature of human migration.

Seneca describes his own situation – exile – as follows (Sen. dial. 12.6.1; translation from here):

Setting aside, then, the verdict of the majority, who are carried away by the first appearance of things and the usual opinion about them, let us consider what is meant by exile: clearly a changing from one place to another. That I may not seem to be narrowing its force, and taking away its worst parts, I must add, that this changing of place is accompanied by poverty, disgrace, and contempt.

Seneca, quite wittily and driven by his desire to produce a narrative that would help his mother to find some consolation in her son’s condition, introduces an element of generalisation to his specific situation – he is a displaced person, and, of course, displaced people were a rather common occurrence already in the ancient world – and in Rome, the empire’s ethnic melting pot, particularly so (Sen. dial. 12.6.2-3):

“Look, I pray you, on these vast crowds, for whom all the countless roofs of Rome can scarcely find shelter: the greater part of those crowds have lost their native land: they have flocked hither from their country towns and colonies, and in fine from all parts of the world.

Some have been brought by ambition, some by the exigencies of public office, some by being entrusted with embassies, some by luxury which seeks a convenient spot, rich in vices, for its exercise, some by their wish for a liberal education, others by a wish to see the public shows. Some have been led hither by friendship, some by industry, which finds here a wide field for the display of its powers. Some have brought their beauty for sale, some their eloquence: people of every kind assemble themselves together in Rome, which sets a high price both upon virtues and vices.

Bid them all to be summoned to answer to their names, and ask each one from what home he has come: you will find that the greater part of them have left their own abodes, and journeyed to a city which, though great and beauteous beyond all others, is nevertheless not their own.

Rome, as described by Seneca in this passage, provided a home to a significant migrant community – a community of displaced people, of people living away from where they were born and raised.

Seneca, again quite deliberately for his own argumentative purposes of course, does not substantially distinguish between the various groups of displaced people; he mentions refugees and slaves (‘the greater part of those crowds have lost their native land’), soldiers of fortune (‘brought by ambition’), ambassadors (brought to Rome ‘by the exigencies of public office’ or ‘entrusted with embassies’), shady businessmen (driven ‘by luxury which seeks a convenient spot, rich in vices, for its exercise’), overseas students (with a ‘wish for a liberal education’), and event tourists (with a ‘wish to see the public shows’).

Personal relationships, political ambition, entrepreneurship – there are many more reasons, according to Seneca, why one might have ended up in Rome (who, as a Spaniard living in Rome, must be included in those numbers himself).

What they all have in common, however, is this: they ended up in a place that was not their home – an experience that Seneca now came to share with them, losing his elected adoptive home, Rome, at least temporarily.

Despite the aforementioned wide range of causes that may result in people’s (and peoples’) choices to relocate, Seneca is by no means oblivious to the fact that, more often than not, there is an exigency, a dire predicament of sorts, at the core of the issue of human displacement (Sen. dial. 12.7.3-4):

Some have been tossed hither and thither by long wanderings, until they have become too wearied to choose an abode, but have settled in whatever place was nearest to them: others have made themselves masters of foreign countries by force of arms: some nations while making for parts unknown have been swallowed up by the sea: some have established themselves in the place in which they were originally stranded by utter destitution.

Nor have all men had the same reasons for leaving their country and for seeking for a new one: some have escaped from their cities when destroyed by hostile armies, and having lost their own lands have been thrust upon those of others: some have been cast out by domestic quarrels: some have been driven forth in consequence of an excess of population, in order to relieve the pressure at home: some have been forced to leave by pestilence, or frequent earthquakes, or some unbearable defects of a barren soil: some have been seduced by the fame of a fertile and over-praised clime.

Seneca’s conclusion (Sen. dial. 12.7.5):

Different people have been led away from their homes by different causes; but in all cases it is clear that nothing remains in the same place in which it was born: the movement of the human race is perpetual: in this vast world some changes take place daily.

And some of these changes, so Seneca tells us, are as wide-ranging and profound as they are lasting in nature – potentially the origin of something new and exciting, as only time will be able to tell (Sen. dial. 12.7.5-6):

The foundations of new cities are laid, new names of nations arise, while the former ones die out, or become absorbed by more powerful ones. And yet what else are all these general migrations but the banishments of whole peoples? Why should I lead you through all these details? what is the use of mentioning Antenor the founder of Padua, or Evander who established his kingdom of Arcadian settlers on the banks of the Tiber? or Diomedes and the other heroes, both victors and vanquished, whom the Trojan war scattered over lands which were not their own?

It would be shortsighted, however, to describe the whole process as a one-way street. Very much in line with the view that he held initially, namely that there are very many different shades of a common phenomenon – displaced human beings, humans who were led away from their homes for whatever reason –, Seneca makes it blatantly clear that even those countries that may perceive themselves at the receiving end of substantial numbers of migrants should be aware of their own role in history.

Rome was not only founded by refugees herself (or so legend has it): Rome has sent her own citizens into regions far away from home – into places where they had no business to be in the first place (and, one may add, causing migration away from the regions that Rome had conquered subsequently; Sen. dial. 12.7.7):

It is a fact that the Roman Empire itself traces its origin back to an exile as its founder, who, fleeing from his country after its conquest, with what few relics he had saved from the wreck, had been brought to Italy by hard necessity and fear of his conqueror, which bade him seek distant lands. Since then, how many colonies has this people sent forth into every province? wherever the Roman conquers, there he dwells.

To my mind, there is a key sentence in Seneca’s discourse (Sen. dial. 12.7.5):

Different people have been led away from their homes by different causes; but in all cases it is clear that nothing remains in the same place in which it was born: the movement of the human race is perpetual: in this vast world some changes take place daily.

Those who believe that they can cement an (alleged) status quo wish to make believe with their facile and populist, yet deeply inhumane and in fact inhuman, arguments that human migration, exile, and refuge are threatening the safety and stability of our civilisation – not seldom resorting to dehumanising language when talking about those who have lost everything and are already fighting for their very lives.

Seneca draws attention to the fact that the contrary is true: those who think that they can cement the (alleged) status quo are the ones who act against the flow of nature. There is no stability of the human condition on this planet – there never has been and there never will be, however deceptive short periods of peacefulness may be.

One may be afraid of that, or alternatively, as Seneca does, choose to derive hope from it – accepting reality and acting in accordance with it.

But what hope can there be for countries, governments, and people that choose to deny help, humanity, and being a ‘safe haven’ to refugees and migrants – or as I prefer to call them: human beings?

‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ they say.

Present approaches to the world-wide refugee crisis and human migration may make one fear for the worst if others ever get to do unto us as we are doing unto them presently.

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God(s) Help Us All!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CIL XIII 6638. – Photo PK, August 2015.

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

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

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

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

Which means:

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

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

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

Polychromic reconstruction of the altar. – Image source:

Polychromic reconstruction of the altar. – Image source:

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All Work and No Play…?

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

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

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

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

My lakeside office...

My lakeside office…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cecil the Fabled Lion

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

Cecil the lion. – Image source:

Cecil the lion. – Image source:

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

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

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

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

Illustration from Sebastian Brant's 'Esopi Appologi' (early 1500s). – Image source (cropped):

Illustration from Sebastian Brant’s ‘Esopi Appologi’ (early 1500s). – Image source (cropped):

Leo senex, aper, taurus et asinus

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

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

The Old Lion

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

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

The once proud lion, killed by an ass.

Enough said.

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Four-legged snake 1 – Latin 0

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

Its name? Tetrapodophis amplectus, apparently.

τέτταρες (tettares) ~ “4”.

πούς (pous) ~ “foot”.

ὄφις (ophis) ~ “snake”.

But … what exactly is amplectus supposed to mean?

How the snake tried to overcome the rules of the Latin language. (Artist's impression) - Image source:

How the snake tried to overcome the rules of the language of the Romans (Artist’s impression). – Image source

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

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

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

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

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