Here lies (insert name here), or: Why reading beyond a quotation is a really good idea

There is an old theory, originally proposed by René Cagnat in 1889 and widely believed by classical scholars, that in the Roman world there were manuals for the use of professional stone cutters and the like, providing them with model texts – stencils or templates, so to speak – for their use on ancient tombstones.

The thinking behind this is as obvious and simplistic as the evidence for these manuals is scarce:

  • There are a good number of cases in which the same texts (usually: a poem) has come to light on several inscriptions for different individuals in diverse parts of the Roman empire – unless one is to believe in a fantastic (and repeat) case of coincidence, something must have facilitated knowledge of such model poems.
  • Plutarch‘s work on the Pythian oracles mentions the use of poetic manuals for quick composition of poems for the use of mountebank diviners.
  • Unlike their literary counterparts, the poets of the Latin verse inscriptions are preconceived to be inferior, uninspired, and generally useless at their job.

One could argue against the entire range of false or problematic preconceptions here, but I will keep that for my forthcoming work on the Carmina Latina Epigraphica as ‘the poetry of the people’.

Instead, I would like to demonstrate a particularly interesting case of the ways in which prejudice and problematic aprioris work.

Robert Ireland, in Martin Henig’s Handbook of Roman Art (Oxford 1983, p. 221) presents the following, rather curious case:

Conventional texts could be extracted from collections of ready-made formulae: verses identical save for the names of the deceased (which often fail to scan) re-appear in metrical epitaphs from different parts of the Empire, and one artist made the careless but revealing error of copying his pattern-text unmodified on to the stone: HIC IACET CORPVS PVERI NOMINANDI – that is, roughly, ‘HERE LIES THE BODY OF (a boy: put the name in)’.

Hahaha, what a dunce that artist was, right? Am I right? Boy, he didn’t even get that pueri nominandi meant ‘insert name here’.


Now, as classical scholarship, too, seems to work with collections of ready-made formulae for uncritical regurgitation sometimes, it is of little surprise that Ireland’s comment was recycled subsequently.

Maureen Carroll, for example, in her study Spirits of the Dead. Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe (Oxford 2006, p. 106),  writes (with explicit reference to Ireland):

In many cases the components of epitaphs will have been taken by the letter-cutter from ‘manuals’ or collections of formulae or books of poetry. This is the only explanation for the inscription from Annaba in Algeria that reads: Hic iacet corpus pueri nominandi (Here lies the body of a boy, name to be inserted). The letter-cutter followed the manual quite literally ‘to the letter’, without noticing that he was to insert a specific name in the space provided.

Except, the letter-cutter actually didn’t.

What neither Ireland nor Carroll (nor, for that matter, most of its other recent interpreters, such as Alison Cooley, Jane Stevenson, and Jonathan P. Conant) have done is something astonishingly obvious: to check what the inscription actually says.

Interestingly enough, its published text reads as follows (AE 1931.112 = CLE Zarker 48):

Hic corpus iacet
pueri nominandi:
o benedicte puer,
paucis te terra
diebus infantem
tenuit celiquae (!)
in regna remisit:
propterea es
natus ut ca-
peres tanta

Here lies the body of a noteworthy boy: oh blessed boy, after but a few days earth has taken possession of you again, still an infant, and sent you to the realm of heaven: you were born so that you obtained such wealth – reborn [or: … that you, Renatus, obtained such wealth].

The point of this inscription is completely straightforward (as so far only R. P. Hoogma appears to have noticed in a review [available here on jstor]) – it is another case of nominative determinism, a playful reference to the boy’s name Renatus and its original meaning ‘reborn’.

Moreover, one ought to take into account that the text, as transmitted, actually almost scans as an hexameter line (Zarker suggested that it consists of five metra instead of six) i. e. that it can hardly be regarded as altogether defective: note that line 4 (propterea … renatus), too, has some metrical issues in the ut caperes bit.

In conclusion, nominandi is not a case of an ancient version of ‘N. N.'; in fact, it is quite the contrary:

First, It is a playful reference to the fact that the boy’s name will still be mentioned later on in the inscription.

And secondly, it is an expression of reverence to the boy (‘noteworthy’), in the same way in which nominandus nominanda has been used in other inscriptions as well (cf., for example, CIL VIII 5906 = ILAlg II 2.7054, Inscr. Aquil. I 805 = IEAquil. 466, and – related – CIL VI 15969).

In short, the paradigm of those who have used this text as evidence for the existence of manuals with pre-fabricated texts-to-be-inscribed, is in fact a highly personalised text, written for a special person – a little boy called Renatus, who died only a few days after he was born.

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

What’s in a name: A Short and Poetic Story of Nominative Determinism

The Classicists-List, a listserv for those with an interest in Classical Studies and Ancient History (both rather broadly conceived), never fails to amaze me for the rather – shall we say – peculiar exchanges that ensue every now and then.

Among the more epic examples must feature an exchange that took place last week and eventually found its calling in a debate about the question as to whether one ought to translate ancient names, whenever writing for a non-specialist audience (archived on this page – look for the threads ‘Throttling research’ and ‘True Names’).

To me, translating ancient names and titles etymologically seems to be an exercise in futility – and to ponder it, in extenso, a waste of precious time of the kind that would only ever seriously be discussed in my own profession.

Would chemists, when writing for a broader audience, seriously even for the fraction of a second consider translating foreign technical terms (instead of adding an explanatory footnote, if feeling generous) – and, say, call helium ‘sunny stuff’ or neon ‘new stuff’?

I think not!

And why should they.

That being said , it would be mistaken, however, to dismiss out of hand this issue, only because it seems of little personal relevance or because it does not immediately resonate with one’s own conceptions and world view.

Of course, it is impossible to assess the idea of nominative determinism – i. e. the idea that everything is an aptronym (or, as the more classically inclined tend to put it, nomen est omen)in its relevance for the ancient world.

As far as ancient Rome is concerned, a great deal of interesting literary material has already been collected and discussed in a useful little volume ‘What’s in a Name‘, edited by Joan Booth and Robert Maltby.

Nominative determinism is not just a literary pastime, however.

There are several Latin inscriptions, too, that utilise the etymology of personal names for playful purposes, deriving a deeper meaning from what at first appears to be ‘just a name’ – reconceptualising, in a way, the fact that parents often choose their children’s names carefully and with some thought (though there are exceptions to that rulenot exactly a modern phenomenon, by the way).

So, after venting my spleen, I give you a selection of five Latin verse inscriptions that, at least to some extent, undermine my own general attitude, namely that translating ancient names generally is a pointless exercise:

1. CIL II 3256 cf. p. 710. 949 = CLE 1196 = HEp 18.193 = AE 2009.626 (Vilches/Baesucci: Hispania citerior; photo available here)

[- – -] Cassius Crescens h(ic) s(itus) e(st) [- – -].
[tu qui] praeteriens nostro remora[re sepulcro],
[ia]m festinato lumine pauca l[ege].
[Cre]scens hic ego sum: fueram [spes magna parentum].
quod non adcrevi nome[n inane fuit].
[o]mnis amor patriae populi m[e voce secutus],
hunc mors praecipuum testi[ficata meast].
[n]obilis ingenii virtus virtuti [loquelae],
cum pietate pudor non tem[eratus erat].
[ha]s laudes tumulo nostro pa[ter ipse notavit],
[i]udice quo solo mors m[ea morte caret].
[qu]od via finitimast mul[tis haec scripta legentur]:
[t]u me praetereens (!) ne [violare velis].
[no]minis (?) e numeris [- – -]
[iam q]uia legisti dic d[- – -].

… Cassius Crescens is buried here …

You, walking by, sojourn at our tomb, read a little, with your hasty eye. It is me, Crescens [= ‘Growing’], here: I was the parents’ great hope. As I did not get to grow up, my name was useless. The love of my fatherland and my people has followed me, in its entirety, with its voice, and my death is testimony to this distinction. The gift of my noble disposition was not tarnished by my gift of speech, and neither was my bashfulness  by my sense of duty. My father himself has noted these praises on my tomb, through whose judgement alone my death becomes immortal. As the road is nearby, the writing will be read by many: as you pass by, do not wish to violate … the name … from the poem (?) … as you already read, say …

2. CIL III 3146 = CLE 1160 (Osor/Opsorus, Dalmatia)

Felix haec visa est nascendi lege puella,
quot (!) non est miseros tum sortita Lares.
sed legem fatis Parcae dixere cruentam,
primus natalis condat ut ossa sua.
cognomen pater huic fuerat natale daturus:
abstulit atra dies una cum corpore nomen.

‘Lucky’ [= felix] seemed this girl by birth, as she, on that occasion, was allocated an anything but wretched home. But the Fates spoke bloody law over her destiny, so that her first birthday would have to bury her bones. Her father had given her the cognomen upon her birth: a gloomy day took the name away together with her body.

3. CIL VI 5534 cf. p. 3417 = CLE 1035 (Rome)

Calliste mihi nomen erat
quod forma probavit. annus
ut accedat, ter mihi quintus
erat. grata fui domino, gemino
dilecta parenti. septima [l]anguen-
ti summaque visa dies. causa
latet fati, partum tamen esse
loquontur (!), sed quaecumque
fuit, tam cito non merui.

Cornelia Calliste [= ‘the most beautiful’] was my name, confirmed by my appearance. If one added one year, I had been thrice five years of age. I was welcome to my master, beloved by either parent. Lying ill, the seventh day was also my last one. The reason for my fate is concealed, they say it is just how one is born, yet I did not deserve it so soon.

4. CIL VI 19007 cf. p. 3523 = CLE 247 = CLE 562 (Rome; photo available here; transl. E. Courtney, with additions)

D(is) M(anibus)
Geminiae Agathe Matri dulcissimae.
Mater nomen eram mater non lege futura,
quinque etenim solos annos vixisse fatebor
et menses septem diebus cum vinti duobus.
dum vixi lusi sum cunctis semper amata.
nam pueri voltum, non femine, crede, gerebam,
quam soli norant Agathen qui me genuerunt,
ingenio docili forma pulchra ac veneranda,
rufa coma tonso capite posttrema remisso.
convivae cuncti nunc mi bona pocula ferte
diciteque ut semper meo corpori terra levis sit.
nec parvae doleat requiem mei perqua(m) Faventius,
nutritor plus quam genitor <q>ui solam amavi<t>
est mihi nam mater pater et praecesserat olim
nec doluit casum, soror est et matris Amoenae
tristis et ipsa meae mortis quos cuncti parentes
solando vitae dulci retinete precantes
ne dolor augescat seu maeror tristis abundet.
qui legitis, t<o>tum nomen si nosse velitis,
noscetis Geminiam Agathen, quam mortis acerbus
eripuit Letus teneramque ad Tartara duxit.
hoc es<t> sic est aliu<t> fieri non potest hoc ad nos.

To the [Spirits of the Departed of, PK] sweet Germinia Agathe Mater [= ‘Mother’, PK]. My name was Mother, though I was not destined to be a regular mother; for I shall disclose that I lived for only five years, seven months and twenty-two days. While I lived I played games, and everyone always loved me, for, believe me, I looked like a boy, not a girl, and only my parents knew me as Agathe. I had a docile temperament, a pretty appearance which evoked respect, red hair let down at the back with my head cropped. Bring now auspicious beakers to me, all you guests, and pray that the earth for ever rest light upon me. May Faventius, rearer rather than father, who loved me alone, not grieve overmuch at the repose of my little body. For I have a mother, and my father had long ago gone before me, not sorrowing at my fate; there is also my dear mother’s (or Mother Amoena’s) sister, she too grieving at my death. Consoling them hold them back, all my relatives, for pleasant life, praying that their pain not grow and their bitter grief overflow. If you who read would like to know my full name, you will recognize Geminia Agathe, whom premature death snatched away and left her tender form to the underworld. That is it, that is how it is, it cannot happen otherwise; this much for us.

5. CIL VI 22102 cf. p. 3527 = CLE 92 (Rome)

Q(uinto) Marc[io – – -].
have dulce nobeis nome[n atque omen gerens]
Stephane vitae nostrae [dum vivis decus]
vere choronam te a(c)cepi [et mox perdidi]:
Moschis tua te salutat et D[iodorus tuus]
et blanda dulcis pupa delic[ium tuum]
et quem tu tuis manibus nu[per sustuleras puer].
o fatum infelicem qui te n[obis abstulit].
have casta coniunx et m[ei serva memoriam].
have mi Diodore amice frat[erque et parens],
nam et amici officia et pietat[em implesti patris].
have pupa blanda, anima m[ea, tuque have puer]
quem nuper pararam ut hab[erem heredem nominis].

To Quintus Marcius …

Greetings, Stephanus [= ‘Crown’], name sweet to me and presage of my life, for while you lived I took you as adornment, a real crown,and soon I lost you: your Moschis is greeting you, and your Diodorus, and the sweet, adorable little girl, your sweetheart, and the boy, whom you only just recently lifted up with your hands. Oh dreadful fate that took you away from us!

Greetings, chaste wife, preserve the memory of me. Greetings, my Diodorus, friend, brother, and parent, for you have fulfilled the role of a friend and done the duty of a father. Greetings, adorable little girl, my life, and greetings to you too, boy, whom I only just recently obtained, so that I would have someone to inherit my name.

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

Shedding Some Light on the Eclipse

Exciting times for stargazers: there will be a solar eclipse on Friday, 20 March 2015, the first UK-wide almost-total solar eclipse, as it has been pointed out.

High time for me to dig into my beloved Latin inscriptions and see if they have anything interesting to say about such events, I thought – especially as the usual UK cloud layer will make it almost impossible for me to see the eclipse… displacement activities and such…

The short story: there does not appear to be any relevant mention of this phenomenon.

The long story: some think there is … and this is where it gets interesting:

In 1989, Géza Alföldy published an article in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (77 (1989) 155-180; freely accessible here), in which he discussed a stone inscription from Nursia (Norcia).

According to Alföldy (pp. 160-7), the text of this inscription ought to be read (and translated) as follows:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

Gaius Torenas, member of the Aniensis voting tribe, gives this to Hercules Victor as a gift, lest the cut-off light of the sun buries the moon.

Previously edited in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL IX 4599), the inscription had not attracted any significant attention.

Following Alföldy’s proposal, however, that the inscription was, in fact, a unique epigraphical reference to a solar eclipse, things got a lot more exciting all of a sudden.

In a direct response to Alföldy’s paper, Manfred G. Schmidt (equally in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 80 (1990) 183-4; freely accessible here) suggested the use of [i]nferat (‘buries’) was problematic, as the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (ThLL) does not record a metaphorical use of this term; moreover, on the basis of Alföldy’s published drawing, the second letter of [i]nferat was open to debate.

Consequently, Schmidt argued that [a]uferat (‘steals’) was a more plausible solution, equally covered by the traces of letters on the damaged stone surface, suggesting that the text was not, in fact, evidence for a solar, but a lunar eclipse: ‘the cut-off light of the sun’ thus becomes the shadow of the earth – and that cut-off light of the sun then is imagined to be asked to refrain from stealing the moon.

Finally, Schmidt suggested that the text might be a (somewhat distorted) borrowing from a literary poet – an idea that led Paolo Cugusi (in the second edition of his Aspetti letterari dei Carmina Latina Epigraphica, pp. 385-6) to suggest that the text quo ne Lunam | [a]uferat Solis | [l]umen sectu[m] could represent the verse type of a scazon (which, in turn, makes one wonder what literary poet would possibly have written about an eclipse, solar or lunar, in scazons).

In addition to Cugusi, another important student of Latin epigraphy, Marco Buonocore (Carmina Latina Epigraphica Regionis IV Augusteae. Avvio ad un censimento, GIF 49 (1997) 21-50) accepted Schmidt’s view, giving its first line as T(itus) Torenas Anc(- – -) – reverting to the earlier reading of  Anc(- – -) where Alföldy had explicitly documented An(iensis) and (re-)introducing a third option for the dedicant’s first name (earlier editors before Alföldy had read Lucius or Titus).

Alföldy, without taking any notice of Buonocore’s readings, returned to this matter once more in an article that appeared in a German conference volume which had resulted from a gathering that discussed the issue of solar eclipses in the ancient world (H. Köhler – H. Görgemanns – M. Baumbach (Eds.), “Stürmend auf finsterem Pfad …“. Ein Symposion zur Sonnenfinsternis in der Antike (Heidelberger Forschungen 33), Heidelberg 2000; Alföldy’s contribution on pp. 99-111).

In this contribution, Alföldy respectfully rejects Schmidt’s idea of a lunar eclipse, and he does so primarily on the grounds of his observation that the remaining traces of the second letter of the opening word of line 4 ought to be read as an N rather than a V – documenting his claim with a new drawing as well as a photo (adding that there is not enough space on the stone for A to be the first letter of line 4).

Somewhat less compellingly, Alföldy also disagreed with Schmidt’s view that the inscribed text ought to describe the astrophysical processes behind a lunar eclipse rather carefully, arguing that the dedicant’s invocation of Hercules’ help is a clear sign of a lack of understanding of the principles of natural science.

Finally, Alföldy repeated his claim that [i]nferat should be taken in its common epigraphical meaning of ‘to bury’.

From the excellent photo that is available at the EDR – Epigraphic Database Roma, I have no reason to challenge Alföldy’s reading of the inscription:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

What I am wondering, however, is as to whether the inscription’s wording and imagery have been fully understood.

My starting point is the observation that the phrase lumen inferre is, in fact, attested in literary Latin. Two (loosely related) instances stand out in particular:

  • Cicero, Hortensius 24.4 uses the phrase nam hoc est in tenebras exstinctum lumen inferre, ‘for that is like illuminating darkness with an extinct light’, for those who wish to clarify ambiguity with ambiguous words.
  • Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 5.12.8 uses the phrase in rebus uero apertis argumentari tam sit stultum quam in clarissimum solem mortale lumen inferre, ‘to seek an argument in matters that are perfectly obvious, however, is just as stupid as to illuminate brightest sunlight with a source of artificial light’.

Both passages are of particular interest, as they involve the idea of light and shade as well as that of different sources of light.

As a use of the Latin verb inferre (taking the reading for granted at this point) happens to be attested with a plain accusative of direction (ThLL s. v. infero, p. 1374.60 ff.), this might give the entire inscription a whole new meaning.

It is now entirely thinkable that, albeit on the basis of Alföldy’s text, Schmidt’s interpretation was indeed the correct one, for now (on the basis of the phrase lumen inferre) one must translate as follows:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

Gaius Torenas, member of the Aniensis voting tribe, gives this to Hercules Victor as a gift, lest he brings the cut-off light of the sun to the moon (sc. for good?).

Torenas’ gift – whatever it was – was once mounted on top of this stone, as a hexagonal setting on the monument’s top demonstrates.

Why did Torenas ask Hercules Victor?

Frankly, I have absolutely no idea.

He might just have been the most valiant hero around.

On the other hand, Hercules does have a (rather tenuous) connection to the moon, for (i) he had killed the Nemean Lion (the moon’s offspring, according to one version of the myth), and (ii) his birth was marked by an unnaturally extended period of night, at whose end the invincible hero was born. (Claims according to which Hercules also battled the moonmen proved as inconclusive as those according to which he fought the sons of the sun.)

The inscription may thus be Torenas’ plea to Hercules to prevent another such period of unusual darkness.

A final thought for those who wish to see meaning in absolutely everything (I’m not quite as obsessed with that, to be honest): was the scazon rhythm (if that is what we’re facing here – I rather doubt it myself), whose name translates as ‘the limping one’, even chosen with cool consideration, to make the metre illustrate the way in which Hercules was supposed to make the natural phenomenon stumble and stall…?

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

To a very special mother!

Rome's most iconic mother: the Capitoline Wolf. – Image source:

Rome’s most iconic mother: the Capitoline Wolf. – Image source:

Unlike in most other places of the world, it’s Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, to be precise) in Britain today.

Time to celebrate a very special mother then ……… no, not my own (she’ll be celebrated when it’s Mother’s Day in Germany, and she’ll be celebrated offline!), but Claudia Lepidilla.

What do you mean, you’ve never even heard of Claudia Lepidilla?

Well, little surprise, to be honest.

All we know about Claudia Lepidilla has been recorded on a funerary altar whose existence and origin manuscripts report for the City of Rome (CIL VI 15493 cf. p. 3517. 3913 = CLE 1123 = ILS 7994):

Dis Man(ibus)
Claudiae Lepidillae
ex provincia
Belgica Ambianae.
fecerunt liberi     5
eius Lepidus et
Trebellius matri
hic matris cineres
sola sacravimus ara     10
quae genuit tellus ossa
teget tumulo.

(1-8) To the Spirits of the Departed of Claudia Lepidilla of the province of Belgica, an Ambian. Her sons, Lepidus and Trebellius, had this made for their best mother.

(9-12) Here we consecrate our mother’s ashes with only an altar. The soil that brought forth her bones now covers them in a mound.

At first glance, the son’s memorial for Claudia Lepidilla may not look like much. Dating to the first or second century A. D., the inscription comprises a prose part (lines 1-8) and a short poem (lines 9-12), consisting of a single elegiac distich.

The dedication to their ‘best mother’ (matri optimae) seems topical, considering how many hundreds of ‘best mothers’ and ‘incomparable mothers’ there are recorded in the Latin inscriptions. The poem, too, looks trite and sounds like a platitude.

So what is so special about her?

Time to listen a bit more carefully, and to acknowledge what has (and what hasn’t) been said.

First, one may wish to note that the poem distinguishes between the cineres (‘ashes’) and the ossa (‘bones’) – the former are consecrated on the ara (‘altar’) here (hic), whereas the bones are soil-covered in a mound (tellus … tegit tumulo [note the alliteration!]) … somewhere.

That ‘somewhere’ is characterised further, namely by the phrase quae genuit tellus, ‘the soil that brought forth (her bones)’. This phrase, in turn, draws attention back to the inscription’s prose part, where the mother’s origin had been stated: she was from the Gallic province of Belgica, belonging to the people of the Ambiani.

Since the memorial was discovered in Rome, and since it mentions the separation of the mother’s ashes from her bones, the most plausible explanation for this is that Claudia Lepidilla died in Rome, while being with her sons (who must have felt at home there enough to erect this lasting monument), but it was still appropriate – due to familial ties – to have her remains shipped home in her native Belgica after the funeral.

What the inscription does not mention is a father.

Was he dead already? Did he still live in Belgica, and the mother was just on a visit? (Quite frankly, the text does not sound like it.) Had the parents separated, resulting in Claudia Lepidilla’s departure to Rome, so that she would stay with her sons, who had come to Rome themselves – as provincials – for an unknown reason?

Whatever the reason, the sons chose to perpetuate the memory of her mother in Rome sola … ara, with only an altar.

With their mother gone, and with their new home far away from home, it must have appeared the most appropriate and efficient way for them to remember that extraordinary person to whom they were born. And thus in hindsight their little poem is anything but trite and a platitude – it is an expression of the sons’ desire to create a lasting memory of their mother under remarkable circumstances.

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Monumental Hatred

‘Speak no ill of the dead,’ they say – an aphorism that Diogenes Laertius attributed to Chilon, one of the seven sages: τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν (usually just received in a non-antique Latin translation, de mortuis nil nisi bene or de mortuis nil nisi bonum).

What if that deceased person was a piece of work?

What if hatred outlasts the life of the object of hate?

What if one simply cannot forgive?

There are several examples of such scenarios recorded in the Latin inscriptions – e. g. a notorious piece from Pompeii, which I have discussed before on this blog as well as in a recent paper on the discourse about Reading and Writing in Pompeii (AE 1960.64):

Hospes paullisper morare | si non est molestum et quid euites | cognosce. amicum hunc quem | speraueram, mi esse ab eo mihi accusato|res subiecti et iudicia instaurata. deis | gratias ago et meae innocentiae, omni | molestia liberatus sum. qui nostrum mentitur | eum nec Di Penates nec inferi recipiant.

Visitor, sojourn a little, if it is no bother, and learn what to avoid: this friend, whom I had hoped to be my friend – by him were accusers brought forth and legal proceedings initiated against me. I thank the gods and my innocence, I was freed from all bother. He who lies about us: may he never be welcomed by the household gods and the gods of the underworld.

Herbert F. Johnson, Hatred. – Image source:

Herbert F. Johnson, Hatred. – Image source here.

That is pretty bad – hard feelings, hurt feelings, set in stone: anger celebrated for future generations to behold, while the pre-deceased offender is left without the opportunity to give his version of the story.

But it could be worse.

Compare, for example, the following, rather outrageous, text from the city of Rome (CIL VI 20905 cf. p. 3526 = CLE 95; for drawings follow this link).

At the front, the casual reader was able to read the following lines (translations from Judith Evans Grubbs, Stigmata Aeterna: A Husband’s Curse, in: C. Damon, K.S. Myers, and J. Miller (eds.), Vertis in usum. Studies in Honor of Edward Courtney, Leipzig 2002, 230-42, esp. 230-1):

Dis Manibus
Iuniae M(arci) f(iliae) Proculae. vix(it) ann(os) VIII m(enses) XI d(ies) V miseros
patrem et matrem in luctu reliquid (!). fecit M(arcus) Iuniu[s – – -]
Euphrosynus sibi et [- – -]e tu sine filiae et parentium in u[no ossa]
requ(i)escant quidquid nobis feceris idem tibi speres mihi crede tu tibi testis [eris].

To the divine manes of Junia Procula, daughter of Marcus. She lived eight years, eleven months, (and) five days. She left her wretched father and mother in grief. M. Junius Euphrosynus made (this altar) for himself and for [name deleted]. You, allow the bones of the daughter and parents to rest in one (place). Whatever you have done for us, may you hope for the same yourself. Believe me, you will be a witness to yourself.

At the inscription’s back, however, there was a poem in iambic senarii:

Hic stigmata aeterna Acte libertae scripta sunt vene-
nariae et perfidae dolosae duri pectoris. clavom et restem
sparteam ut sibi collum alliget et picem candentem
pectus malum commurat (!) suum. manumissa grati(i)s
secuta adulterum patronum circumscripsit et
ministros ancillam et puerum lecto iacenti
patrono abduxit ut animo desponderet solus
relictus spoliatus senex. e(t) Hymno <e>ade(m) sti(g)m(a)ta

Here the eternal marks of infamy have been written for Acte the freedwoman, the poisoner, faithless and deceitful, hard-hearted. (I bring) a nail and a rope of broom so that she may bind her own neck, and burning pitch to consume her evil heart. Manumitted free of charge, she cheated her patron, following an adulterer, and she stole away his servants – a slave girl and a boy – while her patron was lying in bed, so that he pined away, an old man left alone and despoiled. And the same marks of infamy to Hymnus, and to those who followed Zosimus.

But even this is nothing in comparison to the following, single most epic case, which has been recorded in a (fragmentary) anonymous funerary inscription.

This inscription – a poem – dating to the second century A. D., on a densely inscribed pedestal from Como (Pais 732 = 1288 = CLE 1178; photographic documentation here):

On the top:

[Quid me nunc] cunct[is miser]atio iuvit ademptis,
[quae cas]um et tant[um me super]esse tulit,
[sic cas]u misero [supe]resse – inimica, loquaris
[fatum] cui nul[lam tris]te reliqid (!) opem?
[cum me] perdid[eris expende] piacula fati,
[tu pere]as iun[ctis qui] placuere tibi.
[- – -]s[- – -]te [e]t BIIN[- – -]II
– – – – – -

What good does pity do me, now that everything has been taken away from me, which allowed for me to survive such downfall, to survive in such misery? Fiend, you may speak! A dire fate left me without any resources. As you destroyed me, afford the atonements of fate: may you perish, together with those whom you favoured.

[The remainder of this part cannot be deciphered.]

At the front:

[te quicumque leges] oro ne laeseris ul[lum]
[versum sic veniant o]mnia laeta tibi.
[- – -] misera set imulat[a – – -]
[- – – a]rte [- – -]
[- – – o]bsecro [te] discere versu
[- – – adv]ersi sideris [- – -]i
[nec potuit muta]re sacra mise[rat]io cura
[ausa ut cru]delis rumperet exitii.
et sic insonti fecit, men[s impia suasit],

argenti auxilio, sp[es] d[eus i]ps[e dedit].
[de]fessi perot VC(?) [- – -] tumultus
suae i[- – – perfi]diae(?)
cuncta pirei[- – -] dei [- – -]
nec fructus rerum nec manet ulla quie[s],
[i]gnava infelix, iamq(ue) obliviscere nost[ri]:
hic cinis exigu(u)s ossaq(ue) parva man[ent].

Whoever you are who reads this, I ask you not to damage a single line: thus may everything happy come to you.

[Fragmented lines follow, of which only a few phrases stand out: … wretched, but … with skill … I beg you to learn from the verse … of an ill star …]

Nor did pity manage, in its sacred effort, to cause change, so that she would discontinue her plot of cruel destruction. Thus she acted against an innocent man, a wicked mind suggested it, helped by lucre, a god himself gave hopes.

[Further fragmented text follows, which does not add up to much: tired … riot … of her wickedness … all … of god …]

Neither proceeds of things nor any tranquility remains, wretched coward, and you already have forgotten about us: here remains a little heap of ashes and tiny bits of bone.

On the right:

circumitu adversi te rite notavi sepulcri,
ut dignam Scythico sidere fama vocet,
qum nos deceptos ad iura forumq(ue) vocabas,
dum vis nec legem nec meminisse fidem,
quam tunc fingebas divos hominesq(ue) vocando,
cum tibi noctis opem lenta (!) ferebat anus,
[u]t comissa tibi nisi nobis salva manerent,
et tunicam esse tuam, cum morerere, velis.

I have noted you rightfully at the opposite side of my tomb, so that Fate may call you, worthy of that Scythian star [i. e. Arctos, symbolising the cold of night], as you repeatedly called us, deceitfully, to court and to the Forum, as you wished not to remember the law and your duty, a claim to which you faked back then, invoking divine and human witnesses,  when that old bawd (?) lent you a hand at night,  so that your actions remained unscathed to your benefit, if not to ours, and you wanted that you had something proper to wear on your deathbed.

At the back:

qua mea naufragio tamquam intercepta ia[cebant];
heu ne fragmento me voluisti tegi.
ad (!) grassatores, sola est quib(us) orbita nummi,
volnera quae intuler(int) linqueret tecta volent,
defuncta et vita iam deplorata suprema
velantur palla corpora funerea.
ad mihi viventi tua sic miseratio venit,
ut cassus nostri sors tibi praeda fo[ret],
[m]ilia quom erueres auri de nomin[e nostro],
igne deum effigies impia pollueres,
ut mea cuncta dares venum, deim scripta crem`ares’
praecipitiq(ue) fuga cetera diri<p>eres,
hostiles audax temptares deinde rapinas,
ut te sacrilegam scire(t) et imperium,
sed tutam, inlecebris si nulli nota m[aneres (?)],
– optamus credas – ambitiossa tui[s].

Thus my property lay around, intercepted, like in a shipwreck; woe is me, you did not want me to be left with even as much as a scrap. But rovers, whose only way is that of money, will want to leave the wounds they inflicted covered up, and the deceased,  bodies, lamented,  are being wrapped up in a funerary cloak. In the exact same way your pity came to me, while still alive, so that this useless fate of mine would become your prey when you embezzle a thousand pieces of gold from our name, pollute, wickedly, the effigies of the gods with fire, so that you get to sell all my possessions, then burn the documents and steal everything in headlong escape, then attempt, boldly, hostile forays, so that even the state would get to know that you are a criminal – albeit a safe one, if you remained unknown to anyone (we hope that this is what you believe), ambitious, with your enticements.

On the left:

- – – – – -
servat [- – -]
ad (!) te perfi[diae fueras qui saevior auctor],
piratam et mi[nus hoc qui pietatis habes],
perfida tum me[rito spernet nec perdere parcet],
me super audaci sed [feriente cades].
[dit]em non vestra [superabilis arte rapacem]
[au]fer[et a]et[a]tem [morbus et atra lues].

[The beginning is lost; the first word to be made out is servat … s/he saves …]

… but you, who were an immensely cruel purveyor of perfidiousness and a buccaneer (with a below-average sense of responsibility), the Perfidious one [i. e. one of the Fates?], will deservedly refuse and not spare from doom, …

[The remainder of the text is damaged beyond recognition.]

Despite the text’s fragmentary nature one gets a clear sense of the speaker’s immense outrage and anger over the ways in which he felt mistreated by a lady whom he describes as a vicious bandit, an extortionist, and a whore – a lady who had taken him to the proverbial cleaners, only to move on and eventually to become a public enemy (or so the poem implies).

One is reminded, mutatis mutandis, of the closing lines of Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz:

We naturally fell into a train of reflection as we walked homewards, upon the curious old records of likings and dislikings; of jealousies and revenges; of affection defying the power of death, and hatred pursued beyond the grave, which these depositaries contain; silent but striking tokens, some of them, of excellence of heart, and nobleness of soul; melancholy examples , others, of the worst passions of human nature. How many men as they lay speechless and helpless on the bed of death, would have given worlds but for the strength and power to blot out the silent evidence of animosity and bitterness (…).

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

Shattered Foundations

The wanton destruction of historical artefacts and monuments in the museum of Mosul by supporters and fighters of Islamic State forces is a heartbreaking spectacle to behold:

While we are quick (and right) to condemn these acts as crimes against humanity, we are equally quick to forget what it is what we are looking at.

I have just called it a heartbreaking spectacle, and there will not be much disagreement over the ‘heartbreaking’ bit. Shameless thugs vandalise the remains of the earliest high cultures, smashing what is commonly regarded humankind’s common cultural heritage and calling it a fight against idolatry.

What we do not think through to an equal degree, of course, is the ‘spectacle’ part, even though it is, undeniably, a staged performance played to an audience who is easily reeled in, and made a part of, this staged reality with its predictable plot and its equally predictable audience response.

Like any spectacle, it comprises five vital elements: (i) a stage (prima facie this would appear to be the museum of Mosul; in reality it is the virtual world of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and our news media, of course), (ii) actors (the willing tools of the IS forces), (iii) theatrical props (the ancient artefacts), (iv) a plot of sorts (the despicable destruction of the monuments with its accompanying sound track), and  finally (v) an audience (the Western world).

Why is this spectacle so powerful? Why is it so painful to watch?

Replaceable objects? The so-called Perserschutt (Persian rubble). – Image source:

Invaluable objects – or replaceable decoration? It all depends on your perspective. – The so-called Perserschutt (Persian rubble); image source:

We live in a (largely) secular world, where hardly anything appears to be sacred – everything has a price tag on it, everything can be replaced somehow (even if it is by means of compensation). So one way of looking at this theatrical performance could be simply to say, ‘well, there were a bunch of idiots breaking stone with heavy equipment, just as they ought to be doing to the end of their lives – preferably as part of a chain gang’.

Except, no one with an IQ above room temperature is likely to adopt this point of view.

So what’s different here?

Is it the stage (a museum rather than a rocky landscape)? Is it the range of theatrical props (historical artefacts rather than any other kind of rock)? Or is it something to do with the audience, their frame of mind, and their expectations regarding the appropriate behaviour in a specific setting? A combination of these factors? Something else entirely?

An answer to this may lie in one of the predictable audience responses: the hope that the objects that got smashed to smithereens were not actually originals, but merely plaster casts, copies of objects kept in museums elsewhere – a short-lived, quickly frustrated hope.

The truth behind this response, however, is that, in spite of the common display of casual capitalist whateverism towards material objects, there are still certain things and scenarios left, to which we attach a sense of sacrosanctity in addition to the price tag.

The realisation that the third-rate actors of this performance in fact performed their little farce on a stage and using props that we recognise as actually sacrosanct is what causes our particularly emotional response. Had they done the same thing in a shop or in an office block, we presumably would have felt a lot more relaxed. Had they done the same thing on an actual stage and with fake artefacts, we could not have cared less.

Blending the artifice of a staged performance with our real world, however,  can result in a deeply unsettling experience once one realises that the artifice has begun to disintegrate: we would rather not think about a performance of an Oedipus drama in which actual parents and an actual son engaged in the actual acts, would we?

As a result, we are left disoriented – are we supposed to look? Are we supposed to look away? Will looking away condemn the spectacle, will it restore the spectacle to the fictional world of artifice?

Of course it won’t.

Ashurbanipal's soldiers give Susa the IS treatment. – Image source:

Ashurbanipal’s soldiers give Susa the IS treatment. – Image source:

The best thing we can do, I believe, in addition to putting an end to this madness, is to explore our responses to what we see and to get to understand what drives our emotions.

What we see smashed in the museum is not actually part of our direct cultural heritage – it is something that we have appropriated by proxy, it is something that we have been taught to value through our education.

It is something that gives us a sense of purpose as well as a sense of legacy, with very little actual understanding of the objects’ context and their cultural background.

Or has anyone recently asked themselves  just how many cultures were suppressed and destroyed by those whose artworks we now see smashed? It could be a case of historical justice after all…?

Again, no one with an IQ above room temperature is likely to adopt this point of view.

I have a nagging suspicion that what it is that’s truly unsettling about what we were made to see is something else. It is, or so I would argue, the violent intrusion of that fantasy space that we prefer to call our history and our memory. If the artefacts and tombs of times long gone are no longer sacred – what will ever be? Is there any hope for ourselves to be remembered?

Roman tombstones, for example, express this concern rather frequently and, on occasion, even state the price that would be paid for any interference – two examples may suffice to illustrate this:

  • CIL VI 5886 cf. p. 3418, 3851 = ILS 8178 (Rome)

A(ulus) Terentius Terentiae | Domiti l(ibertus) Heracleo. | quisquis es homo et vos sodales meos cunctos | rogo per deos superos inferosque ni | velitis ossa mea violare.

Aulus Terentius Heracleo, freedmen of Terentia and Domitius. Whoever you are, man, and all of you, my friends, I ask by the gods above and below to refrain from defiling my remains.

  • CIL VI 24799 (cf. p. 3917) = ILS 8220 (Rome)

Dis Manibus. | M(arco) Popilio M(arci) f(ilio) Zosimiano | filio piissimo. vix(it) ann(is) X | mens(ibus) II dieb(us) XII h(oris) VIII. | M(arcus) Popilius Euphemus | et Popilia Moschis | fecerunt et sibi et libertis | libertabusq(ue) suis posterisq(ue) eorum. | quisquis hoc monumentum violaverit | aut titulum deasciaverit aliove | quo nomine inscripserit dabit | in aerarium p(opuli) R(omani) HS XX m(ilia) n(ummum).

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Marcus Popilius Zosimianus, son of Marcus, the most dutiful son. He lived 10 years, 2 months, 12 days, 8 hours. Marcus Popilius Euphemus and Popilia Moschis had this made for themselves and their freedmen and freedwomen as well as their offspring.

Whoever will violate this memorial or erases its inscription or inscribes it with another name, will have to pay the treasury of the Roman people 20,000 sesterces.

Deasciare – to ‘erase’ (by means of an axe!): this is as close as it gets to a Latin term for what the IS brute squad were doing in the museum of Mosul.

Sometimes, of course, it was possible to take remedial action against wanton destruction and the danger of forgetting (CIL VI 19295 cf. p. 3915 = CIL  X 5736 cf. p. 1013 = ILS 8384 cf. p. 190, from Rome):

CIL VI 19295. – Image source:$DM_147.jpg;PH0011901&nr=2.

CIL VI 19295. – Image source here.

Heraclides Menodoti f(ilius) | Calliste matri suae et | Menodoto fratri l(ibertis) l(ibertorumque) l(ibertis) p(osterisque) om(nibu)s. | Ti(berius) Plautius Lupus | Ti(berius) Plautius Euaristus | A(ulus) Plautius Synegdemus. | hoc monumentum suum | violatum vindicarunt et | restituerunt no{n}mina | obitoru[m].

Heraclides, son of Menodotus, for Calliste, his mother, and Menodotus, his brother, and their freedmen, their freedmen’s freedmen, and all their offspring. Tiberius Plautius Lupus, Tiberius Plautus Euaristus, Aulus Plautius Synegdemus. They laid claim on their defiled memorial and restored the names of the dead.

In other cases, however, the invocation of heavenly wrath, whether from above or below, seemed to be the only recourse:

  • AE 1946.58 (Theveste, Numidia)

Ista(m) memoria(m) si qui(s) violaverit violavit (!) illum deus.

God will defile him whoever defiles this memorial.

  • AE 1988.380 (Rugge/Rudiae)

Fadius | Cominus | v(ixit) a(nnos) XXXX. || Ollam eius si quis | violavit (!) ad inferos | non recipiatur.

Fadius Cominus lived 40 years. If someone destroys his urn, may he not be received by the gods of the underworld.

Or, in a truly epic, interdenominational way – especially for those who think that sacred monuments and power tools should mix  (note the use of deasciare again; ILJug I 131 = AE 1959.252 = AE 2005.1187, from Salona):

Hanc sepultu]|ram si qu[is de]asciare volu|erit habe[at ir]ata numina | quitquid [Rom]ani sive Iudae|i vel C(h)rissi[ani] (!) | colent e[t deo]s Manis unus | quisque quot sibi fi|[e]ri non vu[lt] | facere non | debet.

Should someone desire to desire to damage this burial with tools, may he have divine spirits mad at them, whether of Roman, Jewish, or Christian creed, as well as the spirits of the departed: anyone who does not wish this to happen to them, should refrain from doing so.

Sapienti sat – enough for the wise.

Posted in Epigraphy | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Inscription from Cirencester: A Few Thoughts

A couple of days ago, the discovery and excavation of a Roman tombstone at Cirencester (Gloucestershire) – largely undamaged and still in its original setting (in situ, as the professionals say) – has been publicised in no unspectacular terms.

The BBC, for example, suggested that this was a ‘unique’ Roman tombstone. The Discovery News praised the ‘rare intact’ Roman tombstone.

Did I say rare? I meant ‘super-rare‘ of course: thank you, Huffington Post, for keeping it real.

At any rate, the Gloucestershire Echo is confident: the tombstone makes ‘archaeological history‘. And of course, wherever something has been found, the ubiquitous, inevitable, and pointless claim that this site is ‘a Pompeii’ must be made (however silly or inappropriate) – like here on the webpages of Culture 24.

Time to step back a bit and to look at the object in question – accompanied by the disclaimer that, so far, I could only see photos of the stone, and that I therefore am very cautious about what I am going to say here: more definitive statements can only be made after autopsy, a principle of current epigraphy that one must not ever discard, even in a digital age.

So here is the best photo that I found published so far (best, as in: most useful):

Cirencester tombstone. – Image source:

Cirencester tombstone. – Image source:

The text of the inscription, in a diplomatic, non-judgemental transcription, reads as follows:


To me, the most intriguing aspect of this inscription is the I of the first line, which has not been discussed in any of the releases so far. (Note the ruled lines underneath each line, continuing even after the inscribed part.) From the photos, there cannot be any doubts that it is the exact same shape as any of the other letters ‘I’ of this inscription.

Overall, the lettering and layout is a bit awkward. The first letters of lines 3–5 are detached from the remaining ones (even though they form a unit with what follows). Moreover, the stonecutter, somewhat unfortunately, detached the final -s of the word anno|s (lines 5–6) from the remainder of the word at the end of the preceding line.

All in all, not a masterpiece in layout and design, but no true disaster either.

In the press – apart from those pieces that hoped to find evidence for the name Boudicca (which is NOT in this inscription – deal with it, sensational world!) – two variants for the text of lines 2–6 have been discussed. I now move on from a diplomatic, non-judgemental transcript to an interpretative reading (with translation):

D(is) M(anibus).
vixit anno-

To the Spirits of the Departed.

Bodicacia, wife, lived 27 years.

Or, alternatively:

D(is) M(anibus).
Bodi Cacia
vixit anno-

To the Spirits of the Departed of Bodus: Cacia, his wife (sc. had this made). He lived 27 years.

Either solution is not without problems: In the first case, one would have to accept a new female name (Bodicacia) – not a huge problem, but something that those who study ancient onomastics are generally rather careful about. Moreover, the phrase coniunx, ‘wife’, is without proper alignment – unless one wishes to assume that the husband originally desired to have his name inscribed underneath (and this never happened).

The second solution is an interesting one, as it would give us names of husband and wife. The syntax is a bit curtailed, but again, not without parallel in the generally very lapidary style of Roman inscriptions. Both Bodus and Cacia are names attested for the Roman empire.

The second solution becomes even more interesting, considering that there is an inscription from Carlisle in which a certain Bodus is mentioned (RIB 953 – the text can be found here).

The one thing that bothers me, however, is the ‘I’ of the first line.

And this leads me to assume a slightly different scenario: principally reverting to the former of the two variants (i. e. with the husband originally planning to have his own name inscribed underneath), one could consider reading –

D(is) M(anibus)
vixit anno-      5

To the Spirits of the Departed, Female and Male.

Bodicacia, wife, lived 27 years.

A mere possibility, one first speculation, of course, with others – quite possibly better ones – undoubtedly to follow [Update, 4 March: a much better explanation still has now been found, see below, comments section]. Iunoni is not an altogether unusual female counterpart to the Dis Manibus, and, in fact, tombstones that contain reference to both the female and the male (or gender-neutral) versions of the spirits of the departed (an awkward, technical translation of the Latin phrase ‘to the divine Manes’) have come to light in the City of Rome herself (CIL VI 24745, 37444).

There is, of course, a way of ruling the case: once the skeletal remains that were found together with the tombstone have been examined, we may know whether it was a male (Bodus) or a female (Bodicacia), who was buried there.

In the meantime, we might be better off abstaining from sensationalism and presenting with great(er) care to a highly interested public just what is going on: it does not make the finding any less significant, exciting, or spectacular.

Even without this finding, however, I wish to add that the Corinium Museum at Cirencester is a wonderful one, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Roman world and the history of Roman Britain.

Posted in Epigraphy, Prose | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Spread the Wealth

The 'Institutions' give sage advice. – Image source:

The ‘Institutions’ (formerly known as ‘the Troika’) give sage advice. – Image source:

Have I ever told you the one about politicians and fiscal responsibility? The joke that is so old it was first recorded in a Pompeian wall inscription?

It goes like this (CIL IV 3702 cf. p. 1383 = ILS 6405):

Bruttium Balbum ||
hic aerarium conservabit. ||

Bruttius Balbus for duumvir. His actions will be fiscally responsible. Genialis supports this.

The distribution of wealth, across the globe as well as nationally in most western states, could hardly be more imbalanced or more unjust.

With Greece’s struggle still very much on our minds (and ultimately unresolved), one tends to forget that the vast majority of people on this globe are rather worse of still than most nations in Europe – and that the vast majority of money in this world is, in fact, concentrated in the hands of a ridiculously small group of people.

Focusing on internal politics in particular, U. S. President Barack Obama has now called to ‘spread the wealth’.

Naturally, Obama attracted the predictable Pavlovian nut job response that this initiative is nothing but a government measure to take away the people’s money and to redistribute it according to (socialist) government priorities.

As if there were no actual social issue at all and politicians had higher responsibility for the welfare of corporations and a few rich people than for the considerably less well-off masses!

The Trickle-Down Effect.

The Trickle-Down Effect.

Obama’s initiative and subsequent debate reminded me of another text that has been discovered in Pompeii – a text that seems to call for a redistribution of commonly owned money and that, on occasion, has been deemed ‘proto-social democrat’ or even ‘proto-communist’.

… because, you know, history is always better understood if you try to elucidate it by sticking a really unfitting and oversimplifying, yet potentially polarising and divisive label on it …

At any rate, the Pompeian graffito, a verse inscription consisting of a pair of iambic senarii, reads as follows:

# 1 – CIL IV 1597 (cf. p. 209. 463) = CLE 38

Zangemeister's drawing of CIL IV 1597.

Zangemeister’s drawing of CIL IV 1597.

Communem nummum diuidendum
censio est, nam noster nummus
magna(m) habet pecuniam.

To divide up the community’s treasury,
that’s the official verdict, for our treasury
holds a pretty bundle.

Discovered at building III 8.4, by the entrance of this private dwelling; the inscription is now lost.

Kristina Milnor, in her recent book on Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford 2014 : 119–20) claims that:

‘Again, the joke seems to relate to public affairs, and to be making some kind of joke about the use of nummus as the communal treasury and to identify a small, practically worthless coin. But we simply do not know enough about local government and fiscal affairs in Pompeii to be able to explain the meaning of the verses any further.’

Others are not quite so pessimistic.

Stanisław Mrozek, for example, in his work on faenus and issues related to financial interest in Augustan Rome (Faenus: Studien zu Zinsproblemen zur Zeit des Prinzipats [Historia Einzelschriften, 139], Stuttgart 2001 : 43 with nt. 121) suggests a very straightforward solution: the city treasury of Pompeii did not have to be particularly rich in terms of actual cash – it could be the (potentially rather) deceptive richness of credit money (Kreditgeld).

So – a proto-communist inscription? Something for Rome’s poor to look forward to?

Before one can delve into this matter a bit further, it is worth considering the text and its context a bit, however.

The text in question is, in fact, a cluster of texts: whether it is the same text, repeated multiple times, variants of the same text, or just similar-looking texts, one cannot be altogether sure: things are not always easy, when it comes to Pompeian epigraphy.

At any rate, there appear to have been more instances than just CIL IV 1597.

Here is the full evidence, in addition to exhibit # 1, above, following the chronology of CIL IV:

# 2 – CIL IV 1251 (cf. p. 206)

Zangemeister's drawing of CIL IV 1251 (pre-revision).

Zangemeister’s drawing of CIL IV 1251 (pre-revision).

Cummu[une]m nummum diu[ide]n[dum]
[- – -]ius
Venit summa[- – -]
[C- – -] C+[- – -]nsiantum Iovia[- – -]
[- – -]+++++++ QVE++++LIVMAN[- – -]I[- – -]VIT +

Discovered by the left post of entrance of VI 5.19 (a private dwelling) at Vicolo della Fullonica; now lost.

# 3 – CIL IV 1766

Zangemeister's drawing of CIL IV 1766.

Zangemeister’s drawing of CIL IV 1766.

Communem num[- – -].

Discovered by the outside wall of the temple of Apollo (VII 7.31–6, between its entrance and the forum); now lost.

# 4 – CIL  IV 4272

comunem numum diuiden[- – -]

Discovered at V 4.1 (a bakery); now lost.

# 5 – CIL IV 5046 (= 3328)


Discovered  on a column in the portico of IX 2.26 (a richly decorated private dwelling); now lost.

# 6 – CIL IV 8030

Communem nu(mmum).

Discovered inside the fullery of Stephanus (I 6.7); now lost.

# 7 – CIL IV 9192

Communem [n]ummu[m].

Discovered in the Villa dei Misteri, in the ambulatio anterior of the peristyle; now lost.

These instances spread out across the city of Pompeii as follows:

Spread of instances. The map used here, with additions, is that used by the lovely people of (source:

Spread of instances. The map used here, with additions, is that used by the amazing people of, who, I hope, will not object to my use of their material (source:

The spread of the text’s various instances, which may seem somewhat unspecific at first, is, in fact, quite interesting.

The most telling one, perhaps, is item # 3, displayed in public by the forum, inscribed on the wall of the Temple of Apollo – it is hard to think of a more prominent place in downtown Pompeii.

Items # 1, # 4, # 5, and # 6 surround the same major area of Pompeii, an area that is described by the Via di Nola (# 1. 4), Via Stabia (# 5), and Via del Abbondanza (# 6). Where as # 1 and # 4 appear to have been discovered on outside walls, # 5 was discovered inside a building (if in an area of semi-public character), whereas # 6 comes from the premises of a fullery.

Two instances come from slightly less central areas, one from the Villa dei Misteri (again from an area of semi-public character – # 7), one from the outside wall of a private building at the Vicolo della Fullonica (# 2).

All in all, an overwhelmingly visible recurring text, with what appears to be a political message, even if we cannot be sure as to which group made that claim: it could be a corporation (e. g. that of the fullers) just as much as a wider segment of Pompeii’s population – we cannot know.

But there are certain things that we can deduce from the text – issues that never really get spelled out:

(i) Form

The communem nummum diuidendum text is written in verse. It may be misleading, perhaps, to call it a poem – but that being said, not everything written in rhythmical structures needs to be called a poem: it could be a song or a chant.

Its metrical form – the iambic senarius – is not a particularly common rhythm, as far as the Pompeian verse inscriptions go: more commonly, one finds the hexameter, the elegiac distich, and the trochaic septenarius.

But what the iambic senarius does (very much in the same way as the trochaic septenarius) is to provide its composer with an opportunity to provide a convenient, catchy rhythm that is close enough to the natural rhythm of free speech – it is the well-known rhythm of spoken (as opposed to sung) dramatic passages on the Roman stage.

So what did the author(s) wish to stage with their catchy slogan?

(ii) Censio est

Most translators and commentators take the expression censio est (translated as ‘that’s the official verdict’, above) as a somewhat awkward way of saying censeo, ‘I believe’. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (in the first edition) even has a rubric for this particular use of the noun censio – with a single attestation (the present one!).

But censio is an official, technical term. It is the verdict of the Roman censor, either regarding the status and wealth of a family (as established during the census), and, in a wider sense, it may also denote the censor‘s (moral/political) judgement over a person.

In that regard, it seems safe to assume that this official use of the term is precisely what the writer(s) of the statement had in mind: it’s not a personal opinion, it is something that they wished to present as the finding of an official body – using that term figuratively, not in a wholly new (and unparalleled) way.

(iii) The Actio Communi Dividundo

Somewhat surprisingly, not much discussion has ensued about the key phrase communem nummum diuidendum (‘to divide up the community’s treasury’): it is just too convenient to challenge it, apparently.

Yet, was it possible for a Roman to read these words and not to think of the legal procedure that was the so-called actio communi dividundo?

The actio communi dividundo was procedure of civil and private law, designed to dissolve and divide co-owned, common property upon request of one of its members, a procedure that had been formalised through the lex Licinia.

If that is the case, however, and if this procedure is what the Pompeian inscription alludes to (whether jokingly and with reference to the city’s treasury or rather less wide-ranging and with a view on a smaller professional/non-professional body), there is an important lesson to be learnt:

Not everything that at first glance looks like a (proto-)socialist  or (proto-)communist call for action is, in fact, of such a nature.

What has been (mis-)construed as such at Pompeii, is in fact anything but a selfless, social-minded act – it is an act that has been invoked on the basis of a procedure that allows individuals to withdraw and unsubscribe from a common, overarching investment.

In the case of the Pompeian slogan, whoever was behind it, appears to have campaigned for privatisation and small government (whether provincial or corporate) – with a claim that is so versatile that it can be used for just about any purpose.

In other words, in some cases, the call for a ‘distribution of wealth’ may in fact be a call for the cancellation of a socio-economic contract: at Pompeii, it most certainly was not a call to make everyone happy and to tackle social equality, but it was a slogan that was asking for a payout of one individual’s share from the shared kitty.

But is it wise to cancel such a contract in the name of small government and the pursuit of individualism?

Incidentally, the Pompeians had their own views on how the wealthy should best behave in relation to the common, less fortunate people – and that view, too, finds its expression in a short inscribed poem (CIL IV 1939 = CLE 231):

[[Pum[pei]s]] fueere quondam ‘Vibei’ opulentissumi;
non ideo tenuerunt in manu sceptrum pro mutunio
itidem quod tu factitas cottidie in manu penem tene(n)s.

Once upon a time, there were those  Vibii in Pompeii, super-rich;
but in spite of that they chose not to hold a sceptre in their hand instead of their prick,
very much like what you do, every day, with your penis in your hand.

In other words, being a ‘rich wanker’ (pardon my French!) is not necessarily a bad thing – but you have to do it right and get your priorities straight.

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Europa, Europe, and the Compelling Imagery of the Latin Inscriptions

Memory is treacherous. Yet, I seem to remember rather vividly a time when our politicians talked about a project they called our ‘common European home’ (Mikhail Gorbachev) or envisioned a ‘Europe, Whole and Free’ (George H. W. Bush).

Common European Home. Under new management. – Image source:

Common European Home. Under new management. – Image source here.

I liked that idea at the time. I liked it a lot. But the world has come a long way since.

The image still applies, if in a rather depressing way.

At present, the common European home appears to be ruinous, with many a tenant who is teetering at the edge of bankruptcy, with its flats and apartments privatised, managed by a bunch of greedy, bullying property sharks, who in turn act on behalf of supranational banks and corporations that, of course, prefer to remain anonymous.

The property sharks as well as their contractees are interested in a single thing: their profit. They do not have any interest in the upkeep, modernisation, or development of their property. They don’t seem to care a great deal about the way in which the tenants may get on with each other, and they certainly don’t care about the relationship with their neighbours, especially if they are poor and don’t have any valuables. Like those people who live in the poor house next door, from where time and time again inhabitants hope to gain access to Europe’s sacred hallway).

Any acknowledgement of the fact that everything hangs together? Not a chance!

A rare sighting: the property shark. – Image source:

A rare sighting: the property shark. – Image source:

The property sharks of this image are keen to exploit the structure they inherited, while they continue to mistreat their perplexed tenants and mistreat the neighbours even worse. (And should I even bother mention those who live in the garden house, closer to the scenic lake, who wish to make everyone believe they live splendidly isolated from everyone, except for when it is convenient to remember that the property is, in fact, a shared one…?)

Struck by a wave of nostalgia (no, everything was not better back then: nostalgia, I said, not utter delusion!), I remembered something – something fun, which I would like to share with my readership. (Don’t expect any particularly deep insights.)

In December 2001, my wonderful colleague and friend Almut-Barbara Renger, back then a lecturer at the University of Greifswald, organised a colloquium ‘Mythos Europa: Vom Stier zum Sternenkranz’ (i. e. ‘Myth Europa: From the Bull to the Ring of Stars’). A conference volume containing some of the papers has since been published, alongside a fine anthology, covering the Europa/Europe myth from Ovid to Heiner Müller.

I did not submit my own insignificant little piece at the time, as my paper was concerned with mentions of the Europa myth in the Latin inscriptions –  and there hardly are any at all. The material was too scarce to draw major conclusions, and it would have been an ill fit for a collection of otherwise meaty contributions.

But my material comprises two items in particular which, I believe, are timely to present in the present situation of Europe. A Europe, in which there is a war going on in Ukraine (does anyone even remember the Crimea?), in which Greece is slowly being bled to death by European leaders who are barely leaders and certainly not Europeans, and in which an ever-increasing number of poverty-stricken African immigrants must try to find a better future in Europe, many of whom drown on their way to our shores, while the survivors are treated with contempt for the insane idea to wish for a better life?

Time for a deep breath. Time for contemplation. Time for culture. Time to seek refuge and wisdom in the imagined world that is Graeco-Roman mythology.

Europe. Europa.

The single most impressive reference to the Europa myth in the Latin inscriptions comes – oh the irony of it! – from Britain.

A mosaic discovered in the Roman villa at Lullingstone (Kent), presents Europa riding on the bull, which in turn is guided by two amorini, with a short inscribed poem at the top of the semicircular scene:

The inscription, ably discussed by Matthias Schumacher in his German PhD thesis on the Latin verse inscriptions of Roman Britain, reads as follows (RIB 2448.6):

Inuida si t[a]uri uidisset Iuno natatus,
iustius Aeolias isset ad usque domos.

If jealous Juno had seen those swimming attempts of the bull,
she would even more rightfully have approached the halls of Aeolus.

To me, this inscription is a piece of beauty (and relevance!) for two reasons.

First, I enjoy the almost feminist voice of it: no understanding for Zeus, just an emphasis of how right Juno was in the first place (and how much more justified still she would have been, had she witnessed the bull’s incompetence).

Secondly, I find it striking that, in spite of the change in perspective, one thing does not change: Europa does not appear to have a will of her own in this scene – she is a sport of Fortune, torn away and risked as a plaything of the powerful and (al)mighty. Europa is the object of desire, of jealousy, of the entire (despicable, disturbing) affair.

Does the bull not stand as an image for the financial market? Could Juno be an image of the hopeless political establishment?

What does the sea symbolise? The moral abyss all of us are facing, if we don’t help to preserve and save Europa, perhaps: if we fail to see that the only actual victim in this form of power play is the abducted girl, if we fail to see that we ourselves are actually that abducted girl?

A troubled sea is best navigated with a trusty vessel, of course, and the image of states as ships that require navigational skills and courage (both slightly higher than those of Captain Schettino, preferably) is an ancient one – as is the idea of all of Europe as a ship.

A ship called Europa is also documented in the Roman world – in Pompeii, to be precise, in a magnificent (and comparatively giant) graffito drawing (photos here on the excellent Pompeii in Pictures page):

Pompeii: Ship Europa. – Image source:

Pompeii: Ship Europa. – Image source here.

The name of the vessel is inscribed in a winged tablet to the left.

The Europa is a cargo ship, and one can just about make out, to the right, a little ship that is attached to it: is that the rescue boat, to be used in case of an emergency?

If so, would everyone fit in? How many would? Who would? And in which order?

Again, Captain Schettino may not necessarily be a particularly good role model in that regard.

One wonders where the trusty old vessel is headed these days. One can only hope that, next time we take stock, everyone is still aboard (and willing to lend aid and comfort to shipwrecked people that we encounter on our journey), and that the ship has not pulled a Costa Concordia and gone belly-up.

Right now, I am significantly less optimistic than I was back then, when politicians still dared to dream about a common European home. That was where I wanted to live, not the ramshackle hut that it since has become.

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

The Faint Voices of the Poor of Ancient Rome

The Old Drunkard, Glyptothek, Munich. – Image source:

The Old Drunkard, Glyptothek, Munich. – Image source here.

More often than not, we tend to turn our eyes away from poverty and the poor, the blemish on the conscience of our society in which everything exists in abundance and in which no one would have to suffer from absolute poverty if there were any actual will to address the issue that lies in the deeply unjust spread of wealth.

More often than not, we tend to reach for the insulting, yet convenient, assumption that the poor and destitute themselves are somehow to blame for their situation, and that therefore, if only they tried harder, they could end it without any fundamental changes.

Unfortunately, there is no simple cure for coldheartedness.

Unfortunately, there is no political will to effectively end poverty – not even for those who least deserve its effects and who are least likely to be able to fight it: children, the sick, and the old.

Unfortunately, some people will simply not get the (not at all subtle) distinction between poverty chosen for oneself (e. g. for religious reasons) and poverty of the masses, across the globe, that no one chose – and that no one deserves.

Unfortunately, it makes people look the other way – most of them, anyway:

  • CIL VIII 7858 = VIII 19480 = ILAlg II 1.837 = CLE 114 (Constantine/Cirta, Numidia)

puel(l)em (?) [- – -]OIV
colui poten(t)es
nec dispexsi pau-
[peres – – -]SY h(ic) s(itus) e(st).
o(ssa) t(ibi) b(ene) q(uiescant).

[The beginning is damaged beyond comprehension.]

I curried favour with the powerful, yet I did not despise the poor … [damaged passage follows]

… is buried here. May your bones rest well.

Chosen ‘poverty’ – that of Pope Hilarius, who was sanctified subsequently – in extreme cases may sound a little like this:

  • CIL XII 949 cf. p. 819 = ILCV 1062 add. = CLE 688 (Arles/Arelate, Gallia Narbonensis)
Pope Hilarius. – Image source:

Pope Hilarius. – Image source here.

sanctae le-
gis antestis (!)
hic quiescit. ||
Antistes domini qui, p[aupertatis] amorem
praeponens auro, rapuit c[aelesti]a regna
Hilarius cui palma o[b]itus e[t viv]ere Chr(istu)s,
contemnens fragilem ter[ren]i corporis usum
hic carnis spolium liquit a[d] astra volans.
sprevit opes dum quaerit opes mortalia mu[t]ans
perpetuis, caelum donis terrestribus emit.
gemma sacerdotum plebisque orbisque magister
rustica quin etiam pro Chr(ist)o [mu]nia sumens
servile obsequium [non] dedignatus adire
officio vixit minimus et culmine summus.
nec mirum si post haec meruit tua limina, Chr(ist)e,
angelicasque domos intravit et aurea regna,
divitias, paradise, tuas, flagrantia semper
gramina et halantes divinis floribus hortos
subiectasque videt nubes et sidera caeli.

Hilarius, priest of the most holy law, rests here.

Hilarius, the Lord’s priest, who, preferring the love of poverty over gold, took possession of the heavenly realm, who regarded death and Christ being alive as victory prizes, contemptuous of the frail use of the earthly body, he left behind the spoil of the flesh, flying to the stars. He despised possessions, while he sought the means to change things mortal continuously, and he bought heaven with earthly gifts. A gem of priests and a teacher of the people and the world, taking on even rural duties for Christ, not dishonoured to approach slave-like compliance, he lived most humbly in gesture, yet he was the highest in rank. No wonder if, subsequently, he deserved access to your doorstep, Christ, and entered the dwellings of the angels and their golden realms, he sees, Paradise, your riches, eternally gleaming pastures and gardens breathing the scent of divine flowers, the clouds below as well as the stars of heaven.

The Beggar. Terracotta statue, Heidelberg. – Image source:

The Beggar. Terracotta statue, Antikenmuseum, Universität Heidelberg. – Image source:

Enviable, to be able to afford such poverty.

But what does involuntary, destitute poverty in ancient Rome sound like?

Do we know?

Occasionally, one encounters the view that the poor simply do not have a voice, to state their case, to fight their cause.

Maybe this is true. Maybe it is not.

Maybe we are just too busy listening to the wealthy and affluent, who try to protect their wealth, that we refuse to hear the voices of the poor – voices that are mentioned not only in the writings of Rome’s literati, but also recorded, on occasion, in the corpus of Latin inscriptions.

Cum quidam pauper…

When some pauper…

(cf. CIL IV 3320 = 5017. 4114. 4515. 4952. 8835d. 8849. 10038b. 10196c. 10569 = CLE 1864, a recurring phrase in the Pompeian wall inscriptions, said to resemble the opening of fables of the type that Phaedrus wrote)

Strangely, a recent edited volume on Poverty in the Roman World, edited by Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, does not appear to contain any contribution that explores the voices of those who purported to be poor in the inscriptions.

But that does not mean they do not exist.

Francisca Feraudi-Gruénais has produced an excellent study on them, for example, focusing on the city of Rome herself.

Alexandrian statuette of a disabled beggar (3rd century B.C.?). – Image source:

Alexandrian statuette commonly explained as that of a physically impaired beggar (3rd century B.C.?). – (c) Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg. – Image source here.

Yet, overall, the poor, marginalised politically and / or socially, remain remarkably silent.

Did they have a voice? Were they able to speak, to write poetry, to sing? Or was there nothing but utter silence in Rome’s peanut gallery?

Let us give at least some of Rome’s poor their voice and their dignity back – listening to the words of the (self-professed) poor of ancient Rome in poems engraved on stone.

A representative selection, incomplete.

Let us listen and yet be fully aware of the fact that there were countless people who were significantly worse off still, people whose voices we cannot ever reclaim, no matter how hard we try.

  • CIL XII 1036 cf. p. 821 = CLE 203 (Les Angles, Gallia Narbonensis)

D(is) M(anibus).||
[Cup]itiae Florentinae
coniugi piae et castae
Ianuarius Primitiv(u)s
maritus qualem pauper-
tas potuit memoriam dedi.

To the Spirits of the Departed.

For Cupitia Florentina, his devoted and chaste wife, I, Ianuarius Primitivus, her husband, gave a memorial as grand as poverty would allow.

  • ILAlg II–III 8467 = CLE Afr 2.95 = AE 1966.539 = AE 1992.1880 (Val d’Or, Numidia)

Iunia Baccula
fidem servavit,
exhibuit pudicitiam,
coluit maritum,
toleravit paupertatem,
filios monuit bene.
T(itus) Flavius Faedrus
maritae merenti.

Iunia Baccula remained faithful to the Eucrati sodality, displayed decency, took care of her husband, tolerated poverty, and instructed the children well. Titus Flavius Faedrus for his deserving wife.

  • CIL V 4593 = Inscr. It. X 5.391 = CLE 1042 (Brescia/Brixia)

V(ivus) f(ecit)
Q(uintus) Egnatius
Q(uinti) l(ibertus) Blandus
sibi et
Minuciae Urbanae
uxori. ||
Pro paupertate haec summo tibi
tempore coniunx ut potui
meritis parvola dona dedi.
innocens vixit ann(os) XXIIX.

While still alive, Quintus Egnatius Blandus, freedman of Quintus, had this made for himself and Minucia Urbana, his wife.

As much as poverty allowed me to do, I gave you, my wife, when the time had come, this rather too little gift [i. e. the monument] for your merits.

She lived without a blame for 28 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Spirits of the Departed.

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

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

11.5 ft wide, 13.5 ft deep.

  • CIL VIII 23264 = CLE 2087 = ILTun 455 (Haidra/Ammaedara, Africa Proconsularis)

- – – – – –
[S]er(vi) Corneli Cethe[gi]
proco(n)s(ulis) ser(vus) hic sit[us].
vixit ann(os) X[- – -].
Habrus (?) quas potuit carissime d[ulcis amice]
pauper et exiguus reddidit infer[ias].

[The beginning is damaged beyond comprehension.]

… slave of Servius Cornelius Cethegus, the proconsul, is buried here. He lived [at least 10] years.

Habrus (or Fabrus?), poor and indigent, bestowed this funeral on you, dearest, sweet friend, as best he could.

Inscriptions containing only very short poems, from a wide variety of geographical contexts, all united by their desire to assert dignity, decency, education, and the virtuous life – in the face of poverty. In the face of the contempt that the poor experience across time and space (note, for example, this excellent piece by Helen Lovatt on Martial’s poem 12.32, on the eviction of a poor family).

There are slightly longer examples, too, of course – a small selection of remarkable items may suffice:

Hospes resiste et hoc ad grumum ad laevam aspice ubei
continentur ossa hominis boni misericordis amantis
pauperis rogo te viator monumento hic ni(hi)l male feceris
C(aius) Ateilius Serrani l(ibertus) Euhodus margaritarius de sacra
via in hoc monumento conditus est viator vale.
ex testamento in hoc monumento neminem inferri neque
condi licet nisei eos lib(ertos) quibus hoc testamento dedi tribuique.

Stranger, stop and turn your gaze towards this hillock on your left, which holds the bones of a poor man of righteousness and mercy and love. Wayfarer, I ask you to do no harm to this memorial.

Gaius Attilius Euhodus, freedman of Serranus, a pearl-merchant of Holy Way, is buried in this memorial. Wayfarer, good bye.

By last will and testament: it is not permitted to convey into or bury in this memorial any one other than those freedmen to whom I have given and bestowed this right by last will and testament.

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

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

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

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

  • CIL VI 14404 cf. p. 3515 = CLE 1038 cf. p. 3515 (Rome; translation by Edward Courtney, Musa Lapidaria p. 171 no. 181)

L(ucius) Carisius L(uci) l(ibertus) Gemellus
Iuniae Q(uinti) l(ibertae) Mela[niae(?)].
terra levi tumulo levior ne degravet ossa,
pau(pe)ris inpositum sustinet arte super.
Iunia formosas inter memoranda puellas,
Iunia castarum hoc es in orbe decus,
in cineres verssa (!) ess (!) tumuloque inclusa cicadae:
diceris coniunxs una fuisse viri.

Carisius Gemellus, freedman of Lucius, for Julia Melania (?), freedwoman of Quintus.

The earth, lighter than the mound which itself is light so that it may not weigh down on the bones, holds above itself that mound laid on it by such skill as a poor man can afford. Junia, memorable among beautiful women, Junia, glory of chaste women while you sojourned (?) on earth, you have been turned into ashes and shut into a cicada’s tomb. You will be remembered as the only wife of your husband.

Poverty is said to be a curse.

In some cases, this applies quite literally:

  • CIL VI 24800 cf. p. 3531. 3917 = CLE 1299 = ILS 8183 (Rome)

Have dulcis.
Popilia Alexandria rarissima
femina a(nnorum) XXXV hic sita est.
M(arcus) Ulpius Ingenuus b(ene) m(erenti) et sibi.
dulcis vale.
quid lacrimas? factum est,
vir bone, vive vale.
sed tibi, invide, opto qui
ossucula mea hic sita esse
gemis morte tardata vivas
[- – -] aeger inops.

Greetings, sweetness. Popilia Alexandria, a most remarkable lady, lies here, aged 35. Marcus Ulpius Ingenuus had this made for her, well-deserving, and himself. Farewell, sweetness. Why do you cry? It is done, good man, live, farewell. But you, spiteful man, who bemoans that my little bones lie here, may you live, with your death deferred, … sick and poor.

Is it possible to escape the curse?

One certainly may pray for it:

  • BCTH 1915.ccxxxviii = AE 1916.7 = AE 1916.8 (Setif/Sitifis, Mauretania Caesariensis)

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
hic ego infelix receptus Tartara `Ditis´
horrea dira mihi viae vitamque remisi,
[nec] licuit fatoque meo filiosque vidir[e]:
cernerem infernas sedes superosq(ue) remisi,
Parcarum arbitrio genesis vel lege tributa.
infestis querellis Superis ac tristibus aris,
tura dedi Manibus supplex crepitantia flammis;
quod non exauditas pre<c>es debusque supernis,
te precor his precibus Bato, carissime frater:
si qua mea commendata tibi filiosque repertos
tradas, vefes (!) dea Pauperies obnoxia non sit.
memoriam facitote mihi, ne derisus in imo
infernas <i>nt<r>a sedes de crimine passus
nomine Dalmatio semper <a>matus ad omnes.
Val(erio) Dalmatio exarco equitum
stablesianorum Bato suo parenti.

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

Unhappily welcomed here in Dis’ Tartarus, I left the awful granaries and the path of my life behind, and my fate was not entitled to see my children: I left the world above to see the hellish realm, by decree of the Fates or by the law that was assigned upon my birth. As the gods above and those sad altars were hostile to my requests, I offered frankincense, crackling in the flames, to the Spirits of the Departed, a suppliant myself. As my prayers to the gods above remained unheard, I beg you with these prayers, Bato, dearest brother: if you pass to my children, when found, the things with which I have entrusted  you, may Poverty, the goddess, mean no harm to you.

You will ensure memory of me, lest I be mocked, deep down in the realm of hell, subject to allegations, I, Dalmatius by name, always beloved by everyone.

To Valerius Dalmatius, exarch of the horsemen from the stables. Bato, for his father.

Is it possible to escape poverty, if left to one’s own devices, as many a populist politician seems to suggest?

Plaque at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther.

By Well-Doing Poverty Becomes Rich‘ – Plaque at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther. – Photo (c) PK, 2015.


Certainly not for everyone.

Inscription of the Mactar Harvester. – Image source:

Inscription of the Mactar Harvester. – Image source:

Whenever someone achieves it, however, it makes for an excellent story to be told. The most famous example, perhaps, is that of the so-called Mactar Harvester, Ancient Rome’s most famous rags-to-riches story (CIL VIII 11824 cf. p. 2372 = CLE 1238 = ILS 07457 = ILTun 528; translation by T. Parkin and A. Pomeroy, Roman Social History. A Sourcebook, London 2007):

Caeselia Namina [- – -]
[- – -]lianus pius [vix]it
pia vixit annis [- – -]
[- – -] annis
[- – – – – -]
VC[- – -]AIIIS[- – -]MA[- – -]TVE[- – -]
paupere progenitus lare sum parvoq(ue) parente
cuius nec census neque domus fuerat
ex quo sum genitus ruri mea vixi colendo
nec ruri pausa nec mihi semper erat
et cum maturas segetes produxerat annus
demessor calami tunc ego primus eram
falcifera cum turma virum processerat arvis
seu Cirtae Nomados seu Iovis arva petens
demessor conctos anteibam primus in arvis
pos tergus linguens densa meum gremia
bis senas messes rabido sub sole totondi
ductoret ex opere postea factus eram
undecim et turmas messorum duximus annis
et Numidiae campos nostra manus secuit
hic labor et vita parvo con(ten)ta valere
et dominum fecere domus et villa paratast
et nullis opibus indiget ipsa domus
et nostra vita fructus percepit honorum
inter conscriptos scribtus et ipse fui
ordinis in templo delectus ab ordine sedi
et de rusticulo censor et ipse fui
et genui et vidi iuvenes carosq(ue) nepotes
vitae pro meritis claros transegimus annos
quos nullo lingua crimine laedit atrox
discite mortales sine crimine degere vitam
sic meruit vixit qui sine fraude mori  ||
D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
C(aius) Mulceius
vixi(t) an(nos) XXX ||
[D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum)]
S(extus) Au[reli]-
us F[- – -]-
nus vix(it)
an(nos) XL.

I was born into a poor dwelling and of a poor father, who had no property or household. From the time of my birth, I lived in the country looking after my business; there was no time off in the countryside and none for me at any time. And when the time of year had brought forth the grain ready for harvest, then I was the first reaper of the stalks. When the sickle-bearing gangs of men had made their way to the fields, whether heading for The Nomads of Cirta or The Fields of Jupiter, as harvester I preceded all, first into the fields, leaving the packed bands behind my back. I reaped twelve harvests under the raging sun, and afterwards became a work gang leader instead of a labourer. We led the gangs of harvesters for eleven years and our band cut down the Numidian fields. This effort and my frugal lifestyle brought success and made me master of a household and gained me a house, and my home itself lacks nothing. And my life gained the rewards of office: I was myself enrolled among the conscript councillors. Elected by the order [of the decurions], I had a seat in the order’s temple and, starting out as a humble country boy, I too became censor. I produced children and saw them grow into young men and saw their children too. In accord with our services in life, we have enjoyed years of fame, which no bitter tongue has hurt with any reproach. People, learn to pass your lives without giving reason for reproach. The man who has lived deceitfully has earned meeting his death in such a manner.

On a somewhat less epic level –

  • CIL V 938 = CLE 372 = ILS 2905 (Aquileia)

L(ucius) Trebius T(iti) f(ilius)
pater. ||
L(ucius) Trebius L(uci) f(ilius) Ruso. ||
natus summa in pauperie merui post classicus miles
ad latus Augusti annos septem decemque,
nullo odio sine offensa, missus quoq(ue) honeste.
l(ocus) p(edum) q(uadratorum) XVI.

Lucius Trebius, son of Titus, father.

Lucius Trebius Ruso, son of Lucius.

Born in deepest poverty, I subsequently served as as soldier of the fleet, side by side with the Emperor, for seventeen years, without incurring any hate, without a fail, honourably discharged, too.

This plot comprises 16 sq. ft.

Success stories like this, however, presumably were the exception in the ancient world– and we don’t know just how much of a persuasive traction such ‘from dishwasher to millionaire’ stories could gain back then.

Ideological charged narratives now, they remain the narrative of exceptions to the rule.

In that regard, support for the poor, as fully valued, equal members of our society, cannot just be a thing of the past:

  • ICERV 278 = PELCatalans T 17 (Tarragona/Tarraco, Hispania citerior)

Sollers magnanimus pius ingenio cato
hic quiescit in tumulo Sergius pontifex s(an)c(tu)s
qui sacri labentis restaura(n)s culmina templi
haud procul ab urbe construxit cenobium s(an)c(t)is.
pauperes patrem hu(n)c tutorem hab(u)ere pupilli,
viduas (!) solamen captibis pretium
esurien(tibu)s repperit alimentum.
profluus in lacrimis depulit contagia carnis
cunctis carissimus exuberanti gratia polle(n)s
parcus in abundantia locuplex egentib(us) vixit
septies denos pr(a)esentis (a)evi p(er)agens annos
tria sacer pontifex pariterq(ue) septena
religiosae vit(a)e explevit tempora (!) lustra.

Skillful, generous, dutiful, of sharp wit: here in this tumulus rests Sergius, the saint bishop, who, after restoring the ceilings of the sacred temple (which had begun to fall into disrepair), built a monastery for monks not far from the city. He was regarded as parent by the poor, as guardian by the pupils, he meant consolation for the widows, he was valued by prisoners, and he found food for the famished. Easily given to tears, he avoided the contact of meat, beloved by everyone, strong in grace, frugal when it came to abundance, generous to the needy, he lived seventy years of his age and, consecrated as bishop, he completed three decades of his life-time alongside seven decades of a religious life.

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