Once a thief…?

I have been looking at the Latin inscriptions of Silchester recently, and in that context I came across a very remarkable item: the so-called Vyne ring:

The Vyne ring, around a seal depicting (and naming) the goddess Venus, bears a Christian inscription that reads as follows (CIL VII 1305 = RIB II.3 2422.14):

Seniciane, vivas iin (!) de<o>.

Senicianus, may you live in God.

Discovered in 1785 in a field near Calleva Atrebatum, Roman Silchester, this piece appears to date to the fourth century A. D.

It would have been a lovely, but otherwise unremarkable find if it had not been for the discovery of a curse tablet at Lydney, Gloucestershire, conveniently dated to the fourth century A. D., that exhibits the following text (CIL VII 140 = RIB I 306 = ILS 4730; image, text, and translation from here):

Nodenti Silvianus
anilum perdedit
demediam partem
donavit Nodenti
inter quibus nomen
Seniciani nollis
petmittas sanita-
tem donec perfera(t)
usque templum [No-]

To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and given half (its value) to Nodens. Among those who are called Senicianus do not allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens.

The connection between these two items, found far apart from one another, was made by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who then is believed to have discussed both the curse tablet and the ring with J. R. R. Tolkien, then professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford – and it has been imagined by some that this, in turn, may have inspired Tolkien’s idea of Lord Sauron’s ring.

There are perfectly good reasons to be sceptical about this connection, of course: if something is too good to be true, it’s probably not true, as they say – and the starting point for such scepticism has to be, of course, that the name Senicianus or, in its alternative spelling, Senecianus, is not an uncommon one.

Amazingly, when looking for this name in the surviving Latin inscriptions of Roman Britain, another curse tablet comes to light – this time from Aquae Sulis, modern-day Bath (AE 1982.667):

(Side A) Seu gen(tili)s seu C/h(r)istianus quaecumque (!) utrum vir / [u]trum mulier utrum puer utrum puella / utrum s[er]vus utrum liber mihi Annia[n]/o Ma{n}tutene de bursa mea s(e)x argente[o]s / furaverit (!) tu d[o]mina dea ab ipso perexi[g]/e [- – – eo]s si mihi per [f]raudem aliquam inde p/r(a)eg[u]stum (?) dederit nec sic (!) ipsi dona sed ut sangu/inem suum (r)eputes qui mihi hoc inrogaverit.

(Side B) Postum[inu]s (?) Pisso / Locinna [A]launa / Materna Gunsula / C[an]didina Euticius / Peregrinus / Latinus / Senicianus / Avitianus / Victor / Sco[ti]us / Aessicunia / Paltucca / Calliopis / Celerianus.

In the translation of J. G. Gager:

(Side A) Whether pagan or Christian, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free, whoever has stolen from me, Annianus (son of) Matutina (?), six silver coins from my purse, you, Lady Goddess, are to exact (them) from him. If through some deceit he has given me … and do not give thus to him but reckon as (?) the blood of him who has invoked this upon me.

(Side B) Postuminus, Pisso, Locinna, Alauna, Materna, Gunsula, C[an]didina, Euticius, Peregrinus, Latinus, Senicianus, Avitianus, Victor, Scotius, Aessicunia, Paltucca, Calliopis, Celerianus.

Again the name of Senicianus appears on a curse directed against a thief, ‘whether a pagan or Christian’ (!), as John Wacher points out, the route from Lydney to Silchester, where Senicianus appears to have lost ‘his’ ring (with his own inscription added), could of course lead via Bath without much of a detour. The date of the Bath curse tablet, commonly given as fourth century A. D., would fit the bill as well.

Did Senicianus strike again?

And what about another Bath tablet that reads as follows (AE 1982.658) . . .

[D]eae Suli donavi [arge]/ntiolos sex quos perd[idi] / a nomin[i]bus infra script[is] / deae exactura(!) est / Senicia(n)us et Saturninus {sed} / et Ann[i]ola. c(h)arta picta perscri[pta]. / An(n)[i]ola / Senicianus / Saturninus.

In Gager’s translation:

I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact (them) from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola. The written page has been copied out. Anniola. Senicianus. Saturninus.

It is all too easy to get carried away in one’s desire to connect the dots on a map and thus to create convenient narratives.

A few years ago, R. S. O. Tomlin published yet another curse tablet from Roman Britain – this time from Leicester. And guess what – a Senicianus features here as well (ZPE 167 (2008) 208):

d<a>eo Maglo (do) e<u>um qui frudum / fecit de padoio (do) el<a>eum qui / furtum (fecit) de padaoium <sa(g)um> / qui sa(g)um Servandi involalvit. / S[il]vester Ri(g)omandus / S[e]nilis Venustinus / Vorvena / Calaminus / Felicianus / Ruf<a>edo / Vendicina / Ingenuinus / Iuventius / Alocus / Cennosus / Germanus /Senedo / Cunovendus / Regalis / Ni(g)ella / S[enic]ianus (deleted). / (do) ant<a>e nonum diem / illum tollat / qui sa(g)um involauit I Servandi.
‘I give to the god Maglus him who did wrong from the slave-quarters; I give him who (did) theft <the cloak> from the slave-quarters; who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Ri(g)omandus, Senilis, Venustinus, Vorvena, Calaminus, Felicianus, Ruf<a>edo, Vendicina, Ingenuinus, luventius, Alocus, Cennosus, Germanus, Senedo, Cunovendus, Regalis, Ni(g)ella, Senicianus (deleted). I give (that the god Maglus) before the ninth day take away him who stole the cloak of Servandus.’

Would it not be amazing if the (subsequently erased) suspect Senicianus – ring-thief of Lydney and six-silver-coins-thief of Aquae Sulis (on at least one occasion, if not two)  – were to have been our man at Leicester at well?

Well, if it was him, he must have been closer to one-hundred years old before he actually made it to Lydney and Bath (travelling took a long time back then, of course) – the Leicester tablet has been dated to the mid-second to the mid-third century, much earlier than the other pieces mentioned so far.

My conclusion?

Captivating stories of rings, deceit, and curses are best written by the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, not by those who are interested in the history and epigraphy of Roman Britain.

As for the Vyne ring, it seems very reasonable to acknowledge the beautiful irony that this ring bears the name of one Senicianus as its owner, wishing him well in the name of God, while one Silvianus at Lydney, in the same century, suspected a man of that very name Senicianus of theft of his gold ring, while, again in the same century, a man called Senicianus was suspected of pick-pocketing at Bath.

Other than that, we should stick to the established principle that one must be regarded as innocent until conclusively proven guilty, or, in Latin: in dubio pro reo.

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Black and White

It has been a long time since I last posted on here – the reason is simple: I’m frantically trying to finish a book about the Latin verse inscriptions of Rome’s poor and marginalised. I hope to have everything done by the end of this year – and there’s still a fair bit to do. But I haven’t forgotten this little blog!


Head of a Roman Boy (second century A. D.). – Image source: http://www.getty.edu/art/collections/images/l/00799601.jpg.

October is Black History Month in the U. K.

I don’t particularly like the idea of  Black History Month.

To me, black history is human history.

As such, I am just as interested in it as I am in any other facet of human history, and I firmly believe that it should be studied by everyone as just that, every month, every day – unafraid to embrace the complexity and diversity of human life in all its shades and nuances (not shying away from those bits in our history that give us little reason to be proud of or that we no longer find convenient as part of our narratives).

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to find it easy to come to terms with that, for reasons I cannot fathom or respect. As a result, marginalised groups remain marginalised in their representation in historical and literary disciplines. And that is one of the many reasons why we do need Black History Month, promoting cohesion and diversity to counterbalance biases that otherwise often remain unaddressed.

A recent string of heated exchanges made it quite obvious that this is true for my own discipline, Classics, as well – a discipline that (to me, anyway) is so exciting because it is so diverse and complex (even though we do not always do justice to that, myself included).

What had happened?

Over the last couple of months or so, there has been a long row on Twitter, with Mary Beard (once again) at the centre of some unspeakably vile trolling and abuse, challenging the notion of a presence of Blacks in the Roman Empire as something ‘normal’. (My colleague Matthew Nicholls contributed a nice little piece about this debate here, and Mary Beard added an interesting item to it here.)

As part of the debate focused on the presence or absence of genetic evidence for the presence of sub-Saharan types in the DNA available for the classical world, it may be worthwhile, I thought, to look at how the ancients themselves thought about genetic inheritance and race – concepts not at all alien to them, if conceptualised and expressed differently.

The following piece comes from a little-read ancient author called Calpurnius Flaccus who seems to have produced his work, a collection of rhetorical exercises, around the reign of Hadrian in the early second century A. D.

As a rhetorical exercise, it presents a (made-up) case, an accusation, and a defence – the text is somewhat fragmentary, but the main lines are clear (Calpurnius Flaccus, Declamations 2, transl. L. A. Sussmann):

(i) The Case:

The Son Who Was Born Black (Natus Aethiops)

(ii) The Accusation:

Love is blind: it has neither rhyme nor reason. Otherwise, we would all love in the same way. Not infrequently the reason for sinning is to sin in a manner that invites disbelief. “Children don’t always take after their parents,” she tells us. What business do you have with employing this sort of defense plea, other than to reveal that you have sinned quite recklessly? Are we surprised for this to be a law of nature, that a person’s features are inherited by his offspring, and that the races of man preserve these like the transcribed copies of a document? Indeed, for each race of man its own characteristic physical appearance remains fixed. In Germany, they have ruddy faces and their great stature is crowned by blonde hair; in Spain <…> they are not all imbued with the same shade of skin. In the opposite direction, where the vault of Heaven, curving out and coming to an end + dispatches the rising sun, there more sprawling, and yes, there more compactly sized bodies are born. The races of men are diverse, yet nobody is dissimilar to his own particular race. “What are you saying then,” she goes on, “I made love to a black man?” Gentlemen of the jury, now and then disgusting acts also have their own distinctive qualities of attraction, and people take a certain pleasure in . Are you surprised that someone falls in love irrationally, since it is by no means the mark of a rational person to embark upon a love affair at all? Grant me the eyes, sensible ones, of a woman: no adulterer is handsome. Chastity doomed to be lost cares not the last how it should be lost. It is a peculiarity of depraved lust not to care where it may drop. When once chastity has been ruined, no source of ruin is degrading after people’s minds have sunk into vice. In the end, the man who gratified her lust was one on whom her husband’s suspicion could not fall.

(iii) The Defence:

Is not therefore the fact that she desired to give birth stronger evidence of her chastity than the fact that she did give birth disastrously is evidence of her inchastity? You see a fetus violently discharged from her possibly injured internal organs: much of its plight may even yet be inside her womb. You see scorched skin – it’s the blood’s fault; but you regard it as the pigment of its skin. What you see may well be an injury to the baby. This very condition, the fact that bruising has darkened and deeply discolored its skin, a long lapse of time may alleviate. Quite often snow-white limbs are tanned by the sun, and a pale complexion departs from the body. Shelter from the sun forces limbs to become pale, however naturally swarthy they were. Grant as much time as you think nature allows for this process.

This remarkable passage (which is not for the faint-hearted – or those who think of the ancient world as a safe refuge from a world that has become somewhat unhinged recently) is a masterful example of ethnocentrism. It places Rome and Italy at the centre of its considerations and has it defined the default: the husband (accusing) and the wife (accused) are safely placed there, and their physical appearance and complexions define the normal.

From here, all other types are defined: there are the Germans in the North (wrinkly, tall, blonde), the Spaniards in the West (partly not transmitted, but with great variation to their complexions), and the Asians in the East (who are either somewhat more sprawling or more compactly sized). None of them compare particularly favourably to the default.

The reason for such variation in appearance, according to the accuser, is adaptation to climate (a common view in the ancient world) – each region produces a specific type of humans, related to proximity to the sun, humidity, and so forth.

And then there are the Blacks, named by their mythical name Aethiopes (literally ‘those with the burnt face’). And it was one of them, the accusers claim, who fathered the woman’s child – someone who, according to the husband, was deemed least likely to be the suspect: presumably because he was a slave.

The accusation therefore: this child was the result of an act of adultery with a black man (an Aethiops) – which one can easily tell, as certain features are heredetary, including skin colour.

This was well-known at the time.

As our author has the accuser put it: miramur hanc legem esse naturae, ut in sobolem transeant formae, quas quasi descriptas species custodiunt (‘are we surprised for this to be a law of nature, that a person’s features are inherited by his offspring, and that the races of man preserve these like the transcribed copies of a document’)?

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, gives evidence for a Roman understanding of genetic dominance of black skin colour when he describes that it will prevail in mixed-race children.

Plutarch, in turn, relates a story in which a woman, though not particularly dark-skinned herself apparently, gave birth to a black baby and eventually was found to be the great-granddaughter of an Ethiopian.)

Remarkably, despite the heavily race-focused discourse of the accusation (the Latin term in use here is gens, ‘family’, as identified by the blood-line), none of it challenges in any way the humanity, worth, or the very right to existence of any gens. Instead, any diversion from the norm, resulting from climatic differences, comprises a certain level of disfigurement (ruddiness, body height, body spread, shades of complexion etc.) as compared to the ideal that is the Roman archetype (which remains undefined!).

It is in that regard that the text describes black skin as a deviation from the norm that is less than aesthetically pleasing (and it makes this point in rather strong, bold terms). At the same time, the text also does not object, in principle, to such mixed-race encounters – it may be an aesthetically questionable choice (following the logic of this text, that is), but one that is perfectly normal from the perspective of lovers, who are all a bit mad to begin with.

What is (and remains) bad about the whole scenario is the (alleged) act of infidelity – and, as if that was not bad enough, infidelity with someone as low as a slave: the husband certainly never expected her to sink so low (as the final sentence would appear to imply).

The defence, too, focuses on the adaptability of the human skin to its environment, but in a rather more short-termist way, working forward from the assertion that the entire birth process had been profoundly upsetting and dramatic  – in fact, true credit to the accused’s fidelity rather than the opposite. (Time to remind oneself: this is a fictitious case!)

In this context it is pointed out that one’s complexion may change even in the short term (rather than as part of one’s genetic inheritance), depending on exposure to the sun (or lack thereof). Something similar, it is argued, may have happened to the baby as it was born under very difficult circumstances.

Time will show, it is claimed, that the baby’s skin colour is not, in fact, the result of an act of infidelity (note, too, what the text does not say, namely that intercourse with an Aethiops would be out of the question for a woman of high reputation!), but of complications.

A difficult text, no doubt, and one full of potentially quite challenging remarks about genetic inheritance.

The message I prefer to take away from it, however, is this:

Expers iudicii est amor; non rationem habet, non sanitatem; alioquin omnes idem amaremus.

Love is blind: it has neither rhyme nor reason. Otherwise, we would all love in the same way.

A statement even the (allegedly) spurned (made-up) accuser cannot disagree with.


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A postscript to Reverend Grainger of St Giles

How lovely to see my work used in this fascinating context!

The Whitley Pump

Plaque to John Cecil Grainger in St Giles Church

In October, the Whitley Pump wrote about the impressive memorial to Rev John Cecil Grainger of St Giles, who died in 1857, and was buried in Reading Old Cemetery. His parishioners also erected a tablet in St Giles Church.

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I have not been very good at updating my blog recently – between marking, my admin roles, and my desire to finish my next monograph (more about that anon!), there simply has not been a lot of spare time.

Will you forgive me for an update that has little to do with my interests in the ancient world (though I wrote about this problem before), but a lot to do with another hobby of mine – analogue photography – as well as my desire to make this world at least a little bit better?

As regular readers of my blog may know, I live in Reading, Berkshire in the United Kingdom. I have been living here for almost ten years. Over the last few years, homelessness has become an ever increasing, ever more visible issue in Reading.

I take my time to talk to the homeless people of Reading, without judging them, their past, their present, or their future. Sometimes I ask them whether I may take their photo. Many decline. Others don’t.

Just like myself, my camera doesn’t judge these people. I don’t have any desire to ‘document’ anything. But I cannot just look away.

Can we make Reading a little better? Would you be willing to support my fundraising campaign for Launchpad Reading, a local charity that does some amazing work to support Reading’s homeless people and rough sleepers?

Click here for my fundraising campaign on JustGiving.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

I’d be ever so grateful for your support, however big or small. (I set a very modest target of £150. But there’s no maximum to what we can give!)

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Love, death, and blissful ignorance: Pliny and the origins of photography

Pliny the Elder, ancient Rome’s great encyclopedist, did not, of course, describe the origins of modern photography – a technique and art that was greatly advanced in Reading, Berkshire, by William Henry Fox Talbot (as described in this wonderful book).

Yet, in his description of the origins of clay modelling that follows the history of painting in the 35th book of Pliny’s Naturalis historia, he also captures the quintessential idea of ‘photography’ (as in ‘drawing with light‘) when he writes that (Plin. nat. 35.151, transl. J. Bostock – H. T. Riley):

De pictura satis superque. contexuisse his et plasticen conveniat eiusdem operae terrae. Fingere ex argilla similitudines Butades Sicyonius figulus primus invenit Corinthi filiae opera, quae capta amore iuvenis, abeunte illo peregre, umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit, quibus pater eius inpressa argilla typum fecit et cum ceteris fictilibus induratum igni proposuit, eumque servatum in Nymphaeo, donec Mummius Corinthum everterit, tradunt.

On painting we have now said enough, and more than enough; but it will be only proper to append some accounts of the plastic art. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery. This model, it is said, was preserved in the Nymphaeum at Corinth, until the destruction of that city by Mummius.

The Origin of Painting by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1785

Butades’ nameless daughter, in love with an (equally nameless) youth who was set to go abroad, traced the young man’s shade (a word that the Romans also used for rough-and-ready effigies, as I recently mentioned).

The silhouette, one may infer, was to remind her of her love (soon to be far away) for the duration of his absence in the same way that photography nowadays is employed to make us indulge in our thoughts of those (people, moments, occasions) that are now far away (and potentially never come back).

In Pliny’s story, the light of the lantern (lucerna – for some thoughts about ancient lamps see here, by the way) provides Butades’ daughter with a shade (umbra) of her love interest which she then perpetuates on the surface of a wall (paries) by drawing lines around it (lineis circumscripsit).

Pompeian impression of Butades’ daughter’s love interest (no, not really: as Plato said in his Symposium, don’t believe everything you read on the internet!).

The Latin term for shade, umbra, is a loaded one, however, as umbra is also the term that refers to the spirits of the underworld (as discussed before).


Mortified through photography: a flock of geese over Hallig Hooge, Germany. – (c) PK, April 2017.

There is nothing in Pliny’s discourse that would suggest an allusion to this double meaning.

But conceptually, I find, this is an interesting coincidence – as capturing a fleeting moment in life through photography (whether in the accepted meaning of that term or in the production of a silhouette) ultimately brings to a standstill and thus mortifies a moment in the ever-changing, ever-evolving continuum of our lives – a moment that will never recur and that cannot ever be brought back in the exact same way that it was on that one occasion.

Tracing of silhouettes, according to Pliny, was one of the possible ways in which painting (pictura) came to be (Plin. nat. 35.15–16):

De picturae initiis incerta nec instituti operis quaestio est. Aegyptii sex milibus annorum aput ipsos inventam, priusquam in Graeciam transiret, adfirmant, vana praedicatione, ut palam est; Graeci autem alii Sicyone, alii aput Corinthios repertam, omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta, itaque primam talem, secundam singulis coloribus et monochromaton dictam, postquam operosior inventa erat, duratque talis etiam nunc. inventam liniarem a Philocle Aegyptio vel Cleanthe Corinthio primi exercuere Ardices Corinthius et Telephanes Sicyonius, sine ullo etiamnum hi colore, iam tamen spargentes linias intus. ideo et quos pinere adscribere institutum.

We have no certain knowledge as to the commencement of the art of painting, nor does this enquiry fall under our consideration. The Egyptians assert that it was invented among themselves, six thousand years before it passed into Greece; a vain boast, it is very evident. As to the Greeks, some say that it was invented at Sicyon, others at Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in tracing lines round the human shadow. The first stage of the art, they say, was this, the second stage being the employment of single colours; a process known as “monochromaton,” after it had become more complicated, and which is still in use at the present day. The invention of line-drawing has been assigned to Philocles, the Egyptian, or to Cleanthes of Corinth. The first who practised this line-drawing were Aridices, the Corinthian, and Telephanes, the Sicyonian, artists who, without making use of any colours, shaded the interior of the outline by drawing lines; hence, it was the custom with them to add to the picture the name of the person represented.

There is another aspect to the story of Butades’ daughter, however – again something that Pliny does not mention or allude to, but that is interesting conceptually to those who (like myself) enjoy overthinking the photographic art.


A moment frozen in time: water fountain in front of Berlin’s Lutheran cathedral. – (c) PK, April 2017.

Butades’ daughter, in creating a memory of her lover by tracing his shade, arguably eternalises the exact opposite of his true nature.

Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? The cave in which shadow puppetry represents the lowest level of insight and understanding and in which the shades are furthest from what represents the ideal?

Butades’ daughter embraces just that (and her father goes further still, by creating a reproduction of it in yet another medium): she is not seeking for truth; she is perpetuating reflections, documenting distortions, reducing four dimensions into two – imitating an imitation of an idea, as Plato might have put it.

It is this particular power of photography, the ability to freeze a small frame of a much more complex reality and to eternalise a particular take on it (with all its surprising elements, often hidden in plain view), that fascinates me most about it.

It is what makes it an art, in a Platonic sense – an art whose creator has no real insights into the ideal, and yet manages to capture something that seems to relate to it.


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Bokelmann’s shade

I am in North Frisia right now, spending a few days by the North Sea shore with my son. I fell in love with this primordial landscape when I was a child myself (rather longer ago than I care to admit).

Today, among other things, we paid a trip to Husum, the district capital and birthplace of famous German novelist Theodor Storm. In Husum’s church of St. Mary, a building otherwise most austere, I encountered the following memorial:


The frame, as a German inscription at the top reveals, was restored in 1901 by one Wilhelm Jensen ‘der ursprügl. Bemalung getreu’, i. e. faithful to its original decoration.

The monument’s central piece is a painting of a man who is identified by an added Latin poem (a rather inelegantly formed elegiac distich) as well as a date and an indication of his age at the time of his sitting:

Ista Peteri Bokelmanni pastoris imago est
hunc precor ad formam, Christe, refinge tuam.

Anno Christi

Anno aetatis
suae 68.

This is the image of Peter Bokelmann, the priest:
Christ, I pray: shape him in your likeness.

A. D. 1572.

Aged 68.

Peter Bokelmann (1505–1576) was a Lutheran theologian of the first generation. He came to Husum in 1527 as a teacher and then, after a period of absence, again in 1552 as a preacher.

After his death, as a number of old books reveal, the following lines were added to the painting (again in the form of elegiac distichs, and again without much metrical skill):

Umbra Bokelmanni datur hic tibi conspicienda:
membra cubant infra, mens tenet astra poli.
Quinque fuit lustris in coetu pastor Husensi:
laus post fata eius vivida semper erit.

Bokelmann’s shade is here for you to behold:
his bones rest below, his mind grasps heaven’s stars.
For twenty-five years he was the priest in Husum’s parish:
his praise will live forever after his demise.

While the two hexameter (= odd) lines give specific information, the pentameter  (= even) lines of the poem consist of segments in common use in contemporary funerary poetry; they express the belief in a divide of below (as permanent dwelling for the mortal remains) vs. above (for the immortal soul, here thought of as the mind – a mind that reaches for the stars) as well as the desire for eternal praise.

What struck me, however, was the image (no pun intended) created in the first hexameter: the painting is referred to as umbra Bokelmanni, Bokelmann’s shade, for the beholder to see.

Umbra, ‘shade’, when it comes to paintings, is a term that in ancient sources is used specifically to refer to the dark elements of paintings, but also to denote a faded appearance, a semblance, something of lesser quality than an effigy. On the other hand, umbra can refer to shades in the sense of apparitions, ghosts – the dwellers of the underworld.

In an otherwise rather pedestrian poem, use of the loaded, multifaceted term umbra – just ahead of a line that, just like death, separates the physical remains (membra) from the spirit (mens) – referring to a dark painting that captures likeness of the late Peter Bokelmann, seemed rather imaginative.

And yet the umbra, the shade from the other side, is fixed and under control: datur … conspicienda, it is presented here, ‘is here … to behold’ – nothing creepy about it.

What is imagined as alive and thriving alone is his laus, his everlasting praise.

A fair judgement: 441 years after Bokelmann’s death, we still get to commemorate him.

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No graffiti please!

Yesterday news broke about houses that were defaced with graffiti (or, strictly speaking, dipinti – after all, the text was painted onto, not scratched into, the surface) in Cambridge – in Latin:

Locus in domos … loci populum is a meaningless phrase – until one enters it into Google Translate, which, according to some mystery algorithm, renders it as ‘local homes for local people’.

Admiror o parìens te non cedidisse ruinis qui tot | scriptorum taedia sustineas, ‘I am amazed, oh wall, that you have not collapsed, for you bear so many writers’ tedious items’, one may be tempted to respond, quoting a famous graffito from Pompeii (CIL IV 1904 (cf. p. 213. 465); CLE 957) – whether one agrees with the actual stance taken by the aspiring Cambridge Latinists or not.

In case the rightful owners wish to respond in rather better Latin (though probably lost on the original writers), here are some actual examples of how people in the Roman world requested their property be spared from such unwelcome decoration:

  • C(aius) Iulius Anicetus | ex imperio Solis | rogat ne quis uelit | parietes aut triclias | inscribere aut | scariphare. || P(ublius) Scantius Suru[s] | sibi et cognatis s[uis]. | D(ecimus) Folius Succe[ssus].
    Gaius Iulius Anicetus, at the behest of Sol, requests that you refrain from writing onto, or scratching into, the walls or gazebos (?). || Publius Scantius Surus for himself and his relatives. Decimus Folius Successus.
    (CIL VI 52 (cf. p 831. 3003. 3755) cf. VI 25990 (cf. p. 3532); ILS 4335; Rome)
  • In fr(onte) p(edes) XXII, in ag(ro) p(edes) XXVI. M(arcus) Camurius P(ubli) f(ilius) Rom(ilia tribu) Soranus. Hoc monumentum heredem non sequitur. Se[i] hoc monumento ullius candidati nomen inscripsero ne ualeam.
    Twenty-two feet long, twenty-six feet wide. Marcus Camurius Soranus, son of Publius, of the Romilian tribe. This monument does not pass to an heir. If I ever inscribe the name of any candidate on this monument, may I perish!
    (CIL VI 14313 (cf. p. 3912); ILS 8205; Rome)
  • Quis [h]eic [ulla? s]cr[ipser]it [t]abe[scat] n[eque] nominetur.
    Whoever shall write (have written?) something here, may he rot and fail to get elected.
    (CIL IV 7521; Pompeii being Pompeii, someone responded: quis scripsit?, ‘Wrote who?’)
  • Ita ualeas scriptor, hoc monimentum | praeteri.
    Farewell indeed, writer, just make your way past this monument.
    (CIL V 1490; CLE 196; ILS 8207a; Aquileia)

Or, for the lover of a somewhat more straight-forward discourse, …

  • Πάντες δια|γράφουσι, ἐγὼ μό|νος οὐδὲν ἔγραψα. | Πυγίζω πάντες τούτ[ους οἳ] | ἐπὶ τοίχο γράφουσι.
    Everybody writes here, I alone refrained from doing so. I sodomise whoever writes on this wall.
    (M. Della Corte – P. Ciprotti, Inscriptiones Parietales Ostienses (Studia et Documenta Historiae et Iuris 27), 1961, 324–341, no. 61; Ostia).

(For further texts, see an article that I published in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik in 2010.)

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Blast from the past

The Roman fabulist Phaedrus opens the third book of his Fabulae with the following piece (Phaedr. 3.1, my translation):

Anus ad amphoram

Anus iacere vidit epotam amphoram,
adhuc Falerna faece ex testa nobili
odorem quae iucundum late spargeret.
hunc postquam totis avida traxit naribus:
“o suavis anima! quale te dicam bonum
antehac fuisse, tales cum sint reliquiae?”
hoc quo pertineat, dicet qui me noverit.

In English:

Says the crone to the amphora…

A crone saw a drunk-up amphora lying around,
exuding from its noble shell, with dregs of Falernian,
an exhilarating scent still, far and wide.
Greedily she inhaled it, being all nose, and said:
‘Oh sweet spirit! How can I describe how good you once were
when what is left of you is of such quality?’
What this may signify will explain who knows me.

The ‘drunk old woman’ is a stereotype and stock character in Greco-Roman literature – and one that has famously found its most powerful expression in a sculpture now in the Glyptothek in Munich – a piece that (as far as I understand) was not at all designed to evoke pity, but to entertain.

Should we take it at face value? Is it a cheap crack at an old lady who can’t shake her addictions, an old lady so desperate that even a mere whiff from a disused wine vessel will provide shallow happiness?

Phaedrus tends to be rather more intelligent than that, and, unsurprisingly, scholars have taken a number of different views on the poem’s meaning. Justification for that lies in the poem’s concluding line – hoc quo pertineat, ‘what this may signify’, or, more literally, ‘where this belongs’.

So was it a poem to be read against the declining age of the emperor? Or is it a poem about the poet himself, his increasing age, and his poetry (as he opens a new collection of Fabulae)?

Poetry lends itself to manifold interpretations and re-interpretations, and, like with any work of art, the beholder’s preconceptions, emotions, and knowledge will be reflected in what is the centre of their attention. The poet’s genius is reflected in the piece’s openness to such readings and re-readings.

What puzzles me, however, is how much the focus tends to be on the poem’s Falernian dregs, as though the poem was about the residue and the remnants of quality wine (wine so good that even a faint memory, their anima, will still trigger compliments!) or about the vessel itself, a testa nobilis, a noble shell, that once was capable of the conveying a most precious load.

What if the poem were about the crone herself, as the title suggests?

What if Phaedrus carefully avoided the stereotype of the old drunkard as the butt of a cheap joke, rendering her a true connoisseur, someone experienced enough to tell quality wine from cheap plonk, happy to appreciate the good that is left in what is now an empty, unyielding shell?

What if Phaedrus, playing with our reflex-like urge to see stereotypes where there aren’t any, tells us a story about someone whom we might quickly dismiss as an old, miserable drunkard, but who, in actual fact, is of a very different nature: someone who, having taken a deep breath, rejoices over the sweet spirit as a faint, yet welcome reminder of a long-gone quality wherever it emerges – rather than to be disappointed over the lack of cheap roadside intoxication?

It may seem tempting, especially in stressful times, to read this poem as an expression of depletion and exhaustion.

But to do so means to make the wine the fable’s focus (and rejecting the role of the old crone in this narrative from the outset): a dangerous move when it comes to an author who, originating from a low social background himself, consistently exposes the faults of those who think that with power comes possession of the moral high ground.

It is the old crone and vessel itself that make up the very title of the piece, and it is the fabulist himself, rather than the old crone, who praise the quality of the empty shell as noble (nobilis) and the scent of the Falernian dregs as exhilarating (iucundum) – a scent that is still there, far and wide (late).

‘What this may signify’ (hoc quo pertineat) therefore (to my mind anyway) is what is said at the poem’s very centre: wherever one gets to encounter a delightful whiff of a quality that now appears to be long gone, take a deep breath and be greedy – take delight, praise the spirit … and never forget that this is only a faint memory of what used to exist!

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Valentine’s Valour

As the world once again celebrates undying love, chocolate, and flowers, it may be of interest to recall the story of Saint Valentine himself for a change.

In his Legenda Aurea (‘Golden Legend’ – legend not as in ‘he’s a legend’, though Valentine certainly was perceived that way by some, but from Latin legenda, ‘stories that must be read’), some 1,000 years after Saint Valentine’s death, Jacobus de Voragine recorded the story behind Valentine as follows (J. de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, ch. 42; my translation):

De Sancto Valentino

Valentinus dicitur quasi valorem tenens, hoc est, in sanctitate perseverans. Vel dicitur Valentinus, quasi valens tyro, id est, miles Christi. Miles dicitur valens, qui nunquam cecidit, fortiter ferit, se valenter defendit, potenter vincit. Sic Valentinus non cessit martirium vitando , percussit ydololatriam evacuando , defendit fidem communiendo, vicit patiendo.


Jacobus de Voragine, De Sancto Valentino in Ms. Aug. Perg. 256 f. 54r. (Image source: http://digital.blb-karlsruhe.de/blbhs/content/pageview/3447244)

Valentinus reverendus presbiter fuit, quem Claudius imperator ad se adduci faciens interrogavit dicens: quid est Valentine? cur amicitia nostra non frueris, ut Deos nostros adores et superstitionem tuae abjicias vanitatis. Cui Valentinus: si gratiam Dei scires, ista nequaquam diceres, sed ab ydolis animum revocares et Deum, qui est in coelis , adorares. Tunc quidam, qui Claudio adstabat, dixit: quid vis dicere, Valentine, de sanctitate Deorum nostrorum? Cui Valentinus: ego de iis nil dico , nisi quod fuerunt homines miseri et omni immunditia pleni. Ad quem Claudius: si Christus verus Deus est, cur mihi non dicis, quod verum est? Cui Valentinus: vere Christus solus est Deus, in quem si credideris, anima tua salvabitur, respublica augebitur, omnium inimicorum tibi victoria concedetur. Respondens autem Claudius adstantibus dixit: viri Romani audite , quam sapienter et recte homo loquitur iste. Tunc dixit praefectus: seductus est imperator: quomodo deseremus, quod ab infantia tenuimus ? Et tunc cor Claudii immutatum est. Traditur autem cuidam principi in custodiam et cum in domum ejus ductus fuisset, dixit: domine Jesu Christe, verum lumen. illumina domum istam, ut te verum Deum cognoscant. Cui praefectus: miror te dicentem, quod Christus est lumen: equidem si filiam meam diu caecam illuminaverit, faciam, quaecunque praeceperis. Tunc Valentinus orans ejus filiam caecam illuminavit et omnes de domu sua convertit. Tunc imperator Valentinum decollari praecepit circa annum domini CCLXXX.

Saint Valentine

Valentine’s name means ‘possessing valour’, i. e. ‘enduring in sanctity’. Valentinus may also mean ‘valiant recruit’, i. e. a soldier of Christ. One calls a soldier valiant when he never fell, fought bravely, defended himself with valour, and won with might. Thus Valentine did not avoid martyrdom by ducking it, thus he smashed idolatry by removing it, thus he defended the faith by strengthening it, and thus he won through suffering.

Valentine was a revered priest, whom Claudius (scil. II. Gothicus) the Emperor had ordered to be brought to him and interrogated, saying: ‘What is it, Valentine? Why do you not enjoy our friendship enough to worship our gods and discard the superstition that is your vanity?’ Valentinus said to him: ‘If you knew the grace of God, you would by no means say those things, but you would withdraw your mind from the idols and worship God who is in heaven.’ Then someone who stood with Claudius said: ‘What do you wish to say, Valentine, about the sanctity of our gods?’ Valentine said to him: ‘I do not say anything about them, except that they once were men and full of impurity.’ Claudius said to him: ‘If Christ truly is God, why do you not tell me what is true?’ Valentine said to him: ‘Truly, Christ alone is God: if you’d believe in him, your soul will be saved, the state will grow, and you will obtain victory against all enemies.’ Claudius in turn said to those who stood with him: ‘Listen, Romans, how wisely and correctly this man speaks!’ Then the prefect said: ‘The emperor has been deceived: how shall we abandon what we held since our earliest childhood?’ And then Claudius’ heart was changed. Claudius handed him over in some provost’s custody, and when Valentine had been led to that man’s home, he said: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true light, enlighten this house, so that they may see that you truly are God.’ The prefect said to him: ‘I wonder why you say that Christ is the light: if, however, he restores eyesight to my daughter, who has now been blind for a long time, I will do whatever you teach.’ Then Valentine prayed and restored eyesight to the man’s blind daughter and converted everyone in his house. Then the emperor ordered to have Valentine decapitated around the year of the Lord 280.

One may find it difficult to subscribe to the overtly proselytising message of Jacobus’ legend of St. Valentine. One may beg to differ, profoundly, over the question whether or not Christian faith is the sole (or even any) way to illumination.

And yet –

A powerful ruler who feels so insecure about himself that he makes friendship and protection dependent on shared beliefs and opinion?

A profoundly backwards adviser to the ruler who ensures that reasoning, especially whenever there is a slightest danger of getting through to the ruler, will not be listened to, removing those whose opinions and convictions differ from their convenient, fabled childhood memories?

Provision of help to those in need (on request!) and provision of evidence as triggers of one’s ultimate downfall in times of (metaphorical or real) unenlightenment?

Those are times that call for people who possess valour. (But let’s have undying love, chocolate, and flowers too! And yes, contrary to what a popular meme currently going around on social media suggests, it is STILL okay to have chocolate on this day, as my colleague Mark Humphries has pointed out here.)

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Drama queens: Ummidia and Messalina acting it out

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure to present – again – at the JACT GCSE Latin and Greek Conference at Westminster School London. My talk covered two set texts for the GCSE Latin – Pliny’s letter 7.24 (on Ummidia Quadratilla) and Tacitus’ Annals 11 (on Messalina). (For a full version of Pliny’s letter see also here (for the Latin) and here (for an English translation)). I am most grateful to Mr Andy Mylne for the invitation.

Here is a recording of my talk (including its powerpoint presentation):

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