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:

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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Hard shell, soft core

The late antique poet Claudian wrote a series of seven short epigrams on a fluid inclusion (or ‘enhydro’); these poems form part of a collection of Carmina minora (‘Shorter poems’), where they feature under the title De crystallo cui aqua inerat (‘On a crystal that contained water’; my translations):


Possedit glacies naturae signa prioris
et fit parte lapis, frigora parte negat.
sollers lusit hiems, imperfectoque rigore
nobilior vivis gemma tumescit aquis.

A piece of ice retains signs of its one-time nature
partly becoming stone, partly rejecting the cold.
Expertly plays the winter, and with rigidity incomplete
the gemstone swells more noble still with living drops of water.


Lymphae, quae tegitis cognato carcere lymphas,
et quae nunc estis quaeque fuistis aquae,
quod vos ingenium iunxit? qua frigoris arte
torpuit et maduit prodigiosa silex?
quis tepor inclusus securas vindicat undas?
interior glacies quo liquefacta Noto?
gemma quibus causis arcano mobilis aestu
vel concreta fuit vel resoluta gelu?

Waters, covering waters in kindred prison-cell,
both you that still are, and you that once were, liquid:
what genius united you? By what trick of freezing
is the marvellous stone both hard and wet?
Which gentle heat, locked in, governs the protected welters?
What southern breeze turned a frosty core liquid again?
What caused the gemstone, moving by some hidden surge,
to be solid or free from frost?


Solibus indomitum glacies Alpina rigorem
sumebat nimio iam pretiosa gelu
nec potuit toto mentiri corpore gemmam,
 sed medio mansit proditor orbe latex.
auctus honor; liquidi crescunt miracula saxi,
   et conservatae plus meruistis aquae.

Alpine ice grasped a firmness indomitable by the sun,
precious already with its excessive frost,
and yet it could not pretend to be a gemstone in its entirety,
for treacherous liquid remained in the middle of its sphere.
Enhanced esteem: the rock’s miraculousness grows as it is liquid,
and you, waters, became more precious still being preserved.


Adspice porrectam splendenti fragmine venam,
qua trahitur limes lucidiore gelu.
hic nullum Borean nec brumam sentit opacus
umor, sed varias itque reditque vias.
non illum constrinxit hiems, non Sirius axis,
aetatis spatium non tenuavit edax.

Behold this vein that extends itself through a shining piece of rock
where a path stretches of even more gleaming frost.
Here the hidden liquid cannot feel the North or the freezing winter,
but it runs, and runs again, on ever changing paths.
No winter impinged on it, nor did the Scorcher’s rise,
nor was it reduced as voracious time goes by.


Clauditur inmunis convexo tegmine rivus,
duratisque vagus fons operitur aquis.
nonne vides, propriis ut spumet gemma lacunis
et refluos ducant pocula viva sinus
udaque pingatur radiis obstantibus Iris
secretas hiemes sollicitante die?
mira silex mirusque latex. et flumina vincit
 et lapides merito, quod fluit et lapis est.

A watercourse is untouchably locked under a vaulted cover,
and a shifting spring is covered by hardened water.
Can’t you see how the gemstone gets frothy in its clefts,
how vessels full of life lead bays that ebb and flow,
how a  moist rainbow is painted by reflecting beams of light
when the daylight challenges the hidden frost?
Wondrous stone and wondrous liquid! It humbles rivers
and rocks, and rightly so, as it flows and still remains a stone.


Dum crystalla puer contingere lubrica gaudet
et gelidum tenero pollice versat onus,
vidit perspicuo deprensas marmore lymphas,
dura quibus solis parcere novit hiems,
et siccum relegens labris sitientibus orbem
inrita quaesitis oscula fixit aquis.

As a boy enjoys touching the gliding crystal
and turns the frosty mass with a tender thumb,
he sees, caught in clear rock, water
which alone a harsh winter chose to spare,
and placing the dry sphere on their thirsty lip
he places kisses on the desired water: in vain.


Marmoreum ne sperne globum: spectacula transit
regia nec Rubro vilior iste mari.
informis glacies, saxum rude, nulla figurae
gratia, sed raras inter habetur opes.

Do not despise this sphere made of rock: it surpasses royal
spectacles and this very thing is not of lesser value than the Red Sea’s pearl.
Shapeless ice, raw rock, no grace in its appearance,
yet one must keep it in the cabinet of curiosities.

Claudian clearly was taken by, and fascinated with, this particular curio.

He playfully (re-)imagines the fluid inclusion as a simultaneous presence of two phases of water: solid and liquid, dry and wet, cold and hot – all rolled into one precious, magical stone, in which what lies underneath the surface is in plain sight, and yet remains out of reach for those who desire to get hold of it.

Claudian, a courtier of Emperor Honorius, is not suspected of political subversion.

And yet, in times of harsh rhetorics and tough political fights, this cycle of poems, read in this sequence, appears in a different light and lends itself without much interpretative force to a political (re-)reading:

(I) The peculiar, rare, and precious gemstone, with its tough surface and its liquid core, formed by outside forces, managed to retain its original nature – and it is its soft, fluid core – the part that managed to preserve life against rigidity – that makes it extra special and precious.

(II) The precious part of the gemstone may be seen as incarcerated in its hard shell, and yet the hard shell may be seen as a mere layer of protection. What miraculous forces were, what miraculous forces continue to be, at play?

(III) Seemingly a contradiction in itself, the precious, rock solid (not quite) gemstone seemingly is betrayed by its gentle, fluid core – a core that seems to betray the object’s very nature. It the very preservation of its soft core, however, that makes the gem so special and extra precious.

(IV) Neither excessive heat nor excessive cold, nor, in fact, condensation, can now harm the water, preserved for eternity. It remains mobile, runs as it pleases, protected from outside harm.

(V) Protected from a damaging, harmful outside, the core remains visible, full of life and radiant, capable of providing the most extraordinary effects to those who witness it, especially when a light shines on it, being a wondrous thing throughout.

(VI) The gemstone’s wondrous nature attracts the curious, even those who may misinterpret what they see. Those may try to fathom the real nature, or try to latch on to it, hoping to quench their thirst – in vain!

(VII) It is the hard shell that provides protection, perhaps not the most pretty sight. And yet its complex, intriguing nature is what makes it so precious, worthy of being put on display for others to behold and to admire.

Will we be able to preserve our nature? Will we be able to protect our (quite literally:) core values with a protective layer that is consistent with what we are made of? Will we continue to be able to let them shine whenever there is a ray of light?

It would be a most precious thing.

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Principiis obsta: resist beginnings!



Ovid, in his elegiac poem Remedia Amoris (‘Remedies for Love’), writes (Ov. rem. 89–94, transl. J. H. Mozley):

Quale sit id, quod amas, celeri circumspice mente,
et tua laesuro subtrahe colla iugo.
Principiis obsta
; sero medicina paratur,

cum mala per longas convaluere moras.
Sed propera, nec te venturas differ in horas;
qui non est hodie, cras minus aptus erit.

Consider in swift thought what kind of thing it is you love, and withdraw your neck from a yoke that may one day gall. Resist beginnings; too late is the medicine prepared, when the disease has gained strength by long delay. Ay, and make haste, nor wait on the coming hours; he who is not ready to-day will be less so to-morrow.

We have been warned.

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Facts vs. alternative facts (formerly known as ‘bull$#!^’): an ancient poem


Alternative Fact (artist’s impression)

Phaedrus, Rome’s fabulist of the first century A. D., wrote a remarkable piece called Poeta de credere et non credere, ‘The poet’s judgement with respect to believing and not believing’ (Phaedr. 3.10).

This is the rather delightful 1761 translation of one Mr. Hoadley:

‘Tis equally dangerous to believe too much, or not to believe at all. I will lay before you a few words, an example of either case. Hippolytus dy’d, because so much credit was given to his step-mother. Troy was laid in ashes, because no regard was had to the predictions of Cassandra. We ought therefore to examine strictly into the truth of the case, that no false impressions may be able to blind or distort our judgment. But not to weaken the truth of this maxim by referring only to a fabulous antiquity, I will relate a tragical adventure within my own memory.

A certain husband who was perfectly fond of his wife, and was now preparing to put the manly gown on his son, was taken aside privately by his freed-man, who had hopes of being appointed his next heir; and who making a thousand lies about his son, and still more concerning in the baseness of his chaste wife, at length added what he knew would sink deepest in the mind of a fond husband, that a galant made her frequent visits, and that the honour of his house was stain’d by an infamous commerce. The husband transported with rage at the imaginary guilt of his wife, pretended a journey to his country seat, but privately staid in town. When night was a little advanced, he rushes suddenly into the house, and makes directly to his wife’s apartment, in which she had order’d her son to lie, that she might have a stricter eye over his ripening years. While the servants are hunting for a light, and the whole family run together in the utmost confusion, the unhappy father, unable to restrain the violence of his mad raging passion flies to the bed-side, and feels with his hand in the dark. Finding a man’s head, as he knew by its being shaved, he plunges his sword in his breast; regarding nothing, if he can but gratify his revenge. However soon as light was brought, seeing on the one side his son, weltring in blood, and on the other his chaste wife a-bed in her own apartment, who fast lock’d up in her first sleep, had heard nothing of the noise; he revenged the rash outrage immediately upon himself, and fell upon the point of that sword which a too easy belief had provoked him to draw.

The woman was immediately indicted by the publick informers, and dragg’d to Rome to appear before the bench of the hundred. Malicious suspicions bear hard upon her innocence, because she was become sole mistress of her husband’s estate. Her counsel stand firm in her defence, and boldly plead the cause of oppress’d innocence. The judges upon this apply to the Emperor Augustus, begging that he would assist them in the honest discharge of their oath; because such was the intricacy of the charge, as to embarrass them extremely. The Emperor, after having dispell’d the clouds raised by calumny, and, by nicely balancing the evidence, came to a sure knowledge of the truth, gave judgment in these terms. “Let the freed-man, who was the cause of all the mischief, suffer punishment: As to the unhappy lady, who has at once lost a son and a husband, I think her case more deserving pity than censure. For had the jealous father of the family, search’d with care into the crimes his wife was accused of, and sifted this abominable plot to the bottom, he would not have overthrown and sunk his family by so fatal a crime.”

Never therefore despise an information, but be not too forward to believe every thing you hear: For it often happens, that they are in fault whom you are farthest from suspecting, and that the most innocent are sometimes unjustly accused.

This story may likewise be a warning to the more simple, that they form not their judgment upon the opinion of another. For the different aims of ambition that rule the heart of man, are a cause of his being often swayed by favour or dislike. He only is well known to you, whom you judge of by a personal acquaintance.

I have enlarged more than usual in telling of this story, because some, I understand, have taken offence at my too great brevity.

Phaedrus seems to be more relevant than ever these days.

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When Harmony Disintegrates

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, the saying goes. And it made me wonder: considering that Roman literature is full of stories about family relations, how much do we really know about family life in ancient Rome that goes beyond narratives involving the infamous figure of the all powerful head of the Roman family, the pater familias?

How much do we know about the Roman family that goes beyond the key points of the human life-cycle: childbirth, adoption, marriage, and death (including inheritance)?

How much do we know that goes beyond broad-brush comments on education and duality of the bloodline (gens) vs. that of the extended household (familia, involving the slaves)?

How much do we know about families that were not at the top or anywhere near the top of the society (for a fresh, comprehensive take on the latter, focusing on Seneca, one-time quasi-Emperor of Rome, see here), but part of the lower strata of society – about the realities of family life for slaves and freedmen?

Susan Dixon, in her book The Roman Family (see here for a review), has been very cautious in using the evidence that comes from Roman epitaphs (and rightly so).

Every now and then one encounters texts that seem to say so much more about a given topic than others. One of those texts is the following (now lost) inscription from Salona/Solin in Dalmatia (Croatia) (CIL III 2609 (cf. p. 1032, 1037, 1635) = III 2964 = III 9418 = III 13895 = CLE 1141):

L(uci) Pomponi Pietatis ver(nae)
b(ene) m(erenti).
Pieris hoc tumulo tegitur de matre Venusta
sexto nata loco quae fuit a reliquis.
nondum viginti iuvenis compleverat annos,
quoi quoque virginitas nuper adempta fuit,
grataque florebat cunctis mortalibus aetas,
quam Fors ad superos noluit esse diu.
non pudor huic aberat, pietas non grata parenti,
non amor in fratres eius avarus erat,
cara fuit mater, fuerant caraeque sorores,
et pia coniugio grataque semper erat,
invita Pieridi cum venit letifer(a) hora,
qua cubuit molli languida saepe toro.
hanc Atropos rapuit Lachesisq(ue) et tertia Clotho:
infelix mater tollit ad astra manus
incusatque deos, incusat denique Parcas
quae vitam pensant quaeque futura canunt.
implerunt fratres magnis mugitibus auras,
et cuncti flebant, nec minus ante rogum.
haec fuit at tumulum miserae vox ultima matris,
ossa simul vidit tabida Pieridis:
‘hanc humus excepit, leviter precor illa prematq(ue)
infantem ex utero quae quoque sustinuit’.
coniunx Pieridi supremum munus amatae
hunc titulum scripsit pro pietate sua.

(1-4) Vitalis (had this made) for Pieris, homeborn slave of Lucius Pomponius Pietas, who deserved it well.

(5-10) Pieris is covered by this grave, who was born of Venusta, her mother, sixth to those left behind. A youth, she had not yet completed twenty years of age, who only just had her virginity taken away from her, and her delightful age flourished among all mortals, which Fate no longer desired to exist in the world above.

(11-16) She was not lacking in bashfulness, nor in dutifulness, delightful to her parent, nor was her love towards her brothers ever covetous, the mother was dear (to her), dear were her sisters, and towards her union in marriage she was always dutiful and full of delight, as the spiteful, death-bringing hour approached Pieris, when she slept, as often, exhausted, on a soft blanket.

(17) Atropos snatched her away, Lachesis, too, and Clotho, three.

(18–22) Her ill-fated mother raises her hands to the stars and scolds the gods, scolds even the Parcae who attribute lifetime and who prophesy the future. Her brothers fill the sky with many a groan, and everyone cries, hardly less so by the pyre.

(23–26) These were her mother’s final words by the grave (and at the same time she saw the dissolving bones of Pieris!): ‘Earth receives her, and embraces her lightly (I pray) who, too, gave birth to her as a child from its lap.’

(27–28) The husband wrote this inscription for Pieris, a final gift for his beloved, as an expression of their devotion.

Composed by a man named Vitalis, this inscription celebrates his short-lived wife Pieris (‘Muse’; he calls himself coniunx, husband, in relation to her).

Pieris was a homeborn slave (verna) to one Lucius Pomponius Pietas, born of a mother called Venusta (‘Charming’). She was (at least) the sixth child of Venusta, with a number of older brothers and sisters. No father is named or even alluded to – it is entirely possible, however, that it was one of the freeborn members of Pomponius Pietas’ household (including this very man himself): we cannot know.

The inscription began with four lines of a prose introduction. After that, from line 5 onwards, it displayed a poem, some 24 lines long, consisting of twelve elegiac distichs.

The poem’s first half (lines 5–16) is carefully planned – it comprises two segments of six lines (i. e. three distichs) each. The first segment (5–10) introduces the deceased, her mother and siblings, and her (relatively) young age at the time of death – she was only nineteen when she died, and thus only just grown out of maidenhood (and lost her virginity to her husband, Vitalis, who himself was of lowly origin, as the name suggests).

The second segment (11–16), ending in a reference to welcome breaks from a hard working life, is nothing but remarkable: it describes Pieris’ relationship with her family – her mother, her brothers, and her sisters. She is described as bashful (pudor) and dutiful (pietas; incidentally, this is also the name of her master!), full of affection for her mother (cara) – and the same goes for her sisters (carae). Her relationship to her brothers, in turn, is described as non amor … avarus erat, a love that was not covetous, implying, of course, that the brothers had more of which to be envious and jealous than the sisters did.

Pieris’ relationship with her husband is described as pius, with a sense of duty and love, and grata, delightful, terms that almost verbatim invoke the cordial, close relationship that Pieris had with her mother.

All of this – idealised, no doubt, but full of affection and an obvious implication that such particularly close, affectionate relationships between siblings, especially between boys and girls, were rare – is destroyed by spiteful, hateful (invita, or possibly invida, which has been suggested as an alternative reading) death which descended upon Pieris in a moment of utter exhaustion (yet in a cuddly place).

Right here, in the very middle of the poem (line 17, the opening of the second set of six distichs), a second, rivalling group of sisters is introduced – antiquity’s infamous Sisters of No Mercy: the Fates.

This second half of the poem, one might argue at first glance, again consists of two segments of six lines each, introducing the Fates, those cruel siblings who act in relentless harmony, and their unjust decision to snatch away Pieris as its central turning point. And yet, when looking closer, the harmony of the composition has begun to crumble, to disintegrate, just as the life (and the body) of Pieris has begun to decay.

Line 17 stands alone, isolated – a hexameter in a distich, to which even the pentameter does not seem to be able to respond. The subsequent pentameter (18) introduces the mother’s lament, then follows her accusation of the Fates, her mourning, in which she is joined by the brothers (19–22) (the sisters remain without mention now).

Whereas the third block of six lines was divided as 1+5, the fourth and final segment is divided into 4+2 lines – a moving record of the mother’s final words by the pyre (with a gory image of disintegration of the human body that the mother has to face: ossa simul vidit tabida Pieridis, ‘and at the same time she saw the dissolving bones of Pieris’.

All of this is then concluded by the husband’s final farewell.

To my mind, this poem is a little masterpiece of composition, reflecting order and disarray, harmony and disintegration in its composition, harbouring the relentless sisters that are the Fates in its very middle, as a stark contrast to the unusual, yet positive, life-affirming family relationship that filled the poem’s first half just as much as it (allegedly) filled Pieris’ life.

In doing so, the poem, while not necessarily evidence for actual family life and sibling relationships, paints a powerful ideal of what these ought to have been like – even under most difficult circumstances, at the bottom (or near the bottom) of Rome’s social scale.

You can’t choose family.

But sometimes you do get rather lucky.

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Creative Processes

In 2015, my colleague Dr Rachel Mairs and I organised an international workshop that we called ‘Materialising Poetry‘. I have very fond memories of the day, and the theme that we got to discuss with our colleagues and students has been on my mind for a long time.

One contribution that particularly resonated with me was that of my colleague Prof. Peter Robinson – a rare insight (rare to me, anyway) into the creative processes that make poetry materialise from the perspective of a creative poet.

I don’t consider myself a particularly creative (or even remotely inspired) person. I may have a certain talent to appreciate art and its aesthetics; but I don’t seem to have a natural gift to create art – be it verbal, musical, or otherwise creative.

Peter gave us the opportunity to re-live, and thus to comprehend, how he crafted a little poem called Sein und Zeit (it is discussed here). I was particularly struck by the reproduction of Peter’s original composition (the thing that scholars call autographon):


Peter Robinson: Sein und Zeit. – Image source:×1024.png.

Very much in the way in which one may witness a painter or a sculptor in the process of applying touch after touch to a complex piece of art, here – I thought – one gets an immediate sense of the creative processes that resulted in something that, in the end, looks perfectly polished and as though it was always meant to be in its final form.

When it comes to the Roman world and my professional interest in the poetry of the Romans, this is precisely what I am missing – I get to see the results (often in a copy of a copy of a copy), but I hardly ever get to appreciate the process.

Would it not be amazing to get an idea of how ancient poets worked?

Sometimes there are flippant remarks that give an idea of a poet’s ethos and attitude, but these are not a glimpse into their workshop.

Ovid, for example, famously claimed that, whatever he said, automatically came forth in verse form. Vergil, in turn, is reported to have drawn on the peculiar idea that existed in the ancient world that bears would give birth to shapeless lumps rather than fully-formed cubs – lumps which they subsequently licked into shape: just like that, an ancient biography of Vergil claims, the great poet wrote his poetry.

But is that really how it worked for them?

More recently, I was struck by two passages that describe creative processes almost in passing – passages that seem to be a lot closer to the reality of creative writing nowadays (and, quite possibly, to the way poetry came about in the ancient world as well, at least in times in which writing was the preferred modus operandi).

The first piece that caught my attention is from Tacitus’ treatise Dialogus de oratoribus. Here, one of the interlocutors, Curiatius Maternus, is introduced as a poet who writes tragedies on Greek and Roman subject matters, with a certain (dangerous) gift to produce dramatic pieces that are potentially relevant and even dangerous within the political framework of his own time.

When asked if he wanted to reconsider some more problematic bits parts of his recently produced piece Cato, Maternus says (Tac. dial. 3.3, transl. W. Peterson/M. Winterbottom):

Tum ille: “Leges tu quid Maternus sibi debuerit, et adgnosces quae audisti. Quod si qua omisit Cato, sequenti recitatione Thyestes dicet; hanc enim tragoediam disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi. Atque ideo maturare libri huius editionem festino, ut dimissa priore cura novae cogitationi toto pectore incumbam.”

To this he rejoined, “The reading of it will show you what Maternus considered his duty to himself: you will find it just as you heard it read. Yes, and if ‘Cato’ has left anything unsaid, at my next reading it shall be supplied in my ‘Thyestes’; for so I call the tragedy which I have already planned and of which I have the outline in my head. It is just because I want to get the first play off my hands and to throw myself whole-heartedly into my new theme that I am hurrying to get this work ready for publication.”

Here, Tacitus has his Maternus describe the creative planning process of a substantial piece of poetry – an entire drama, in fact – with the remarkable words disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi, I have it already arranged and given it its shape (forma!) inside of me. (The visual, tangible, material aspect of poetry should not ever be underestimated, I think – as well as its potential for transformation(s).)

The second passage that seemed remarkable comes from Suetonius’ Life of Nero, in which the author reports what he discovered with regard to the infamous emperor’s poetic production (ch. 52, transl. J. C. Rolfe):

Liberalis disciplinas omnis fere puer attigit. Sed a philosophia eum mater avertit monens imperaturo contrariam esse; a cognitione veterum oratorum Seneca praeceptor, quo diutius in admiratione sui detineret. Itaque ad poeticam pronus carmina libenter ac sine labore composuit nec, ut quidam putant, aliena pro suis edidit. Venere in manus meas pugillares libellique cum quibusdam notissimis versibus ipsius chirographo scriptis, ut facile appareret non tralatos aut dictante aliquo exceptos, sed plane quasi a cogitante atque generante exaratos; ita multa et deleta et inducta et superscripta inerant. Habuit et pingendi fingendique non mediocre studium.

When a boy he took up almost all the liberal arts; but his mother turned him from philosophy, warning him that it was a drawback to one who was going to rule, while Seneca kept him from reading the early orators, to make his admiration for his teacher endure the longer. Turning therefore to poetry, he wrote verses with eagerness and without labour, and did not, as some think, publish the work of others as his own. I have had in my possession note-books and papers with some well-known verses of his, written with his own hand and in such wise that it was perfectly evident that they were not copied or taken down from dictation, but worked out exactly as one writes when thinking and creating; so many instances were there of words erased or struck through and written above the lines. He likewise had no slight interest in painting and sculpture.

Little of Nero’s poetic production survived, and what did survive, does indeed reveal a certain talent.


Correction of a word in a poem from Pompeii. – Image source:$CIL_04_05092.jpg.

More importantly, however, the passage seems to show that in the Roman world creative processes in the medium of language – poetry and the production of poetry – were not necessarily altogether different from how they tend to be now.

The general absence of evidence – i. e. author’s original copies and notebooks that would allow us to appreciate the way in which they composed their works – is not evidence for absence.

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