Hope and Despair in Roman Britain

Originally published on the Classics-at-Reading blog:

The Yorkshire Museum in York houses a most impressive collection of Roman inscriptions from York and the immediate vicinity. On occasion of a trip to Yorkshire in August 2013, I was finally able to see for myself a particularly noteworthy item of their collection, an item that has fascinated me for quite some time: the tombstone of a girl named Corellia Optata.

Inscription of Corellia Optata

Inscription for Corellia Optata

The stone, arguably dating to the second half of the first century A. D., more plausibly somewhat later in date, is heavily damaged. At the top, a sculpture is lost altogether (as is a letter ‘D’ on the left-hand side, which would have corresponded with the letter ‘M’ on the right). In its present state, the lower part of a (presumably female) figure’s legs survives, standing in the middle, resting on the frame that contains the actual inscription.

The Latin text, full of abbreviations, ligatures, and spelling oddities, reads as follows:

[D(is)] M(anibus).
Corellia Optata an(norum) XIII.
Secreti Manes, qui regna
Acherusia Ditis incoli-
tis, quos parua petunt post
            5
lumina uite exiguus cinis
et simulacrum, corpo<r>is um-
bra: insontis gnate geni-
tor spe captus iniqua
supremum hunc nate
                        10
miserandus defleo finem.
Q(uintus)
Core(llius) Fortis pat(er) f(aciendum) c(urauit).

(Carmina Latina Epigraphica 395)

 In translation:

To the divine Manes.
Corellia Optata, aged 13.
You reclusive Manes, who inhabit the Acherusian realm of Hades, whom the little pile of ashes and the spirit do seek after but a short span of life, the body’s shade: I, the begetter of an innocent daughter, trapped by wrongful hope, wretched, wail this, my daughter’s ultimate destiny.
Quintus Corellius Fortis, the father, had this made.

The central part of this inscription (lines 2–11 in the Latin) forms a poem comprising five dactylic hexametres:

Secreti Manes, qui regna Acherusia Ditis
incolitis, quos parua petunt post lumina uite
exiguus cinis et simulacrum, corpo<r>is umbra:
insontis gnate genitor spe captus iniqua
supremum hunc nate
miserandus defleo finem.            5

Inscribed poems, very common in other parts of the Roman world, appear to have been exceptionally rare in Roman Britain: a mere two dozen or so have survived to the present day. In that respect, a poem of five perfectly preserved lines is rather spectacular.

The poem, dedicated to the secreti Manes, those reclusive, hard-to-grasp spirits of the Roman underworld, seems topical at first: a girl dies young, and a parent expresses his grief, complaining about the injustice of the premature death. Yet this father, Q. Corellius Fortis, at least superficially familiar with the literary classics of his day and age, went beyond that: and the way in which he did this is precisely what makes this poem so remarkable.

Corellius was a brave man, certainly by name: Fortis is not only the father’s name, but also a Latin adjective denoting the quality of ‘brave’. Perhaps he earned this nickname in a military career? He and the (altogether nameless, absent) mother of the child clearly desired a child, for they gave the daughter the name Optata, ‘Desired’, ‘Hoped-For’.

The brave man was fooled, however, a soldier trapped (captus) by spes iniqua, a hope that brought undeserved disappointment: the verbal allusion of spes (‘hope’) to the name of the daughter, Optata, could hardly be more obvious. A similarly inspired word play can be seen in the placement of the word finis (‘destiny’, more literally: ‘end’) at what is indeed the very end of the poem.

Corellius may have been fortis, but he was not ashamed to express his sorrow, his lament, and, in fact, his bitter disappointment, and to record it for eternity. Following the expressive alliteration parua petunt post – the ‘spitting’ Ps barely conceal the author’s contempt –, Corellius stresses the daughter’s innocence, using the loaded term insons. This not only implies the absence of guilt, but also utter harmlessness. This increases the contrast between the innocent victim of premature death – the daughter – and those who now, undeservedly, get to enjoy the presence of Optata’s physical and immaterial remains: the Manes in their reclusive abode, the dark realm of Hades.

Yet, the poem also leaves little doubt over who is the real victim: Corellius Fortis, the genitor (‘begetter’), a wretch (miserandus) first trapped by deceitful hope, then robbed by the untimely demise.

Funerary inscriptions, whether prose or poetry, deal with commonplaces, necessitated by the events and the need to offer consolation for those left behind, and many a time they resort to truisms, banalities, and ideology. Corellius Fortis was forced to face the same fate as many parents in the ancient world, the loss of his child at a relatively early age. His poetic attempt to come to terms with this stands out not only because of the (relative) rarity of inscribed poems in the environment of Roman Britain: it stands out because of the amount of skill and thought that have gone into this highly individual, personal, and touching little poem, expressing hope, despair, and grief with a gripping immediacy.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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