Looks right, therefore is right, or: the treacherous force of linguistic habit

An unexpected encounter

On occasion of the 17th International Colloquium on Latin Linguistics, held at the Università degli Studi di Roma 2 ‘Tor Vergata’, I had the delightful opportunity to see the Roman funerary inscription CIL VI 11677. The inscription is kept on the terrace of the grandiose Villa Mondragone, a former papal residence situated in Monte Porzio Catone (Frascati), which hosted us on 24 May 2013.


CIL VI 11677. Photo: Peter Kruschwitz (2013)

The monument itself is an unspectacular funerary altar, with some decorative elements on the non-inscribed sides, made of sandstone, partly weathered and covered in lichens. Based on the rather rough and ready measurements that I was able to take on this occasion, the inscription appears to be just under 90 cm high, about 60 cm wide, and about 50 cm deep.

The inscribed field at the front is framed and countersunk, and the text is executed in clearly legible letters of a capitalis quadrata, which is centred. The height of the letters decreases from approximately 5 cm in the first line (I longa: 6.5 cm) to approximately 3 cm in the last line.

The text of the inscription unambiguously reads as follows:

Dìs Manibus
L(uci) Annaeì
Saturnina et
Iuniana optime
de patre suo merito (!).

In English translation:

To the Manes of Lucius Annaeus Nychus: Annaea Saturnina and Annaea Iuniana, most well deservedly (!) with regard to their father.

Wait, what?

The most remarkable aspect of the inscription is, without a doubt, the awkward syntax of the final bit. (For illustrative purposes, the English translation is designed to emulate this sensation.) The linguistic flaw, in turn, has led to a number of interpretations and proposed emendations of this text.

So what appears to be the problem then?

Everything is just fine with this inscription … until the text reaches the second word of line 6, where the syntax suddenly derails. At this point one may, of course, content oneself with sufficient levels of Schadenfreude – even the Romans could not get their Latin right! Or one may curiously ask: how come they got it wrong?

The latter approach offers a surprising microscopic interesting insight into the workings of formalised language, – the force of habit, and the struggles it may cause to keep one’s technical terms straight – whether a native speaker or not. Is it time to get Monty Python’s Roman centurion and let him impart Latin grammar in his very special ways?

The most likely scenario for the introduction of the oddity (or so it would seem) is, that someone did not only know Latin, but in fact was so familiar with the formulaic nature of the standardised language of Latin inscriptions, down to the level of word order and syntactic arrangement, that he (or she?) found it difficult to tell them apart (or at least to spot the mistake until it was too late).

How come?

What they really wanted to say…

The main linguistic challenge in the above text is to offer a satisfactory explanation for the grammatical purpose of the two Latin adverbs optime (‘most well’) and merito (‘deservedly’), respectively. At least one of them cannot be right, and the particularly problematic candidate in that respect is the latter of the two, merito.

In Latin funerary inscriptions the concept of filial or parental duty, pietas, is relatively frequently referred to by a version of the phrase of endearment bene merens (‘well deserving’) in grammatical agreement with one of the names that are mentioned in the inscription.

In the present case, it is clear that the names of the daughters were intended to provide the point of reference for the phrase bene / optime merens, since the text encloses de patre suo in the syntactical bracket provided by the words optime and merito. For this to work in Latin, however, one would have had to write optime de patre suo merentes or optime de patre suo meritae: ‘of the greatest deservedness with regard to their father’.

… and how they outsmarted themselves

Finding the word merito – in that very form – at the very end of a Latin inscription is not an uncommon occurrence, quite the contrary: it happens a lot.

Yet, and this is vital, it does happen in a very different category of Latin inscriptions – not on tombstones (such as the present one), but in votive inscriptions: Roman votive inscriptions , with great frequency, contain the stock phrase libens merito, ‘with pleasure, deservedly’, typically towards the end of the text.

Could it thus be that the actual reason why the mistake has crept in (and remained undetected until the text was finalised by the stonecutter) was that the word merito at the end of an inscribed text simply did not look suspicious to anyone casting an eye over this text?

Even if there was any minimum level of doubt at any stage: the faulty merito, to anyone reading carelessly enough, could still appear to be justified due to the immediate proximity of the ablative of de patre suo, lending additional confidence in the grammaticality of the phrase, even though these two elements, from a syntactical point of view, cannot meaningfully go together.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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