The mysterious story of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 is likely to fill news media for the foreseeable future: how can a Boeing 777 disappear into thin air? What happened to its passengers? Who was (or is) involved in this?
The vast majority of those who read about the story will respond in two obvious ways: i) curiosity, and potentially anxiety, over the bewildering notion that an entire airplane can just disappear without leaving any traces (assuming that official sources have made available all relevant information), and ii) suspense, eager to hear the end of it.
Those, however, who had their relatives and friends on board this aeroplane must feel differently. Torn between hope and despair: the hope that there will be closure, the hope perhaps that someone (or everyone) will have survived whatever has happened – and despair over one’s own powerlessness to find a solution, over the deeply disturbing silence from the aircraft’s instruments (and those on board, of course), and, if one is to fear the worst, over the absence of a space for mourning.
It would be cynical and deeply inappropriate to point out that similar or worse has happened to others before. It would be both obvious and unhelpful to point out that governments may well do more to ensure the security of air travel (without merely hiking up the already ludicrous security checks at airports). Yet, offering somewhat of a perspective may not be an altogether mistaken idea.
Ancient literature is full of stories about abductions, disappearances, and reappearances. In fact, already the Iliad has the story of an abduction at its very heart, and throughout its narrative numerous people disappear and return, sometimes under rather bizarre circumstances and with divine interference. Engagement with such literary imaginations may help to address both the depths of human fantasy and real-life trauma.
But what if these stories become reality? How can one cope?
Without offering any interpretation or insight on what has happened with flight MH370, it may not come amiss to note a handful of ancient Roman inscriptions that report potentially similar scenarios and that, sometimes with vivid immediacy, outline the horror, the sorrows, and the coping mechanisms of those left behind.
The texts follow in no specific order. They do not represent ‘a full picture’ by any means. They are what they are: anecdotal evidence for life and death in the Roman world, as told by those left behind.
1. CIL III 2544 = CLE 818: Funerary inscription for a man abducted by bandits (fragmentary)
C(aio) Tadio C(ai) f(ilio) Severo | abducto a latronibus | ann(orum) XXXV et | Proculo f(ilio) ann(orum) VI | [- – -]bricia L(uci) l(iberta) Primigen(ia) |[co]niugi et filio pos(u)it | [fili]us hunc titulum | [debeb]at ponere matri / [- – – – -].
For Gaius Tadius Severus, son of Gaius, abducted by bandits at the age of 35, and his son, Proculus, aged 6, [—]bricia Primigenia, freedwoman of Lucius, had this inscription set up for her husband and her son. The son should have set up an inscription like this for his mother . . .
2. CIL VIII 14608: Inscription for a cenotaph of soldier who died en route
L(ucius) Silicius Opta|tus vix(it) an(nos) L | [i]nterceptus | in itinere | huic veteran[i] | morant[es] | Simittu [de] | suo fecer(unt).
Lucius Silicius Optatus lived for 50 years. He was snatched away en route. The veterans at Simittu had this (monument) made for him at their own expense.
3. AE 1934.209: Fragmentary inscription for a man killed while travelling between Viminacium and Dasminium
D(is) M(anibus) | Fl(avio) Kapitoni liber|to qui casu Vimi|nacium Dasmini a | latronibus atro|cissima(m) mortem | [per]pessus est Fl(avia) Va|[- – -] mater filio | [- – -]S[- – -].
To the Manes. For Flavius Kapito, freedman, who suffered a most horrendous death by the hands of bandits, at random, between Viminacium and Dasminium. Flavia Va[- – -], the mother, for her son . . .
4. CIL XIII 3689 = CLE 618: Funerary poem for a victim of banditry
Qui dolet interitum mentem soletur amore. | tollere mors vitam potuit, post fata superstes | fama viget. periit corpus sed nomen in ore est: | vivit laudatur legitur celebratur amatur. | nuncius Augusti velox pede cursor [- – -] | cui Latiae gentis nomen patriaeque Sabinus | o crudele nefas tulit hic sine crimine mortem | damnatus periit deceptus fraude latronum. | nil scelus egisti. fama est quae nescit obire. | posuit Furius.
He who suffers from the experience of death, finds consolation of his mind in love. Death was able to remove life. After death, however, renown survives and thrives. The body has died, but the name is on everyone’s lips: it lives, it receives praise, it gets read, it is celebrated, it is loved. An imperial messenger, a swift-footed runner . . ., hailing from Latium, of Sabinian descent, o cruel injustice: he was taken, sentenced to death without a cause: he died, deceived by the treacherous acts of bandits. You have done no wrong. It is renown that cannot die. This stone was set up by Furius.
5. CIL II 3479 = CIL II 5928 = CLE 979: Funerary poem for a youth killed by bandits
Q(uintus) Lu(sius) L(uci) f(ilius) Seni[ca] | [moll]em robusteis nondum formata iu(v)ent[us] | [ae]tatem Lusi vi[r]ibus induerat | [cum] carae exoptans conplexum saepe soror[is] | [mul]ta viae dum volt millia conficere | [caeditu]r infesto concur[s]u forte latronum | [sic ra]pit hoc [cla]des corpus acerba nimis | [illa a]etas credo hoc tribuit tempore m[ortis] | [ut b]ona non meminit seic mala ne timeat.
Quintus Lusius Senica, son of Lucius. The beautiful youth of Lusus had not yet equipped his tender age with strength robust enough, when, hoping for many an embrace from his sister, he wished to complete a travel of many miles: he was killed, at random, in a hostile stick-up by bandits: this this disaster, all too bitter, snatches his body. His age, I believe, added something to the time of his death, for just as he did not yet have a concept of the good, he was not afraid of evil.
All of these texts testify to the anxiety of those who are left behind in the event of an accident – accidents that invert the natural order of things, accidents that unexpectedly snatch away those whose death comes altogether unexpectedly. They tell of the anguish as well as of the devastating realisation of what had happened to their loved ones. They provide a marker of space, of monumental closure, for those who survive – a space to remember and to come to terms with their own traumatic experience. Yet, most of all, perhaps, they offer a glimmer of hope and meaning in events that exceed comprehension.