Exeter is a place that inspires me to talk about nonsense emerging from Pompeii. Seven or so years ago, I applied for a lectureship at the University of Exeter. For my presentation, I chose to talk about my initial observations regarding the spread of the verbal monstrosity that is Menedemerumenus, attested numerous times in Pompeii. My application was unsuccessful (no hard feelings!), but my initial exploration eventually resulted in a much richer joint publication with my colleagues Virginia Campbell and Matthew Nicholls.
I was grateful to get an opportunity to revisit verbal nonsense, as manifest in Pompeii, on occasion of an international conference Ancient Nonsense. Did the Greeks and the Romans have their own ‘Jabberwockies’ (22-24 July 2014), beautifully organised by Sara Chiarini. In what follows, I would like to make available to a broader audience some of the rather entertaining material that I got to examine on this occasion.
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At Pompeii, we find numerous instances of the word amabiliter – ‘lovably’, ‘lovingly’, or ‘amiably’ – in contexts of varying complexity:
(1) Amabiliter. – ‘Lovably.’ (CIL IV 2032)
(2) Laculus | Priscillo | amabiliter | scr(ipsit) Epaphra | et | pereg(it) Elea | sitientes. – ‘Laculus lovably to Priscillus. Written by Epaphra, finished by Elea, both of which were thirsty.’ (CIL IV 2374 cf. p. 220. 465)
(3) Amabiliter sal(utem). – ‘Greetings, lovably.’ (CIL IV 5419)
(4) Clodius | hic et ubici (!) | amabilit|er. – ‘Clodius, lovably, here and everywhere.’ (CIL IV 8556)
(5) Secun[do] | cum so[dale] | Hab[it]o | amabilit[er] | utiq(ue) sodales. – ‘To Secundus with his pal Habitus, lovably, like pals.’ (CIL IV 10227)
(6) Habitus Secundo et s[u]is | amabiliter salutem. – ‘Habitus to Secundus and his folks, greetings, lovably.’ (CIL IV 10247)
(7) Secundo | plurimam | amabiliter | salutem. – ‘To Secundus, very many greetings, lovably.’ (Neue Forschungen 13)
In all cases, one is looking at greetings of sorts – seemingly in friendship, potentially with mild sexual overtones. Any doubts over the latter are immediately removed in the case of a rather lewd example from Herculaneum:
(8) Apelles Mus cum fratre Dextro amabiliter futuimus bis bina(s). – ‘Apelles Mus with his pal Dexter, amiably, we fucked two girls, on two occasions.’ (CIL IV 10678)
From a linguistic viewpoint, amabiliter, is an adverb. It is formed from the root *ama- (as in amare, ‘to love’), which generates the adjective amabilis, ‘lovable’. From this one then gets the adverb amabiliter, by means of adding the adverbial suffix –iter to the word stem amabil-.
Not a particularly spectacular selection of material so far, one might say – and quite rightly so: a mere greeting, as it would seem.
The next item, from Pompeii, would not seem to be particularly remarkable either. Instead of the amabiliter it simply shows an adverb that is (seemingly) derived from the adjective consociabilis, ‘suitable, fit, compatible’:
(9) Consociabiliter‘(CIL IV 2138 cf. p. 215; amended by Lebek, ZPE 45, 1982, 55)
But can this really mean what one would assume it means when strictly following the principles of Latin word formation? ‘Suitably’? Why anyone would write this word on a wall?
A more plausible solution – assuming it is a greeting, like the aforementioned examples – would be this: it may well have been imagined (by its writer) to be an adverb that is, in fact, related to the noun consocius, ‘comrade, companion’. ‘Companionably’? While violating principles of Latin word formation, this at least would make some sense still.
Sticking to the ‘friendliness’ or ‘friendship’ theme for a little longer, here is another example. From frater, ‘brother’, instead of using the existing adjective fraternus, let us forge (in both meanings of that word) an (otherwise unattested) adjective – just for the sake (or the sound) of it: fratrabilis, ‘brotherly’, or, true to the principles of Latin word formation, ‘brotherable’. That would give the adverb fratrabiliter, ‘brother(ab)ly.’
Just to be clear, this is an entirely absurd formation, derived from an impossible root, as the –bilis suffix, in Latin, indicates a potential, a givenness, or a predisposition, in a medio-passive meaning. In other words, using the straightforward example, amabilis, ‘lovable’, is the quality of someone who may be loved (by others). What is the medio-passive potential in fratrabilis? Someone who may be brothered?
Whatever the case may be, the adverb fratrabiliter features in the following Pompeian texts:
(10) Suilimea (!) Cissonio fratrabiliter sal(utem). – Suilimea [= Aemilius, spelled backwards!], to Cissonius, brotherably, greetings.’ (CIL IV 659 cf. p. 195)
(11) Coelius cum Rufio | et Eburiolo et Fausto | (f)ratrabiliter | Eburiolus Marinae | et Valeria(e) | Eburiolus Fausto | amico et Coelio | Faustiani. – ‘Coelius with Rufius and Eburiolus and Faustus, brotherably. Eburiolus to Marina and Valeria. Eburiolus to Faustus, the friend, and Coelius of Faustinianus (?). (CIL IV 8227)
So far, so good – everything moderately reasonable, if verging on the absurd in its expression, in the context of greetings (or so it would appear).
Things will go downhill from here, rather rapidly, as far as the level of being ‘sensical’, of ‘making sense’ is concerned.
What, for example, are we to make of a greeting ‘oral-rape-ably’, attested in a graffito at the exterior wall of the Pompeian basilica:
(12) Irrumabiliter. (CIL IV 1931)
(13) Isidorus | verna Putiolanus | cunnuliggeter (?). – ‘Isidorus, homeborn slave from Puteoli, going-down-on-her-ably’. (CIL IV 4699)
(14) Festinabiliter. (CIL IV 4758)
Or ‘bending-over-ably, butt-wiggling-ably’, in a graffito discovered at a tomb near the Porta di Nocera:
(15) Inclinabiliter | ceventinabiliter. (CIL IV 5406 = CLE 356 cf. p. 855)
Or ‘butt-wiggling-ably’ and another formation that yet awaits satisfactory explanation, but might well mean, e. g., ‘as-a-farmer-would-do-it-ably’, found in a graffito in dwelling V 2.7:
(16) Trebonius Euche ceventinabilite[r] | arrurabe[l]iter. – ‘Trebonius Euche, butt-wiggling-ably, as-a-farmer-would-do-it-ably(?).’ (CIL IV 4126)
No question: the range of playful imagination here is impressive, if (perhaps unsurprisingly) rather restricted to the swimsuit area of the human body.
What is more remarkable still, however, is that these playful formations (so far) have only become known from Pompeii. All of this suggests some kind of ‘in-joke’, a running-gag-style challenge, geographically restricted to Pompeii – and it would allow for some really interesting additions to work that is currently going on with regard to social network analysis in Pompeii, as an ‘in-joke’ like this can only spread on the basis of social networks and interactions.
As the playful joke is of a sexualised nature, one may infer that the writers were at least in their puberty, but quite possibly even beyond that age – possibly at an age that involved military training an service, as consociabiliter and fratrabiliter, items (9)–(11), would suggest.
A joke like this (‘okay, here is challenge: find an even more outrageous greeting involving the adverbial suffix –biliter’) is likely to go around, and get spread, in pubs, on the forum, and similar venues in which people gather and hilarity ensues.
The outline of the evidence, above, begins with the ‘sensical’ and ends with ‘most absurd’, and sees ‘sense’ or ‘meaningfulness’ disintegrate. This is a judicious arrangement – an arrangement that follows a linguistic point. While I would like to believe that this also follows the most plausible chronology of the general direction of travel, there is absolutely no evidence that, say, all those instances for amabiliter pre-date the more outrageous examples (12)–(16).
There is no evidence for such a claim whatsoever, and one must be very careful to avoid a teleological narrative.
But what alternative narratives could claim equal plausibility?
It seems necessary that amabiliter (or a similarly sensical term) must have been the point of departure, from which, and on the basis of which, some inhabitants of Pompeii chose to coin their derivatives ending in –biliter. A certain playfulness is even visible in those items that are still close, in terms of meaningfulness, to the term of departure, fratrabiliter: note the backwards spelling of Aemilius as Sulimea in item (10), a feature that is known from other inscriptions of Pompeii as well.
Outsiders at the time –i. e. those who were neither in the know and nor able to discern the underlying pattern of a wider phenomenon – the verbal meaning of virtually all individual tokens may have been explicable (although one must doubt that for item (16)). What they did not know, however, was what it meant to those who engaged in this little game.
Now, from afar, we are in no better position than an outsider at the time, and we cannot know just how wide-spread the knowledge of this joke was. Yet, based on the collection of the evidence, we are at least able to see the playful nature of the game and some of its underlying dynamics.