The Other 99%, Or: Much Ado about Nothus

Entertainment for elites: Vergil reading the Aeneid to Augustus. –

Entertainment for elites: Vergil reading the Aeneid to Augustus. –

Ancient literary Latin poetry – with a few exceptions such as scripts for theatrical performances, for example – is commonly regarded as an upper-class elite phenomenon, and, on average, perhaps rightly so.

This observation was one of the many reasons that, for quite some time now, drew my own research interest to ‘the other 99%‘ of Latin poems – the ‘poetry of the people’, as I have called it for my British Academy-funded project on the Carmina Latina Epigraphica.

Currently, I am carrying out research into the social types that get commemorated in verse inscriptions.

One group that is of particular interest to me is the the group of members of the writing profession.

There is something beautifully ‘meta’ about poems for poets, writers, scribes, and the literati in general, and something sad and sobering about poems for those members of the writing profession who did not make it into our canon and whose outputs did not make it even into the corpora of documentary texts, as they were lost a long time ago.

The following case appears to be one such example.

The tomb of the Statilii in the city of Rome, instituted by Marcus Statilius Taurus (consul A. D. 44)  for the slaves and freedmen of his family, is a fascinating structure.

Designed as a columbarium, the monument provided loculi, little burial niches – niches that, following the deposit of the ashes of the deceased, could be closed with inscribed funerary plaques.

Dating to the first half of the first century A. D., one of the numerous remarkable findings that came from this burial site is the inscribed plaque (40 x 32 cm) for a man named Nothus (CIL VI 6314 cf. p 3419 = CLE 1014):

Nothi librari a manu. ||

Non optata tibi coniunx monimenta locauit,

ultima in aeternis sedibus ut maneant,

spe frustra gauisa Nothi, quem prima ferentem

aetatis Pluton inuidus eripuit.     5

hunc etiam fleuit quaequalis turba et honorem

supremum digne funeris inposuit.

In translation:

(Burial) of Nothus,  librarius a manu.

Not as you desired, your wife has placed your monument here, so that your remains may rest in their eternal settings: in vain I entertained hopes in you, Nothus, whom jealous Pluto took away at the youngest age. A coeval crowd wept for him too, and, in a dignified manner, paid him the last respect of a funeral.

The plaque, resembling a building, with an arched opening, is neatly produced and well laid out. The name of the deceased, in addition to his occupation, is written in a separate field at the top, whereas the poem, in rather smaller, less clear-cut letters, has been inscribed in a dedicated area at the bottom.

The author of these verses – elegiacs – remains unknown, as does the name of Nothus’ wife: the fact that the poem purports to speak in her name does not allow us to infer that she composed the text. All we (seem to) know about the deceased himself is known from this inscription: his name was Nothus (a Greek name, with a latinised ending, meaning ‘illegitimate’), he was a librarius a manu, and he died young – or so the inscription implies.

What exactly is a librarius a manu then?

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae gives a wide range of potential meanings for the word librarius. It may denote (i) someone who writes books in a book hand, a copyist, a scribe (is qui describit sive ipse legens exemplar sive dictata audiens (sc. servus, libertus, artifex, miles, sim.), (ii) a bookseller (is qui libros vendit), (iii) a teacher of writing (is qui docet artem scribendi), or (iv) a book or record keeper (i. q. tabellarius publicus). (Note, however, that a librarius is not usually a term used to denote a ‘librarian’!)

The addition of a manu (‘from the hand’) would appear to suggest someone who was capable of taking dictations, which, in conjunction with the spectrum of meanings proposed for librarius leads to the assumption that Nothus must have been a private secretary and record or book keeper for his master.

The poem in honour of Nothus (whose name should be added to Heikki Solin‘s Die griechischen Personennamen, 2nd ed., vol. II p. 1070) contains a number of features as well that deserve a brief comment – features that reveal both the desire to commemorate Nothus in a dignified manner and the struggle that it was to achieve this. Minor infelicities aside, one must note that –

  • The opening phrase non optata tibi (‘not as you desired’), in Latin, can go with either coniunx (‘wife’) or monimenta (‘monument’). One would hope for both Nothus and his nameless wife that this ambiguity was an accident rather than intentional.
  • While ultimus is a term that can be found in the context of references to death (‘the utmost’), the use of ultima (line 3) as an expression for ‘(mortal) remains’ is highly unusual.
  • The spelling of Pluton (line 5) with a final -n does not only help to avoid a hiatus, but it also results in a transcription of the Greek spelling of this deity, which would have been called Pluto in Latin.
  • The word quaequalis (line 6), written as a single unit in this inscription does not actually exist in Latin. Regardless of the absence of word-dividing punctuation, as found otherwise in this inscription, Franz Bücheler, the editor of the Carmina Latina Epigraphica proposed to read quae qualis, as a Grecism for τίς ποῖος (‘some such’). A more convincing solution has been suggested by the editors of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, who proposed to read it as a spelling variant of coaequalis, ‘coeval’ (ThLL s. v. coaequalis, 1372.18-9).

The expression of the final distich, honorem | supremum digne funeris inposuit (‘in a dignified manner, paid him the last respect of a funeral’) is odd as well – honorem imponere, literally ‘to impose an honour’ is not a common way of expressing the bestowing of an honour.

Imponere, however, is a term that particularly frequently features in the context of servile language – it can be found in a wide range of contexts, from ‘imposing a command’ to ‘imposing punishment’ to ‘bestowing freedom’.

Was it from their everyday experience that the writer of this poem for Nothus, freedman (or so it would appear, as a wife is mentioned) of the Statilii, drew this expression?

Whatever the case may be, it is easy (and cheap) to be irked by infelicities in expression and metrical design – belittling the efforts of those who, for whatever reason, did not employ a literary artist for their personal glory – as if any such criticism rendered the text and its underlying motivation less sincere and less valuable.

To me, this text teaches an important lesson: very much like the 1%, the other 99%, too, had a desire not to be forgotten, to find dignity and respect at least in death – the use of honorem and digne in the final distich is a clear, unambiguous expression of this.

Listening to their poetry and its imperfections (as well as its many gems) reveals many a story – and it tells of hopes and disappointment (note the use of spe frustra gauisa, line 4: ‘in vain I entertained hopes’) of those people who do not commonly get mentioned by the elite and their writers.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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