Meet the gloomiest Romans of all time

Last week, I introduced a (very small) choice of inscriptions that presented a variety of ways in which heartbroken parents had begun to come to terms with the loss of their offspring.

An inscription that I chose not to include presents the parents’ emotional distress not in simple, absolute terms, but boldly asserts maximum gloom.

The text of that inscription, an elegiac distich, attested for Capua, reads as follows (Atti Ac. Linc. 1901, p. 183 no. 365):

Sylviniae Velleiae | filiol(a)e dulciss(imae) | parentes m(a)estiss(imi). | decipimur votis | et tempore | fallimur et mors | deridet curas: | anxia vita nihil.

For Sylvinia Velleia, our sweetest little daughter: her most gloomy parents. We are deceived by our prayers, fooled by time, and death laughs at our sorrows: an anxious life is (worth) nothing.

The poem expresses the parents’ hopelessness in a sobering, quasi-philosophical manner – parents, who describe both themselves and their daughter in superlatives: Sylvinia Velleia was dulcissima (‘the sweetest’), they themselves, by contrast, maestissimi (‘most gloomy’).

I had briefly considered including this piece in last week’s collection, just for the moving poem and the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that it manages to convey. But then it struck me: while the daughter’s epithet dulcissima seemed topical and perfectly common in this context, the superlative maestissimi – most gloomy – stood out.

Bereavement can be a terrible shock, and the feeling of gloom and sorrow of Sylvinia’s bereft parents is nothing but understandable, especially if we are to assume, as the text implies, that Sylvinia Velleia died very young (note the diminutive filiola, ‘little daughter’).

But when exactly had gloom become an area of competition?

Grammar buffs are likely to object: there is no need to assume maximum gloom! Maestissimi need not be a relative superlative (‘most gloomy’), for it may ‘just’ be an absolute superlative (‘extremely gloomy’).

Also, this is poetry – so let’s not take every instance of the superlative, relative or absolute, quite so literally…

Fair enough.

Or so it would seem … although one might object already at this point that dulcissima hardly appears like an absolute superlative (‘sweetest’ rather than ‘extremely sweet’, surely!) and that maestissimi therefore, by proxy, does not attract this interpretation easily, either.

Be that as it may, none of this renders the original question invalid: just how frequently did Romans, in their inscriptions, feel the need to express such extremes of gloom? And in what contexts?

Time to look a bit deeper into the instances for maestissimus!

A first, perhaps rather surprising, observation to make is this: the aforementioned Capuan inscription is even more problematic than it would seem at first. There are records of an inscription whose text looks surprisingly similar, but attest the inscription’s whereabouts for the city of Rome (ably discussed by Heikki Solin here [on pp. 144 ff.]):

Paulinae Valeriae filiolae dulcissimae parentes
Decipimur votis et tempore fallimur et mors
deridet curas, anxia vita nihil.
Vix(it) ann(is) VI.

A different name (though not irreconcilably different, when considering how those names would have been written and transmitted in manuscripts), and an indication of age (vix(it) ann(is) VI, ‘she lived six years) that occasionally was dropped in the manuscript tradition. Are we looking at a variant of the same text after all? And is this even genuine, or are we looking at a forgery?

Hard to tell. Hard to decide.

A second, hardly less surprising, observation to make is this: while the idea that maestissimus (both with regard to the lexical term and the superlative) are poetical is appealing at first, one must note that this view, in fact, is not quite correct.

Only about half of all instances for maestissimus appear in poetic inscriptions, and even in the first example, above, the phrase maestissimi does not, in fact, feature in the poetic part of the inscription itself (which commences with decipimur).

In addition to that, consider the following two cases that have maestissimus in plain prose:

  • CIL X 2321 (from Pozzuoli/Puteoli) – an inscription for Cominia Anicia, who died aged 12, and who, like Sylvinia Velleia, has been described as filia dulcissima by her parentes maestissimi.
  • CIL IX 5549 (from Urbisaglia/Urbs Salvia) – an inscription for Tiberius Iulius Telesphorus, who died aged ten, honoured by his mother Iulia who is described as moestissi(ma).

Two further prose inscriptions are recorded as having the superlative maestissimus, but must be kept separate from the ancient evidence, as they are apparent forgeries:

  • CIL VI 3191* = AE 2009.12 (from Rome)
  • CIL XIII 324* (from Paris)

This then leaves three poetic examples for maestissimus – spot the odd one out:

  • CIL VI 17622 cf. p. 3521 = CLE 1216 (Rome) – Epitaph for Fabia Pyrallis, who died of a broken heart

D(is) M(anibus). | Fabiae Pyrallidi optimae | et sanctae patron(ae) | de se bene merit(ae) | Artemisius libertus. | cunctorum haec suboli sedem | post morte(m) reliquit, ante | tamen nato, coniuge (!) et ante suo. | nondum secura dum flet maes|tissima mente, occidit et | tristes decepit maesta fovendo. | set nos soliciti memoresque | parentis amore matrem | cum nato coniuge cumque suo | securos colimus memores de | nomine nostro, et faciet | suboles multos memorata per annos | sacra deis patribusque suis, | memoresq(ue) priorum et memo|res nostri nostrorumq(ue) alta | propago aeterno servent | semper memorabile nomen. | quisquis es{t} aut olim nostra de | stirpe futurus, sis memor | antiqui nominis et tituli, in | quorum titulo hic datur esse | locus, et domus aeternae | tu tueare focos.

To the spirits of the departed. For Fabia Pyrallis, best and blessed patroness of outstanding merit: Artemisius, freedman. She left this place to everyone’s offspring after death, and earlier to the boy already, and to her husband earlier, too. When, with no peace of mind yet, she cried most gloomily, she died and, fostering sad thoughts, she deceived her sad relatives. But we, her parents, upset and commemorating, nurture in love this mother with her child and her husband, finding peace of mind, mindful of our name, and plentiful offspring will make commemorative sacrifices over the years to the gods and their parents, mindful of their ancestors, and, mindful of us and ours, our esteemed descendants will serve our memorable name forever and ever. Whoever you are, or whoever of our family you, in times to come, will be, remember the ancient name and the inscription, through whose inscription this place has been granted, and look after the hearth fires of this eternal home.

  • CIL  IX 3071 = CLE 1212 (cf. p. 858) = AE 1984.350 = AE 2003.564 (from San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore/Interpromium) – Epitaph for Naiamira

Siste gradum, quaeso, sine te levet umbra tenacem, | hospes, iter durum est: quid teris usque viae? | audi pauca, moram facient mea dicta labores (!), | sed memor haec imo pectore conde tuo. | crudeles divi, Sthygias (!) quicumque paludes | incolitis nulli qua datur ire retro, | quid vos immatura iuvat, quae vestra futurast / post modo consumpto tempore, turba, tuo (!)? | fletibus adsiduis luget maestissima mater | quae prior occidere quam Naiamira dari eigni | debuit, ut superi pia fata tulissent, | et pater hoc titulo debuit ante legi. | his ergo mea dicta refer: desistat humatam | ulterius lachrumis sollicitasse suis; | sum defleta satis, finem decet esse dolori; | quid semel occubui, nulla querella iuvat.

Hold your step, I ask, let the shade give you some ease, steadfast stranger: your journey is hard, why wear yourself down all the way? Listen a little, my words will give you a break from your stress, but bury these words deep down in your heart. You cruel divine spirits, who inhabit the Stygian swamps, from where no one is permitted to return, why do you derive pleasure from the immature crowds, which will be yours anyway, only after their time is up? Her most gloomy mother grieves, constantly in tears, who should have died before Naiamira had to be handed over to the fire – had those gods above accepted our dutiful vows!, and of the father, too, one should have read in this inscription before! To them deliver my words: may they cease to upset their buried child any further with their tears; I have been wept for enough, there has to be an end to their pain; once I have sunk into my grave, no lament can please.

  • Recueil des Inscriptions Chrétiennes de la Gaule 15.99 (from Vienne/Vienna in Gallia Narbonensis) – Epitaph for Bishop Namatius of Vienne

[Text and translation taken from Paul A. Reynolds’s thesis ‘A comparative and statistical survey of the late antique and early medieval Latin inscriptions of south eastern Gaul (c. 300–750 AD’ (University of Leicester), which can be found here.]

Humanos quicumque tremens sub pectore casus
Ingemis et lustras oculo manante sepulchra
Atque dolens nimio tecum merore uolutas,
Quod cunctos mors saeua uoret, quod sepiat umbra
Perpetue Laetis nullum solutura per aeuum:     5
Huc uultus conuerte tuos, huc lumina flecte
Et cape solamen posito mestissime fletu,
Aeternum quia uiuit homo si iusta sequatur,
Si teneat Xpique libens praecepta facessat,
Vt tenuit tumulo positus Namatius isto.     10
Qui cum iura daret commissis urbibus amplis,
Adiuncta pietate modis iustissima sanxit,
Patricius, praesul patriae rectorque uocatus.
Hinc spraetis opibus titulis mundique reiectis,
Aeterno sese placuit submittere regi     15
Et parere Dei mandatis omnibus aptus.
Sic postquam meritis seruata et lege superna
Maxima pontificis suscepit munera dignus,
Quin etiam sumpto mercedes addet honore:
Pauper laetus abit, nudus discedit opertus,     20
Captiuus plaudit liber sese esse redemptum
Ciuis agit grates tantoque antistite gaudet.
Inter se aduersos inlata pace repressit,
Perfugium miseris erat et tutela benignis
Nobilis eloquiis et stemmate nobilis alto,     25
Nobilior meritis et uitae clarior actu,
Viuat ut aeternum et Xpi gratetur amore.
Huius si queras aeuum finemque salutis,
Septies hie denos et tres conpleuera<n>t annos
Post fasces posuit uel cingula Symmacus alma     30
Iunior, et quintus decimus cum surgerit orbis
Ad summos animam caelos emisit opimam
Corpus humi mandans terrae terrena reliquit.

Whosoever mourns the fate of man with fear in their heart, who tearfully looks upon this sepulchre, and, full of grief, reflect bitterly that cruel death comes to swallow us all, and that once covered by the shadow of death it shall remain so for all time: turn your gaze in this direction, let your eyes fall here and, having laid aside your bitter tears, take comfort. For a man lives eternally if he follows the path of justice, if he holds onto and willingly follows the precepts of Christ, as did Namatius, laid in this tomb. He dispensed justice throughout the important towns under his authority with piety and moderation, and was called patrician, leader and protector of his country. Then, having spurned wealth and worldly titles, it pleased him to put himself under the command of the Eternal King and to obey all the commandments of God, for which he was well prepared. Thus, once he had reached the position of bishop, which is bestowed on those deemed worthy by their deeds and divine grace, he added works of mercy to the honour he had already received. The poor went away happy, the naked departed clothed, the freed captive rejoiced at his redemption and the citizen gave thanks and exulted in having such an archbishop. He checked the quarrels of antagonists by bringing peace, and provided a refuge for the wretched and a protection for the good. Ennobled in the first instance by his eloquence and high birth, yet becoming more so through his deeds and more famous by the path his life followed, may he live eternally and rejoice in the love of Christ. If you wish to know the age and the end of the man here commemorated, he had lived for 73 years since Symmachus iunior had laid aside the fasces and exhalted girdle. When the 15th dawn arose, he lifted up his noble soul to heaven above, commending his body to the ground: it is to the earth that he has left his mortal remains.

It is nothing but striking how in this text, dating to the mid sixth century, the superlative phrase maestissimus (whether relative or absolute in use) that was previously solely encountered in contexts in which parents mourned their pre-deceased children, all of a sudden appears applied to a man of the clergy, and how the role of the parents, excessively mourning their children, has been reassigned to the parish mourning their spiritual leader to similar excess.

More striking still, however, is the sentiment of that penultimate example from Interpromium, advising the wayfarer to look for the deceased’s parents and to tell them that there have been enough tears already – I have been wept for enough, there has to be an end to their pain; once I have sunk into my grave, no lament can please.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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