To a very special mother!

Rome's most iconic mother: the Capitoline Wolf. – Image source:

Rome’s most iconic mother: the Capitoline Wolf. – Image source:

Unlike in most other places of the world, it’s Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, to be precise) in Britain today.

Time to celebrate a very special mother then ……… no, not my own (she’ll be celebrated when it’s Mother’s Day in Germany, and she’ll be celebrated offline!), but Claudia Lepidilla.

What do you mean, you’ve never even heard of Claudia Lepidilla?

Well, little surprise, to be honest.

All we know about Claudia Lepidilla has been recorded on a funerary altar whose existence and origin manuscripts report for the City of Rome (CIL VI 15493 cf. p. 3517. 3913 = CLE 1123 = ILS 7994):

Dis Man(ibus)
Claudiae Lepidillae
ex provincia
Belgica Ambianae.
fecerunt liberi     5
eius Lepidus et
Trebellius matri
hic matris cineres
sola sacravimus ara     10
quae genuit tellus ossa
teget tumulo.

(1-8) To the Spirits of the Departed of Claudia Lepidilla of the province of Belgica, an Ambian. Her sons, Lepidus and Trebellius, had this made for their best mother.

(9-12) Here we consecrate our mother’s ashes with only an altar. The soil that brought forth her bones now covers them in a mound.

At first glance, the son’s memorial for Claudia Lepidilla may not look like much. Dating to the first or second century A. D., the inscription comprises a prose part (lines 1-8) and a short poem (lines 9-12), consisting of a single elegiac distich.

The dedication to their ‘best mother’ (matri optimae) seems topical, considering how many hundreds of ‘best mothers’ and ‘incomparable mothers’ there are recorded in the Latin inscriptions. The poem, too, looks trite and sounds like a platitude.

So what is so special about her?

Time to listen a bit more carefully, and to acknowledge what has (and what hasn’t) been said.

First, one may wish to note that the poem distinguishes between the cineres (‘ashes’) and the ossa (‘bones’) – the former are consecrated on the ara (‘altar’) here (hic), whereas the bones are soil-covered in a mound (tellus … tegit tumulo [note the alliteration!]) … somewhere.

That ‘somewhere’ is characterised further, namely by the phrase quae genuit tellus, ‘the soil that brought forth (her bones)’. This phrase, in turn, draws attention back to the inscription’s prose part, where the mother’s origin had been stated: she was from the Gallic province of Belgica, belonging to the people of the Ambiani.

Since the memorial was discovered in Rome, and since it mentions the separation of the mother’s ashes from her bones, the most plausible explanation for this is that Claudia Lepidilla died in Rome, while being with her sons (who must have felt at home there enough to erect this lasting monument), but it was still appropriate – due to familial ties – to have her remains shipped home in her native Belgica after the funeral.

What the inscription does not mention is a father.

Was he dead already? Did he still live in Belgica, and the mother was just on a visit? (Quite frankly, the text does not sound like it.) Had the parents separated, resulting in Claudia Lepidilla’s departure to Rome, so that she would stay with her sons, who had come to Rome themselves – as provincials – for an unknown reason?

Whatever the reason, the sons chose to perpetuate the memory of her mother in Rome sola … ara, with only an altar.

With their mother gone, and with their new home far away from home, it must have appeared the most appropriate and efficient way for them to remember that extraordinary person to whom they were born. And thus in hindsight their little poem is anything but trite and a platitude – it is an expression of the sons’ desire to create a lasting memory of their mother under remarkable circumstances.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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