Shedding Some Light on the Eclipse

Exciting times for stargazers: there will be a solar eclipse on Friday, 20 March 2015, the first UK-wide almost-total solar eclipse, as it has been pointed out.

High time for me to dig into my beloved Latin inscriptions and see if they have anything interesting to say about such events, I thought – especially as the usual UK cloud layer will make it almost impossible for me to see the eclipse… displacement activities and such…

The short story: there does not appear to be any relevant mention of this phenomenon.

The long story: some think there is … and this is where it gets interesting:

In 1989, Géza Alföldy published an article in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (77 (1989) 155-180; freely accessible here), in which he discussed a stone inscription from Nursia (Norcia).

According to Alföldy (pp. 160-7), the text of this inscription ought to be read (and translated) as follows:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

Gaius Torenas, member of the Aniensis voting tribe, gives this to Hercules Victor as a gift, lest the cut-off light of the sun buries the moon.

Previously edited in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL IX 4599), the inscription had not attracted any significant attention.

Following Alföldy’s proposal, however, that the inscription was, in fact, a unique epigraphical reference to a solar eclipse, things got a lot more exciting all of a sudden.

In a direct response to Alföldy’s paper, Manfred G. Schmidt (equally in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 80 (1990) 183-4; freely accessible here) suggested the use of [i]nferat (‘buries’) was problematic, as the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (ThLL) does not record a metaphorical use of this term; moreover, on the basis of Alföldy’s published drawing, the second letter of [i]nferat was open to debate.

Consequently, Schmidt argued that [a]uferat (‘steals’) was a more plausible solution, equally covered by the traces of letters on the damaged stone surface, suggesting that the text was not, in fact, evidence for a solar, but a lunar eclipse: ‘the cut-off light of the sun’ thus becomes the shadow of the earth – and that cut-off light of the sun then is imagined to be asked to refrain from stealing the moon.

Finally, Schmidt suggested that the text might be a (somewhat distorted) borrowing from a literary poet – an idea that led Paolo Cugusi (in the second edition of his Aspetti letterari dei Carmina Latina Epigraphica, pp. 385-6) to suggest that the text quo ne Lunam | [a]uferat Solis | [l]umen sectu[m] could represent the verse type of a scazon (which, in turn, makes one wonder what literary poet would possibly have written about an eclipse, solar or lunar, in scazons).

In addition to Cugusi, another important student of Latin epigraphy, Marco Buonocore (Carmina Latina Epigraphica Regionis IV Augusteae. Avvio ad un censimento, GIF 49 (1997) 21-50) accepted Schmidt’s view, giving its first line as T(itus) Torenas Anc(- – -) – reverting to the earlier reading of  Anc(- – -) where Alföldy had explicitly documented An(iensis) and (re-)introducing a third option for the dedicant’s first name (earlier editors before Alföldy had read Lucius or Titus).

Alföldy, without taking any notice of Buonocore’s readings, returned to this matter once more in an article that appeared in a German conference volume which had resulted from a gathering that discussed the issue of solar eclipses in the ancient world (H. Köhler – H. Görgemanns – M. Baumbach (Eds.), “Stürmend auf finsterem Pfad …“. Ein Symposion zur Sonnenfinsternis in der Antike (Heidelberger Forschungen 33), Heidelberg 2000; Alföldy’s contribution on pp. 99-111).

In this contribution, Alföldy respectfully rejects Schmidt’s idea of a lunar eclipse, and he does so primarily on the grounds of his observation that the remaining traces of the second letter of the opening word of line 4 ought to be read as an N rather than a V – documenting his claim with a new drawing as well as a photo (adding that there is not enough space on the stone for A to be the first letter of line 4).

Somewhat less compellingly, Alföldy also disagreed with Schmidt’s view that the inscribed text ought to describe the astrophysical processes behind a lunar eclipse rather carefully, arguing that the dedicant’s invocation of Hercules’ help is a clear sign of a lack of understanding of the principles of natural science.

Finally, Alföldy repeated his claim that [i]nferat should be taken in its common epigraphical meaning of ‘to bury’.

From the excellent photo that is available at the EDR – Epigraphic Database Roma, I have no reason to challenge Alföldy’s reading of the inscription:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

What I am wondering, however, is as to whether the inscription’s wording and imagery have been fully understood.

My starting point is the observation that the phrase lumen inferre is, in fact, attested in literary Latin. Two (loosely related) instances stand out in particular:

  • Cicero, Hortensius 24.4 uses the phrase nam hoc est in tenebras exstinctum lumen inferre, ‘for that is like illuminating darkness with an extinct light’, for those who wish to clarify ambiguity with ambiguous words.
  • Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 5.12.8 uses the phrase in rebus uero apertis argumentari tam sit stultum quam in clarissimum solem mortale lumen inferre, ‘to seek an argument in matters that are perfectly obvious, however, is just as stupid as to illuminate brightest sunlight with a source of artificial light’.

Both passages are of particular interest, as they involve the idea of light and shade as well as that of different sources of light.

As a use of the Latin verb inferre (taking the reading for granted at this point) happens to be attested with a plain accusative of direction (ThLL s. v. infero, p. 1374.60 ff.), this might give the entire inscription a whole new meaning.

It is now entirely thinkable that, albeit on the basis of Alföldy’s text, Schmidt’s interpretation was indeed the correct one, for now (on the basis of the phrase lumen inferre) one must translate as follows:

C(aius) Torenas An(iensis)
Herc(uli) Vict(ori) d(onum) d(edit)
quo ne Lunam
[i]nferat Solis
[l]umen sectu[m].

Gaius Torenas, member of the Aniensis voting tribe, gives this to Hercules Victor as a gift, lest he brings the cut-off light of the sun to the moon (sc. for good?).

Torenas’ gift – whatever it was – was once mounted on top of this stone, as a hexagonal setting on the monument’s top demonstrates.

Why did Torenas ask Hercules Victor?

Frankly, I have absolutely no idea.

He might just have been the most valiant hero around.

On the other hand, Hercules does have a (rather tenuous) connection to the moon, for (i) he had killed the Nemean Lion (the moon’s offspring, according to one version of the myth), and (ii) his birth was marked by an unnaturally extended period of night, at whose end the invincible hero was born. (Claims according to which Hercules also battled the moonmen proved as inconclusive as those according to which he fought the sons of the sun.)

The inscription may thus be Torenas’ plea to Hercules to prevent another such period of unusual darkness.

A final thought for those who wish to see meaning in absolutely everything (I’m not quite as obsessed with that, to be honest): was the scazon rhythm (if that is what we’re facing here – I rather doubt it myself), whose name translates as ‘the limping one’, even chosen with cool consideration, to make the metre illustrate the way in which Hercules was supposed to make the natural phenomenon stumble and stall…?

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
This entry was posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Shedding Some Light on the Eclipse

  1. coivinix says:

    COIVIN·PET·SAL·P·D Toll! [wie immer] as just posted on my FB page — “If you’ve spent any time with me face-to-face (rather than FaceBook-to-FaceBook), the chances are VERY good you’ve been exposed to one of my rants — withering; wearied; or despairing, depending on the trigger — concerning contemporary “scholarship” and “scholars” (as with all things, this is painting with a broad brush, as is necessary to say anything briefly…but, in short: I’m no fan of the modern [post 19C] method by which higher degrees are handed out, nor with what most of those with them do with them, afterwards). There are exceptions! and they stand out like gold nuggets in a pan of mud. Peter Kruschwitz — quondam Berliner now resident in Reading-non-Gaol — is one of ’em, a Classicist who actually seems to be able to see those folks-who-are-so-much-like-us-except-they-are-so-very-different-why-is-that with both eyes working at the same time: both finding thought-provoking and lively similarities to our living cultures which really DO illuminate and suggest how the lost clockwork of the ancient ones might have worked, without making the all-too-common mistake of assuming that’s what was really happening, straight-across (i.e., “they ARE us, in togas/chitons/whatever). Mesdames et Messieurs, I give you — an enlightening tour through the darkness of a future eclipse through an ancient stumbling stone….”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for your encouraging feedback, I really appreciate it!


Comments are closed.