What’s in a name: A Short and Poetic Story of Nominative Determinism

The Classicists-List, a listserv for those with an interest in Classical Studies and Ancient History (both rather broadly conceived), never fails to amaze me for the rather – shall we say – peculiar exchanges that ensue every now and then.

Among the more epic examples must feature an exchange that took place last week and eventually found its calling in a debate about the question as to whether one ought to translate ancient names, whenever writing for a non-specialist audience (archived on this page – look for the threads ‘Throttling research’ and ‘True Names’).

To me, translating ancient names and titles etymologically seems to be an exercise in futility – and to ponder it, in extenso, a waste of precious time of the kind that would only ever seriously be discussed in my own profession.

Would chemists, when writing for a broader audience, seriously even for the fraction of a second consider translating foreign technical terms (instead of adding an explanatory footnote, if feeling generous) – and, say, call helium ‘sunny stuff’ or neon ‘new stuff’?

I think not!

And why should they.

That being said , it would be mistaken, however, to dismiss out of hand this issue, only because it seems of little personal relevance or because it does not immediately resonate with one’s own conceptions and world view.

Of course, it is impossible to assess the idea of nominative determinism – i. e. the idea that everything is an aptronym (or, as the more classically inclined tend to put it, nomen est omen)in its relevance for the ancient world.

As far as ancient Rome is concerned, a great deal of interesting literary material has already been collected and discussed in a useful little volume ‘What’s in a Name‘, edited by Joan Booth and Robert Maltby.

Nominative determinism is not just a literary pastime, however.

There are several Latin inscriptions, too, that utilise the etymology of personal names for playful purposes, deriving a deeper meaning from what at first appears to be ‘just a name’ – reconceptualising, in a way, the fact that parents often choose their children’s names carefully and with some thought (though there are exceptions to that rulenot exactly a modern phenomenon, by the way).

So, after venting my spleen, I give you a selection of five Latin verse inscriptions that, at least to some extent, undermine my own general attitude, namely that translating ancient names generally is a pointless exercise:

1. CIL II 3256 cf. p. 710. 949 = CLE 1196 = HEp 18.193 = AE 2009.626 (Vilches/Baesucci: Hispania citerior; photo available here)

[- – -] Cassius Crescens h(ic) s(itus) e(st) [- – -].
[tu qui] praeteriens nostro remora[re sepulcro],
[ia]m festinato lumine pauca l[ege].
[Cre]scens hic ego sum: fueram [spes magna parentum].
quod non adcrevi nome[n inane fuit].
[o]mnis amor patriae populi m[e voce secutus],
hunc mors praecipuum testi[ficata meast].
[n]obilis ingenii virtus virtuti [loquelae],
cum pietate pudor non tem[eratus erat].
[ha]s laudes tumulo nostro pa[ter ipse notavit],
[i]udice quo solo mors m[ea morte caret].
[qu]od via finitimast mul[tis haec scripta legentur]:
[t]u me praetereens (!) ne [violare velis].
[no]minis (?) e numeris [- – -]
[iam q]uia legisti dic d[- – -].

… Cassius Crescens is buried here …

You, walking by, sojourn at our tomb, read a little, with your hasty eye. It is me, Crescens [= ‘Growing’], here: I was the parents’ great hope. As I did not get to grow up, my name was useless. The love of my fatherland and my people has followed me, in its entirety, with its voice, and my death is testimony to this distinction. The gift of my noble disposition was not tarnished by my gift of speech, and neither was my bashfulness  by my sense of duty. My father himself has noted these praises on my tomb, through whose judgement alone my death becomes immortal. As the road is nearby, the writing will be read by many: as you pass by, do not wish to violate … the name … from the poem (?) … as you already read, say …

2. CIL III 3146 = CLE 1160 (Osor/Opsorus, Dalmatia)

Felix haec visa est nascendi lege puella,
quot (!) non est miseros tum sortita Lares.
sed legem fatis Parcae dixere cruentam,
primus natalis condat ut ossa sua.
cognomen pater huic fuerat natale daturus:
abstulit atra dies una cum corpore nomen.

‘Lucky’ [= felix] seemed this girl by birth, as she, on that occasion, was allocated an anything but wretched home. But the Fates spoke bloody law over her destiny, so that her first birthday would have to bury her bones. Her father had given her the cognomen upon her birth: a gloomy day took the name away together with her body.

3. CIL VI 5534 cf. p. 3417 = CLE 1035 (Rome)

Calliste mihi nomen erat
quod forma probavit. annus
ut accedat, ter mihi quintus
erat. grata fui domino, gemino
dilecta parenti. septima [l]anguen-
ti summaque visa dies. causa
latet fati, partum tamen esse
loquontur (!), sed quaecumque
fuit, tam cito non merui.

Cornelia Calliste [= ‘the most beautiful’] was my name, confirmed by my appearance. If one added one year, I had been thrice five years of age. I was welcome to my master, beloved by either parent. Lying ill, the seventh day was also my last one. The reason for my fate is concealed, they say it is just how one is born, yet I did not deserve it so soon.

4. CIL VI 19007 cf. p. 3523 = CLE 247 = CLE 562 (Rome; photo available here; transl. E. Courtney, with additions)

D(is) M(anibus)
Geminiae Agathe Matri dulcissimae.
Mater nomen eram mater non lege futura,
quinque etenim solos annos vixisse fatebor
et menses septem diebus cum vinti duobus.
dum vixi lusi sum cunctis semper amata.
nam pueri voltum, non femine, crede, gerebam,
quam soli norant Agathen qui me genuerunt,
ingenio docili forma pulchra ac veneranda,
rufa coma tonso capite posttrema remisso.
convivae cuncti nunc mi bona pocula ferte
diciteque ut semper meo corpori terra levis sit.
nec parvae doleat requiem mei perqua(m) Faventius,
nutritor plus quam genitor <q>ui solam amavi<t>
est mihi nam mater pater et praecesserat olim
nec doluit casum, soror est et matris Amoenae
tristis et ipsa meae mortis quos cuncti parentes
solando vitae dulci retinete precantes
ne dolor augescat seu maeror tristis abundet.
qui legitis, t<o>tum nomen si nosse velitis,
noscetis Geminiam Agathen, quam mortis acerbus
eripuit Letus teneramque ad Tartara duxit.
hoc es<t> sic est aliu<t> fieri non potest hoc ad nos.

To the [Spirits of the Departed of, PK] sweet Germinia Agathe Mater [= ‘Mother’, PK]. My name was Mother, though I was not destined to be a regular mother; for I shall disclose that I lived for only five years, seven months and twenty-two days. While I lived I played games, and everyone always loved me, for, believe me, I looked like a boy, not a girl, and only my parents knew me as Agathe. I had a docile temperament, a pretty appearance which evoked respect, red hair let down at the back with my head cropped. Bring now auspicious beakers to me, all you guests, and pray that the earth for ever rest light upon me. May Faventius, rearer rather than father, who loved me alone, not grieve overmuch at the repose of my little body. For I have a mother, and my father had long ago gone before me, not sorrowing at my fate; there is also my dear mother’s (or Mother Amoena’s) sister, she too grieving at my death. Consoling them hold them back, all my relatives, for pleasant life, praying that their pain not grow and their bitter grief overflow. If you who read would like to know my full name, you will recognize Geminia Agathe, whom premature death snatched away and left her tender form to the underworld. That is it, that is how it is, it cannot happen otherwise; this much for us.

5. CIL VI 22102 cf. p. 3527 = CLE 92 (Rome)

Q(uinto) Marc[io – – -].
have dulce nobeis nome[n atque omen gerens]
Stephane vitae nostrae [dum vivis decus]
vere choronam te a(c)cepi [et mox perdidi]:
Moschis tua te salutat et D[iodorus tuus]
et blanda dulcis pupa delic[ium tuum]
et quem tu tuis manibus nu[per sustuleras puer].
o fatum infelicem qui te n[obis abstulit].
have casta coniunx et m[ei serva memoriam].
have mi Diodore amice frat[erque et parens],
nam et amici officia et pietat[em implesti patris].
have pupa blanda, anima m[ea, tuque have puer]
quem nuper pararam ut hab[erem heredem nominis].

To Quintus Marcius …

Greetings, Stephanus [= ‘Crown’], name sweet to me and presage of my life, for while you lived I took you as adornment, a real crown,and soon I lost you: your Moschis is greeting you, and your Diodorus, and the sweet, adorable little girl, your sweetheart, and the boy, whom you only just recently lifted up with your hands. Oh dreadful fate that took you away from us!

Greetings, chaste wife, preserve the memory of me. Greetings, my Diodorus, friend, brother, and parent, for you have fulfilled the role of a friend and done the duty of a father. Greetings, adorable little girl, my life, and greetings to you too, boy, whom I only just recently obtained, so that I would have someone to inherit my name.

About Peter Kruschwitz

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

3 Responses to What’s in a name: A Short and Poetic Story of Nominative Determinism

  1. Mark Thorne says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing, yes the Classics-L conversations can be all over the map, but I almost always come away a little bit the wiser.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Here lies (insert name here), or: Why reading beyond a quotation is a really good idea | The Petrified Muse

  3. Pingback: Departure, Abandonment, and Grief: Latin Poems about Death in Childbirth | The Petrified Muse

Comments are closed.