There is an old theory, originally proposed by René Cagnat in 1889 and widely believed by classical scholars, that in the Roman world there were manuals for the use of professional stone cutters and the like, providing them with model texts – stencils or templates, so to speak – for their use on ancient tombstones.
The thinking behind this is as obvious and simplistic as the evidence for these manuals is scarce:
- There are a good number of cases in which the same texts (usually: a poem) has come to light on several inscriptions for different individuals in diverse parts of the Roman empire – unless one is to believe in a fantastic (and repeat) case of coincidence, something must have facilitated knowledge of such model poems.
- Plutarch‘s work on the Pythian oracles mentions the use of poetic manuals for quick composition of poems for the use of mountebank diviners.
- Unlike their literary counterparts, the poets of the Latin verse inscriptions are preconceived to be inferior, uninspired, and generally useless at their job.
One could argue against the entire range of false or problematic preconceptions here, but I will keep that for my forthcoming work on the Carmina Latina Epigraphica as ‘the poetry of the people’.
Instead, I would like to demonstrate a particularly interesting case of the ways in which prejudice and problematic aprioris work.
Robert Ireland, in Martin Henig’s Handbook of Roman Art (Oxford 1983, p. 221) presents the following, rather curious case:
Conventional texts could be extracted from collections of ready-made formulae: verses identical save for the names of the deceased (which often fail to scan) re-appear in metrical epitaphs from different parts of the Empire, and one artist made the careless but revealing error of copying his pattern-text unmodified on to the stone: HIC IACET CORPVS PVERI NOMINANDI – that is, roughly, ‘HERE LIES THE BODY OF (a boy: put the name in)’.
Hahaha, what a dunce that artist was, right? Am I right? Boy, he didn’t even get that pueri nominandi meant ‘insert name here’.
Now, as classical scholarship, too, seems to work with collections of ready-made formulae for uncritical regurgitation sometimes, it is of little surprise that Ireland’s comment was recycled subsequently.
Maureen Carroll, for example, in her study Spirits of the Dead. Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe (Oxford 2006, p. 106), writes (with explicit reference to Ireland):
In many cases the components of epitaphs will have been taken by the letter-cutter from ‘manuals’ or collections of formulae or books of poetry. This is the only explanation for the inscription from Annaba in Algeria that reads: Hic iacet corpus pueri nominandi (Here lies the body of a boy, name to be inserted). The letter-cutter followed the manual quite literally ‘to the letter’, without noticing that he was to insert a specific name in the space provided.
Except, the letter-cutter actually didn’t.
What neither Ireland nor Carroll (nor, for that matter, most of its other recent interpreters, such as Alison Cooley, Jane Stevenson, and Jonathan P. Conant) have done is something astonishingly obvious: to check what the inscription actually says.
Interestingly enough, its published text reads as follows (AE 1931.112 = CLE Zarker 48):
Hic corpus iacet
o benedicte puer,
paucis te terra
tenuit celiquae (!)
in regna remisit:
natus ut ca-
Here lies the body of a noteworthy boy: oh blessed boy, after but a few days earth has taken possession of you again, still an infant, and sent you to the realm of heaven: you were born so that you obtained such wealth – reborn [or: … that you, Renatus, obtained such wealth].
The point of this inscription is completely straightforward (as so far only R. P. Hoogma appears to have noticed in a review [available here on jstor]) – it is another case of nominative determinism, a playful reference to the boy’s name Renatus and its original meaning ‘reborn’.
Moreover, one ought to take into account that the text, as transmitted, actually almost scans as an hexameter line (Zarker suggested that it consists of five metra instead of six) i. e. that it can hardly be regarded as altogether defective: note that line 4 (propterea … renatus), too, has some metrical issues in the ut caperes bit.
In conclusion, nominandi is not a case of an ancient version of ‘N. N.’; in fact, it is quite the contrary:
First, It is a playful reference to the fact that the boy’s name will still be mentioned later on in the inscription.
And secondly, it is an expression of reverence to the boy (‘noteworthy’), in the same way in which nominandus nominanda has been used in other inscriptions as well (cf., for example, CIL VIII 5906 = ILAlg II 2.7054, Inscr. Aquil. I 805 = IEAquil. 466, and – related – CIL VI 15969).
In short, the paradigm of those who have used this text as evidence for the existence of manuals with pre-fabricated texts-to-be-inscribed, is in fact a highly personalised text, written for a special person – a little boy called Renatus, who died only a few days after he was born.
A most interesting and informative blog entry. A Simply brilliant analysis. Thank you very much for writing it.
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Glad you like it – thank you for leaving a comment! 🙂
Thanks for this, Peter – a perfect exemplum in support of the advice (underrated in epigraphic studies): “Mark my words!” Cheers, Peter K
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Really useful information here – I’m also interested in the idea that masons used copy books or style manuals. The widespread use of formulaic language suggests that they probably did. But as you say the direct evidence for their existence is scarce and as you show here some of the evidence we have (on reappraisal) may not be evidence at all. But for me your comment on ‘uncritical regurgitation’ says it all. In fact I might have done a bit of regurgitation on the subject in my thesis so good job you blogged about this. (Now I have to learn how to cite a blog).
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Thanks for explaining – I searched for this after seeing a reference to “insert name here” in Robin Fleming’s “Britain After Rome”.
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