Today, I had the immense pleasure of seeing one of my most favourite inscribed Latin poems – the epitaph for Margarita (‘Pearl’), a lap-dog, born in Gaul, deceased in second or third century Rome.
The inscription on this marble plaque, which is preserved and on display in the British Museum in London (CIL VI 29896 cf. p. 3734 = CLE 1175; for the entry in the BM online database follow this link), reads as follows:
Gallia me genuit, nomen mihi divitis undae
concha dedit, formae nominis aptus honos.
docta per incertas audax discurrere silvas
collibus hirsutas atque agitare feras
non gravibus vinc(u)lis unquam consueta teneri
verbera nec niveo corpore saeva pati:
molli namque sinu domini dominaeque iacebam
et noram in strato lassa cubare toro.
et plus quam licuit muto canis ore loquebar:
nulli latratus pertimuere meos.
sed iam fata subii partu iactata sinistro
quam nunc sub parvo marmore terra tegit.
Gaul sired me, the shell of the rich sea gave me my name: the honour of that name is becoming to my beauty. Taught to roam unexplored woodlands with courage and to chase hirsute game in the hills, unaccustomed ever to be restrained by heavy harnesses or to endure savage beatings with my snow-white body: for I used to lie in my master’s and my mistress’s lap and mastered the art of resting wearily on a spread-out blanket. Even though I used to be able to express more than I was entitled to with my inarticulate mouth – that of a dog! –, no one feared my barking. But I have already met my fate, stricken down during ill-omened whelping – me, whom earth now covers under this little marble plaque.
On the right-hand side, there is a palm leaf incised as an element of decoration.
The inscription has been beautifully laid out (using aid lines) and carved – only in the penultimate letter of the final word tegit (‘covers’), the stone cutter originally made a mistake (writing teget instead of tegit, which he then tried to conceal by giving more emphasis to the I subsequently):
Unsurprisingly, this inscription has received a lot of scholarly attention.
Scholars and amateurs alike were taken by the affectionate way in which these Roman dog-owners (who remain nameless) talked about their pet. The allusion to the epitaph of the Roman poet Vergil in line 1 (Gallia me genuit, ‘Gaul sired me’, following the model of Mantua me genuit; see the learned article by Irene Frings on this topic [in German; available for free here]) was duly noted.
The way in which the epitaph humanises the animal has been discussed, alongside considerations as to whether or not the poem might be parodistic or not (as is often the case with animal epitaphs: see the recent discussion about the Greek epitaph for a pig, beautifully presented by Mary Beard on her blog).
For me and my current research project on the Latin verse inscriptions (Carmina Latina Epigraphica) as ‘poetry of the people’, however, the inscription offers an interesting different perspective on Roman society as well – a much more disturbing and less romantic view than that of those who simply focus on the fondness of the language and the bond between the dog and their owners (which I do not wish to deny by any means).
The inscription, as I said, is a decent-sized marble-slab (61 x 50 cm), beautifully prepared and carved. Margarita was an imported animal from Gaul (it is unclear as to whether this is where her owners picked her up or whether they bought her in Rome as an imported animal). In addition to being a lap-dog, she served as a hound for animal hunts, roaming woods and hills.
In other words, she almost certainly was a costly, precious item owned by a wealthy aristocratic family – a family that would engage in pastimes such as hunting and keeping precious imported pets for display purposes.
During the high empire, however, Rome’s aristocracy hardly ever commemorates itself in verse epitaphs – it was decidedly a poetic form a member of the lower classes (and in Rome even more so than in provincial settings).
In that regard, the ways in which the dominus (‘master’) and the domina (‘mistress’) have humanised the animal are becoming even more interesting – including the fact that they describe themselves with terms commonly associated not only with the Roman household as such, but with Roman patronage (styling themselves as the patrons and masters of their underlings).
Just like a patron might describe the untimely loss of a precious slave (see, for example, the epitaph for the short-hand writer Xanthias from Cologne, discussed here, to mention but one parallel), Margarita’s masters, too, mourn the loss of animate, valued property – and not just that of a delightful companion.
The fact that they do this in verse is not only to be explained with a reference to the literary commonplace of animal epitaphs – this dirge is not ‘just’ a semi-humorous reference to a common genre (a much more appropriate example for that would be the epitaph for Hadrian’s horse, which I mentioned in my blog last week).
As much as we ourselves may be inclined to think that honouring the dog with a poem is something extraordinary, one must adapt a Roman frame of mind to appreciate the implications of this choice. The humanisation of Margarita does not at all raise her to the same status as her owners claim for themselves: she remains the dominus‘ and the domina‘s cherished servant, and it is just that what is expressed through the poetic form as well.
Does that, in turn, mean that slaves and freedmen / freedwomen, when honoured by their masters through a verse inscription, barely reached the same status as that of a dog in ancient Rome – underdogs in the truest meaning of the word?
A disturbing thought indeed – but a thought that need not hold any universal truth.