A Sense of Fatality: Ancient Latin Poems for Road Casualties

Among the top three things the Romans have done for us, one must – obviously – list their roads. Justly famous, they are right up there with sanitation and, of course, the aqueduct:

With roads comes traffic, however, and with traffic come noise, nuisance, and, above all, danger – an aspect expanded upon by the Roman satirist Juvenal in his third satire (3.239-267, translation from here):

si vocat officium, turba cedente vehetur
dives et ingenti curret super ora Liburna     240
atque obiter leget aut scribet vel dormiet intus;
namque facit somnum clausa lectica fenestra.
ante tamen veniet: nobis properantibus obstat
unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos
qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro     245
alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.
pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna
calcor, et in digito clavus mihi militis haeret.
Nonne vides quanto celebretur sportula fumo?
centum convivae, sequitur sua quemque culina.     250
Corbulo vix ferret tot vasa ingentia, tot res
inpositas capiti, quas recto vertice portat
servulus infelix et cursu ventilat ignem.
scinduntur tunicae sartae modo, longa coruscat
serraco veniente abies, atque altera pinum     255
plaustra vehunt; nutant alte populoque minantur.
nam si procubuit qui saxa Ligustica portat
axis et eversum fudit super agmina montem,
quid superest de corporibus? quis membra, quis ossa
invenit? obtritum volgi perit omne cadaver     260
more animae. domus interea secura patellas
iam lavat et bucca foculum excitat et sonat unctis
striglibus et pleno componit lintea guto.
haec inter pueros varie properantur, at ille
iam sedet in ripa taetrumque novicius horret     265
porthmea nec sperat caenosi gurgitis alnum
infelix nec habet quem porrigat ore trientem.

When duty calls, the crowd gives way as the rich man’s litter,
Rushes by, right in their faces, like some vast Liburnian galley,
While he reads, writes, sleeps inside, while sped on his way:
You know how a chair with shut windows makes you drowsy!
Yet, he gets there first: as I hasten, the tide ahead obstructs me,
And the huge massed ranks that follow behind crush my kidneys;
This man sticks out his elbow, that one flails with a solid pole,
This man strikes my head with a beam, that one with a barrel.
Legs caked with mud, I’m forever trampled by mighty feet
From every side, while a soldier’s hobnailed boot pierces my toe.
Do you see all the smoke that rises, to celebrate a hand-out?
There’s a hundred diners each followed by his portable kitchen.
Corbulo, that huge general, could scarce carry all those vast pots,
With all the rest that the poor little slave transports, on his head.
Fanning the oven, he runs along, his body held perfectly upright.
Recently-mended tunics are ripped, while a long fir log judders
As it looms near, while another cart’s bearing a whole pine-tree.
They teeter threateningly over the heads of those people below.
Now, if that axle breaks under the weight of Ligurian marble,
And spills an upturned mountain on top of the dense crowd,
What will be left of the bodies? What limbs, what bones will
Survive? Every man’s corpse wholly crushed will vanish along
With his soul. Meanwhile his household, oblivious, are scouring
The dishes; are puffing their cheeks at the embers; are clattering
The oily back-scrapers; by full oil-flasks, arranging the towels.
The slave-boys bustle about on various tasks, while their master,
Is now a newcomer on the banks of the Styx, shuddering there
At the hideous ferryman, without hope, poor wretch, of a ride
Over the muddy river, and no coin in his mouth for the fare.

Juvenal’s lines provide us with a lively poetic imagination of the busy streets of ancient Rome – and they have inspired many a visual representation of Roman streets in literary fiction and the arts.

The beauty of literary imaginations is, of course, that it easily dispenses with our sense of immediacy and relevance – safely relegating stories to the world of fiction and fantasy, which, if they were to be encountered in one’s real life, could be deeply traumatic and disturbing.

Traffic- and vehicle-related fatalities from ancient Rome are, of course, occasionally recorded in the Latin inscriptions – and sometimes those mentions appear in a poetic form themselves.

The assumption that these poems refer to actual fatalities create a remarkable tension between the potentially pleasurable artifice of poetry, their graveyard setting, and the harsh reality of life (and death) they describe – these texts simply cannot be enjoyed in the same way as Juvenal’s amusing description.

Stumbling child dies in road accident (CIL XI 4311 cf. p. 1366 = CLE 457 cf. p. 855; Terni/Interamna)

D(is) M(anibus).
L(ucio) Valerio
L(ucius) Valerius
Euaristus et
Mu[rri]a Ampli-
ata [fili]o piissimo.
tu quicumq(ue) legi[s ti]tulum
nostrum nomeq(ue) requiris,
aspice quo fato rapus mih[i]
spiritus or[e] est.
nonus ab incepto currebat
mihi tem[po]ris annus
dum subito incautus fratri
succurrere tendo,
me rota sublapsum pressit
pii[- – -]S[-]D[- – -]andi
ita A[- – -]I[- – -]re[- – -]aius mihi
vi[ta(?)] sub aur[as].

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Lucius Valerius Magnus. Lucius Valerius Euaristus and Murria Ampliata (sc. had this made) for their most dutiful son.

You, whoever you are reading our inscription and asking for the name, behold the fate through which my life-breath has been snatched away from my face. During the course of the ninth year since the beginning of my time (sc. on earth), while I suddenly – incautiously – haste to help my brother, a wheel crushed me, as I had stumbled … [the remainder of this inscription is too fragmentary for a meaningful translation].

Wife and slave boy trampled to death by the masses on the Capitoline hill (CIL VI 29436 cf. p. 3536, 3919 = CLE 1159 = ILS 8524; Rome [image here])

Ummidiae Manes tumulus tegit
iste simulque Primigeni vernae
quos tulit una dies, nam Capitolinae
compressi examine turbae
supremum fati competiere
Ummidia(e) Ge et P(ublio) Ummidio Primigenio,
vix(it) an(nos) XIII. P(ublius) Ummidius Anoptes lib(ertus) fecit.

This pile covers the spirit of Ummidia as well as that of Primigenius, the home-born slave, both of whom a single day snatched away: for when they were crushed by the swarm of the crowds of the Capitoline hill, they both reached their day of destiny.

For Ummidia Ge and Publius Ummidius Primigenius (he lived 13 years). Publius Ummidius Anoptes, freedman, had this made.

Little boy, born out of wedlock, killed in oxcart accident (CIL XIV 1808 cf. p. 482 = CLE 1059; Ostia [image here])

Dis Manibus
Q(uinti) Volusi Sp(uri) f(ilii) Lem(onia) Anthi.
parvolus in gremio com(m)unis forte parentis
dum ludit fati conruit invidia.
nam trucibus iunctis bubus tunc forte novel(l)i
ignarum rector propulit orbe rota.
maestus uterque parens postquam miserabile
funus fecit inferis munera sum(m)a dedit,
hunc Antho tumulum male deflorentibus
annis pro pietate pari composuere suo.
Q(uintus) Volusius Q(uinti) l(ibertus) Anthus pater fecit sibi et
(mulieris) l(ibertae) Feliculae coniugi sanctissumae
Volusiae Q(uinti) f(iliae) Nice Q(uinto) Volusio Q(uinti) f(ilio) Antho
Siliae (mulieris) l(ibertae) Nice C(aio) Silio Antho.
in fr(onte) p(edes) VI in agr(o) p(edes) III S(emis).

To the Spirits of the Departed of Quintus Volusius Anthus, son of Spurius, of the tribus Lemonia.

As the little boy happens to play around, under the protection of a common parent, he falls down, due to the envy of fate. For a carter, with inexperienced yoked wild oxen, ran over by accident the unsuspecting boy, with the rim of his wheel. After both grieving parents performed the wretched funeral and gave the final offerings to the deceased, they erected this memorial for Anthus, out of their commensurate sense of parental duty.

Quintus Volusius Anthus, freedman of Quintus, the father, had this made for himself and for Silia Felicula, freedwoman of a woman, his most innocent wife, and for Volusia Nice, daughter of Quintus, Quintus Volusius Anthus, son of Quintus, Silia Nice, freedwoman of a woman, and Gaius Silius Anthus.

(sc. This plot is) 6 ft. wide, 3.5 ft. deep.

Of course, humans were not the only casualties of ancient Roman traffic, as Mary Beard recently reminded us with reference to a Greek inscription (of Roman Macedon).

Though certainly no laughing matter to the person who had this monument crafted, this final poem may serve as a satyr play to the tragic trilogy of ancient Roman traffic accidents that was just presented:

Epitaph for a pig killed in a road accident. – Image source: http://timesonline.typepad.com/.a/6a00d83451586c69e201bb08075c77970d-popup.

Epitaph for a pig killed in a road accident. – Image source: http://timesonline.typepad.com/.a/6a00d83451586c69e201bb08075c77970d-popup.

χοῖρος ὁ πᾶσι φίλος,
τετράπους νέος,
ἐνθάδε κεῖμαι
Δαλματίης δάπεδον προλιπὼν
δῶρον προσενεχθείς
καὶ Δυρράχιν δὲ ἐπάτησα
Ἀπολλωνίαν τε ποθήσας
καὶ πᾶσαν γαίην διέβην
ποσὶ μοῦνος ἄλιπτος
νῦν δὲ τροχοῖο βίῃ
τὸ φάος προλέλοιπα
Ἠμαθίην δὲ ποθῶν
κατιδεῖν φαλλοῖο δὲ ἅρμα
ἐνθάδε νῦν κεῖμαι
τῷ θανάτῳ μηκέτ’ ὀφειλόμενος.

A pig, friend to everybody
a young four-footed one
here I lay, having left
behind, the land of Dalmatia,
as an offered gift,
at Dyrrachion I walked
Apollonia yearning
and all the road I crossed
on foot alone steadily.
But by the force of a wheel
I have now lost the light
longing to see Emathia
and the Phallic Chariot
Here now I lie, owing
nothing to death anymore.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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