What happened to Pontia?, Or: How a husband buried his beloved wife (and still only managed to talk about himself)

Last week I published a piece about fatal traffic accidents in ancient Rome. When I did my research for this entry, I came across an inscription from Carsulae in Umbria, which puzzled me for a number of reasons – not least with regard to its relevance for last week’s blog post.

In the end, I decided against its inclusion. Instead, I thought, this could be an interesting item for a broader discussion – a fascinating, moving little inscribed poem … and one that is extremely difficult to make sense of.

The text in question is engraved on two panels at the front-facing long side of a (fragmented) Roman sarcophagus, which is currently on display in the Museo Nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto [follow this link for a description provided by the museum].

Funerary poem from Carsulae. – Image source: http://www.museoducato.beniculturali.it/en/images/opere/01-01.jpg.

Funerary poem from Carsulae. – Image source: http://www.museoducato.beniculturali.it/en/images/opere/01-01.jpg.

At the left and right corners of the panel, there are sculpted images; at its (now damaged) centre, there was a circular structure containing a christogram as well as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, putting this sarcophagus unambiguously into an early Christian context – of the fourth century A. D., most likely.

The text of this inscription, a poem of 20 lines (= 10 elegiac distichs) in total, reads as follows (CIL XI 4634 cf. p. 1371 = CLE 1846 = ILCV 4812):

Left panel (lines 1–10):

Pontia sidereis aspirans vultibus olim
hic iacet: aetherio semine lapsa fuit.
omnes (!) honos, omnis ces(s)it tibi gratia formae
mens quoque cum vultus digna nitore fuit.
tradita virgo toris decimum non pertulit annum
coniugii, infelix unica prole perit.
quantus amor, mentis probitas quam grata marito,
quam casti mores, quantus et ipse pudor,
ni(hi)l tibi quod foedum, vitium nec moribus ullum,
dum satis obsequeris, famula dicta viri.

Pontia, who [sc. in her beauty] once aspired to starry countenances, lies here: she was offspring of heavenly seed. Every honour, every grace of beauty yielded to you, and you had a mind, too, which, dignifying, shone alongside your appearance. Entrusted to a conjugal bed as young girl, she did not last till the end of the tenth year of her marriage, she died, wretched, with single issue. What love! How welcome to her husband the goodliness of her mind! How chaste her character! How grand her very bashfulness! There was nothing foul in you, nor did you have any weakness of character: as you were obedient, you were called your husband’s servant.

Right panel (lines 11–20):

denique te, memet fatis odioque gravatum
dum sequeris, vidit Corsica cum lacrimis,
tu Treviros pergens cursu subvecta rotarum,
coniugis heu cultrix, dura satis pateris.
te pater infestus genero cum tollere vellet,
temtasti laqueum si faceret genitor.
cedite iam veterum laudes omnesque maritae,
tempora nulla dabunt talia quae faciat.
vir tuus ingenti gemitu fletuque rigatus
hos feci versus pauca tamen memorans.

Eventually Corsica saw you, in tears, when you followed me, aggrieved by fate and hatred. Carrying on to Trier, conveyed by the spin of the wheels, alas!, your husband’s comforter, you suffered hardship aplenty. When your hostile father desired to take you away from his son-in-law, you would have attempted to hang yourself, had your father gone through with it. Yield already, praises of previous generations and all wives, time will create no one to achieve the like. I, your husband, drenched in immense wailing and crying, have made these verses, and yet recorded only little.

(There are additional fragmentary bits of writing elsewhere on the sarcophagus, taking the form of legends to the bits of sculpture, but unrelated to Pontia’s epitaph.)

At first, the text seems perfectly clear. This is an epitaph for a beloved wife, full of heartfelt emotion and grief, beautifully arranged in two halfs – one, next to the Alpha, that is full of praise, and one, next to the Omega, that is testament to the many misfortunes of Pontia’s life. One also notes the constant changes between a third-person narrative and passages that address the deceased in the second person – concluding in a final first-person statement.

Complications arise from that final first-person statement, however, as the (anonymous) husband’s concluding remark – pauca tamen memorans, ‘I recorded only little’ – is sadly true: the more often one reads the text, the less one seems to know about Pontia and her fate.

The question that has kept me busy, first and foremost, is the obvious one when dealing with Roman funerary poems: how did Pontia die?

Two scenarios have been discussed in particular:

  • Hieronymus Geist, in a popular German translation of Roman funerary inscriptions proposed that Pontia died as a result of childbirth (see here for the German text) – an impression that he got from the phrase infelix unica prole perit, ‘she died, wretched, with single issue’, which he chose to render as ‘the agony! she died as a result of her only child’ (o Qual, starb an dem einzigen Kind‘). [Prosody buffs will note that unica, even though clearly an ablative, has been measured as ending with a short final -a, a phenomenon approvingly called systole in literary poets and dismissed as ‘mistake’ in epigraphical poems – life just is not fair to the poets of the Latin inscriptions! At any rate, those who want their long -a- back, may find an irrationally lengthened -a- in the first syllable of famula, line 10 – the counterpart to a systole, called diastole. Or ‘mistake’, if you happen to be an epigraphical poet…]
  • The museum webpage of the Museo Nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto, in turn, suggests that ‘[t]he Christian matron of Ponzia was buried, dead because a carriage ran over her along the via Flaminia, near Carsulæ, during a trip towards Treviri with her husband’ – a view derived from the phrase Treviros pergens cursu subvecta rotarum, ‘carrying on to Trier, conveyed by the spin of the wheels’.

The translation provided above, aiming to be as close to the Latin as possible without resulting in mere translationese, shows that neither one of these options is a necessary conclusion based on the Latin text: it just has not been expressed with clarity, and the only honest thing to say is that one cannot know why and how Pontia died – all we know is that she died in her early twenties (married as a virgo, i. e. presumably around the age of 12, and deceased before the tenth year of her marriage, which resulted in a single child, whose subsequent fate remains unknown).

As far as the child is concerned, it is unclear at what stage it was born – did it join the parents on any of the cumbersome trips that were mentioned, or was it born after those took place?

And as for the coach-ride to Trier, while the wording cursu subvecta rotarum ‘conveyed by the spin of the wheels’ is rather stilted, there is nothing to suggest that Pontia would have been run over by a coach – all it says is that the coach trip was a right pain (which is perfectly obvious, when considering the inconvenience of long-distance road travel in the ancient world).

What is interesting, of course, is the way in which the author(s) of the museum webpage have created a little narrative out of three pieces of isolated information, namely the toponyms provided by the inscription itself (Corsica, Trier) and its findspot, Carsulae:

How to create a narrative...

How to create a narrative…

Corsica, which made Pontia cry, is mentioned first, Trier is mentioned second – and it is mentioned as the destination of an inconvenient journey rather than a destination that has been visited. As the inscription was found in Carsulae, one may thus posit that this was a planned route from Corsica to Trier via Carsulae, and this is when Pontia died – in a coach accident.

Except, of course, that the text does not explicitly mention such an incident (unless one does some violence to its careful wording) – nor does it say anything about the relative and absolute chronology of events.

It is one’s imagination that turns the story into a plot!

What the inscription does say, however, is what the husband did. He went to Corsica. He went to Trier. He was aggravated by fate and hatred. He needed his wife as a cultrix, a comforter. Did he go to Corsica, because he was relegated there for some reason? Was this what made Pontia cry? Did he go to Trier to face the emperor? After all, Trier was one of the main places in which the Roman emperor would reside in the fourth century!

Why did Pontia’s father wish to take her away from her husband (a thought so horrendous to Pontia that she apparently threatened suicide)? Was the husband a disgrace in the eyes of the father-in-law – perhaps due to the speculative incidents mentioned just now? Unlike the speaker of the so-called laudatio Turiae, for example, this anonymous husband is very careful to avoid any details that would make him identifiable and that would go into any noteworthy depth regarding his fate (however bitter it had rendered him).

Other than that – nothing but versions of the interchangeable commonplace praises of wives: any specifics that are being revealed relate to the fate of the husband, who nevertheless chose to remain anonymous (noblesse oblige?).

Inscriptions, they say, are for the living, even where they talk about the dead. The anonymous husband and poet here was perfectly aware of that, and he decided to record the difficult, eventful time that he had with his wife by his side – his wife, who had deserved so much better.

The poem thus is a husband’s final farewell to a loyal, forbearing companion just as much as a reckoning with a life that had aggravated him time and time again.

[I am grateful to Professor emerita Jane F. Gardner, who gave up a lot of her valuable time to discuss individual aspects of this inscription with me. I am not sure if I have managed to convince her, and where I decided to stick with my own convictions, I am probably wrong: yet another piece of irrefutable evidence for my stubbornness…]

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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One Response to What happened to Pontia?, Or: How a husband buried his beloved wife (and still only managed to talk about himself)

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

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