Sadness, Weariness, and Laughter: An Ancient Latin Poem on Occasion of Mental Health Awareness Week 2015

Between 11-17 May 2015 it is Mental Health Awareness Week, when the Mental Health Foundation, like every year, helps to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues.

Mental health is hard to define. On their webpages, the Mental Health Foundation suggests that that –

‘If you’re in good mental health, you can:
• Make the most of your potential
• Cope with life
• Play a full part in your family, workplace, community and among friends’

On this occasion, I would like to introduce my readership to a most remarkable Latin poem, which was composed in the fifth century A. D.

Originally inscribed, the poem largely survived through a manuscript tradition – only small fragments of it were rediscovered in the Rome’s Basilica of the Apostles (which impressively proved, however, just how many mistakes a manuscript transmission can introduce even in a comparatively short text).

Based on a combination of evidence from these two traditions, the inscription has been restored as follows (ICUR 5.13655 = ILCV 806 = AE 2006.180):

Quid tibi, mors, faciam quae nulli parcere nosti? nescis laetitiam, nescis amare iocos.
his ego praevalui toto notissimus orbi, hinc mihi larga domus hinc mihi census erat. gaudebam semper: quid enim si gaudia desint hic vagus ac fallax utile mundus habet?
me viso rabidi subito cecidere furores, ridebat summus me veniente dolor.
non licuit quemquam mordacibus urere curis nec rerum incerta mobilitate trahi.
vincebat cunctos praesentia nostra timores et mecum felix quaelibet ora fuit.
motibus ac dictis tragica quoque voce placebam exhilarans variis tristia corda modis,
fingebam vultus, habitus ac verba loquentur ut plures uno crederis ore loqui.
ipse etiam, quem nostra oculis geminabat imago, horruit in vultos se macis esse meos.
o quoties imitata meo se femina gestu vidit et erubuit totaque compta fuit.
ergo quot in nostro videbantur corpore formae tot mecum raptos abtulit atra dies.
quo vos iam tristi turbatus deprecor ore qui templum legitis cum pietate meum
o quam laetus eras, Vitalis’ dicite maesti:
sint tibi, Vitalis, sin(t) tibi laeta modo.’

In translation:

What am I going to do with you, Death, you, who spares no one? You don’t know happiness, you don’t know how to love fun. I stood out in these areas, I was most famous all over the world, and it was the source of my stately home, it was the source of my wealth. I was always cheerful: for what is left that is of any use, if cheerfulness is lacking, in this random and elusive world? Upon seeing me, raging madness ceased to exist, when I approached, even the sharpest pain used to laugh. It was impossible for anyone to be tortured by their gnawing worries, or to be torn by the uncertain fleetingness of worldly matters. Our presence overcame all fears, and with me every hour was a happy one. I pleased with the way I moved and spoke, even with a tragic voice, cheering up worrying minds in manifold ways. I created facial expressions, and I made my characters speak in ways that would make you believe that many speak through but a single mouth. The very person, whom our imitation reproduced in [sc. everyone’s] eyes, shuddered to exist to an even greater extent in my displays. Ah, whenever a lady saw herself imitated in my gestures, she both blushed and arranged her looks. So, however many appearances there would seem to be in my body, a dark day stole all of them and took them away together with myself. Thus, troubled, I beseech you, who read my memorial with piety, say, in sadness: ‘Oh, how happy you were, Vitalis! May you, Vitalis, may you just be happy again!’

The poem, comprising twenty-four verses (twelve elegiac distichs), presents Vitalis as a highly successful entertainer who had amassed significant wealth well as a result of his fine talent: mime-acting. Whether he acted as biologos (an entertainer who represented lives through his acting), as ethologos (an entertainer who created little character studies), or a mere imitator of the types he observed in the theatre – his performances seem to have left no one indifferent or untouched.

What is particularly interesting, however, is the inscription’s pressing question – quid enim si gaudia desint hic vagus ac fallax utile mundus habet, ‘for what is left that is of any use, if cheerfulness is lacking, in this random and elusive world?’

There is no need to make a ‘sad clown’ out of Vitalis, no need to see an early Robin Williams in him.

But sadness and weariness are salient features of this text that is dedicated to happiness – the happiness of the people and the sunny nature of the entertainer himself:

me viso rabidi subito cecidere furores, ridebat summus me veniente dolor.
non licuit quemquam mordacibus urere curis nec rerum incerta mobilitate trahi.
vincebat cunctos praesentia nostra timores et mecum felix quaelibet ora fuit.
motibus ac dictis tragica quoque voce placebam exhilarans variis tristia corda modis.

Upon seeing me, raging madness ceased to exist, when I approached, even the sharpest pain used to laugh. It was impossible for anyone to be tortured by their gnawing worries, or to be torn by the uncertain fleetingness of worldly matters. Our presence overcame all fears, and with me every hour was a happy one. I pleased with the way I moved and spoke, even with a tragic voice, cheering up worrying minds in manifold ways.

In many ways, current generations share the anxieties of those who lived in fifth-century Rome: of a world that has gone insane, of peacelessness, of threat, hopelessness, insecurity, lack of control, lack of meaning.

Vitalis’ inscription is right: if we lose our cheerfulness for good, what is there left that is worth living for…?

Of course, shallow entertainment and distraction from what causes anxiety cannot be the answer – as healthy and as important as a good belly laugh can be: laughing is a stress relief, not a cure.

What helps us to cope is our mental health – and what helps everyone to cope is widespread awareness of the fact that sometimes people struggle with that.

Living in the present, not caught up in the past or worries about the future, can be a quintessential tool to overcome those darker moments:

vincebat cunctos praesentia nostra timores et mecum felix quaelibet ora fuit.

Our presence overcame all fears, and with me every hour was a happy one.

Paying attention to the present moment, without getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future is what mindfulness, this year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Week, is all about.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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