The Riddle of a Poor Man’s Epitaph

As I write these lines, I am in Tarragona, about one hour south of Barcelona by train, on Catalonia’s Costa Daurada (‘Golden Coast’). Tarragona, Roman Tarraco, now a UNESCO world heritage site, is home to some of the most impressive Roman remains outside mainland Italy.

Plaque commemorating Géza Alföldy: Tarragona, Amphitheatre. – Photo: PK, 2015.

Plaque commemorating Géza Alföldy: Hungarian by birth, German by adoption, a citizen of Tarragona deep in his heart. – Tarragona, Amphitheatre. – Photo: PK, May 2015.

It is the third time I have been to Tarragona, following a brief visit in 2002 on occasion of the international AIEGL conference (when I had the opportunity to be introduced to Tarragona by one of its finest experts, the late Professor Géza Alföldy) and a wonderful conference in 2004, organised by the Spanish team that prepares the edition of the Carmina Latina Epigraphica of the Iberian peninsula for the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (volume XVIII).

What makes Tarragona particularly interesting to me, apart from very fond personal memories, is its rich record of Latin inscriptions, which were comprehensively studied by Géza Alföldy in his masterful 1975 volume Die römischen Inschriften von Tarraco. More recently, the inscribed material from Tarraco has also been covered in two volumes of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL II ed. alt. 14/2–3), prepared by Géza Alföldy and edited posthumously in 2011–2.

This time I came to Tarragona in order to inspect a number of verse inscriptions that have come to light here (edited and explained in the Joan Gómez Pallarès‘s excellent 2002 volume Poesia epigráfica llatina als països Catalans. Edició i comentari), paying heed to the well-established principle of epigraphical autopsy as well as collecting further relevant material for my current British Academy-funded project Poetry of the People – Poetry for the People.

Examining T3 = ILER 5762; RIT 441. – Photo (c) Emma Holding.

Examining CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279. – Photo (c) Emma Holding, May 2015.

Very excited anyway to come back to Tarragona and to study some inscriptions in greater detail, there was one inscription that I was particularly keen to see: the epitaph of a young man named Aper, who died aged thirty.

Why is this text of particular interest to me?

Three months ago, I published a long blog entry on the faint voices of the poor, presenting a number of Latin verse inscriptions that explicitly addressed poverty as an issue.

One of the items that I chose to exclude at the time, as I felt it required further study, is the inscription of Aper from Tarraco/Tarragona, which dates to the late second or early third century A. D. Its text reads as follows:

Conditus his tumulis iuvenis iacet
hic Aper aerarius ille
cuius viventis fuit probata iu(v)entus.
pauper vixisti, fuisti pronus amicis.
annis vixisisti (!) XXX duo menses et d(ies) VIII.     5
o dolor, o lacrim(a)e, ubi te dum qu(a)era(m) ego, nate?
has tibi fundo miser lacrimas pater orfanus ecce.
effugit et lumen labuntur membra dolore.
hoc melius fuerat (!), ut funus hoc mihi parares.
inferi si qua sapent (!) miserum me abducite patrem.     10
iam carui lucem (!) qui te amisi ego nate.
si qui pergis iter, viator, transis aut pollo (!) resistes
et relegis titulum sulcato marmore ferro,
quod ego feci pater pio mi dulcissimo nato,
hoc bene habet titulus tumulo manent ossa qu[ieta].     15
semper in perpetuo vale mi ka[ri]ssime na[te].

Covered by these mounds lies a young man here –

Aper, the coppersmith, whose youth, while still alive, was praised. You lived as a poor man, you were attached to your friends. You lived 30 years, two months, and 8 days.

Oh pain, oh tears, where do I seek you now, my son? Wretched, I, your father, abandoned, shed these tears for you – behold! My eyesight vanishes, my limbs succumb to my pain. It would have been more appropriate, had you prepared such burial for me! If the gods of the underworld have any reason, take me, the wretched father, away as well. I have already lost my livelihood, when I lost you, my son.

Whether you continue your way, traveller, or you pass by or rest a little –

and read the inscription on the stone, carved with iron, which, I, the father had made for my sweetest, dutiful son, then the inscription will contrive that, in this mound, the bones will rest in peace.

Farewell forever and in perpetuity, my sweetest son.

An interesting text, if of generally rather little challenge in terms of understanding and interpretation. So why the need for an autopsy, one might wonder…?

Well… here is what the inscribed object, currently on display in the excavation area of the Museu i Necròpolis Paleocristians of the Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona, actually looks like:

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, front view. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona.

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, front view. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona.

The monumental stone slab, over two metres wide, exhibits, in fact, two inscriptions, and the one on the right, in prose, unambiguously pre-dates the one on the left (the poem, above).

The earlier (prose) inscription, on the right, reads as follows (CIL II ed. alt. 14/2, 1079 = RIT 218):

L(ucio) Fuficio Mevan(ia) Prisco
vet(erano) leg(ionis) VII G(eminae) F(elicis) et Flaminiae Melete
uxsori et Domitiae Saturninae adfini
Fuficia Germana lib(erta) h(eres) f(ecit).

For Lucius Fuficius Priscus of Mevania, veteran of the Legio VII Gemina Felix, and Flaminia Melete, his wife, and Domitia Saturnina, a relative: Fuficia Germana, freedwoman and heir, had this made.

The letters of this inscription for the Umbrian veteran Fuficius, his wife, and their acquaintance are neatly cut and would appear to date to the later first or the second century A. D., when the Legio VII Gemina, stationed in Spain, used the additional honorific epithet Felix.

The slab must have formed part of a sizeable monumental tomb, where it would have been inserted in a representative position to commemorate the deceased.

What happened next is rather less clear.

Tarragona's amphitheatre (with ruins of Santa Maria del Miracle). – Photo (c) PK, May 2015.

Tarragona’s amphitheatre (with ruins of Santa Maria del Miracle), where the inscription was found. – Photo (c) PK, May 2015.

There are three events, however, that require attention:

  • A tabula ansata (‘winged tablet’) was cut into the stone (to the left of the original inscription)
  • The funerary poem for Aper was added
  • The stone was cut and reused subsequently towards the structure of the Visigoth Romanesque church called Santa Maria del Miracle situated in the arena of Tarragona’s amphitheatre.

The interaction of the poem with the tabula ansata is particularly interesting. On the left-hand side, the letters of the poem clearly have been written around pre-cut lines:

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, left-hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, left hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

Apart from lines 1 and 13 ff., which were inscribed above and below the tabula ansata, lines 3 (beginning with c||uius), 7 (beginning with has ti||bi), 10 (beginning with infer||i), and 12 (beginning with si qui p||ergis) have clearly been written around a pre-cut left-hand margin of the winged tablet’s main area, leaving visible gaps in the middle of the word.

One also notes the somewhat unfortunate change in letter size at the beginning of line 12, where the letters that are written to the left of the line are, in actual fact, too big to match those that continue the line within the tabula ansata.

The situation on the right hand side is rather more awkward, however:

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, right hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279, right hand side. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

The endings of lines 11–15 all exceed the right hand margin of the winged tablet’s central area. The letters of lines 14–15 also intersect with the bottom line of the tablet’s right wing (something that the stonecutter had managed to avoid on the left hand side).

What is more, one must note that the tabula ansata has also been cut in a very uneven manner (and quite possibly either been sculpted by different hands or been left at various stages of imperfection).

The top, left, and bottom lines of the main field are carved with care. The right line has been scratched into the surface carelessly, and it is anything but straight. The top and bottom lines of the left wing are cut unusually deep, whereas the vertical line on that side has barely been picked into the surface – the same technique that one finds applied to the entire right-hand wing of the tablet.

The most plausible scenario, to my mind, then, is this: following the inscription  for Fuficius, someone had the structure prepared for an additional inscription to the left of the original one, with the intention to have this inscription surrounded by a frame (whose upper, lower, and left-hand margin had already been prepared). For some reason, however, this was plan was abandoned.

If Joan Gómez Pallarès was right with his claim that the prose inscription originally was in the middle of the monument (and I should like to think that his claim is perfectly valid!), one might wonder, if –

  • either a similar framed pocket had originally existed to the right, mirroring the situation to the left (which had its left wing attached to it already?), to frame the entire inscription in its final design,
  • or, after the intended design did not work out as well as one had hoped, someone tried to ‘salvage’ the newly-cut lines and turned it into a somewhat shoddy tabula ansata.

Whatever the case may be, the space left to the original inscription did get used for a secondary inscription eventually (presumably with the stone presumably still in situ) – namely for that of Aper’s poem. The original outline of a framed inscription was altered into a tabula ansata, somewhat carelessly integrated into the overall layout of the poem.

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

CIL II (ed. alt) 14/3, 1279. – Photo: PK, May 2015 by kind permission of the MNAT Tarragona

Why did the stonecutter not include the entire text into the tabula ansata?

Perhaps – and this is a bit of a long shot – the answer is in the text itself.

The text comprises fifteen hexameter verses (of rather varied levels of technical perfection) that have been laid out over sixteen inscribed lines. The ‘additional’ inscribed line (vis-a-vis the number of metrical lines) is the result of an additional line break introduced in the first verse, putting the first half of the hypermetrical hexameter outside (and above), the second half of the same hexameter inside the tabula.

The first half of the first line reads conditus his tumulis iuvenis iacet, ‘covered by these mounds lies a young man here’.

Could it be the case that Aper’s father, when he encroached on Fuficius’ inscribed monument, he (or at least the stonecutter) aimed to find a solution that would allow for a reading of the text as one that comprised multiple (i. e. at least two) columns, one for Aper, one for Fuficius, etc., using the opening line as an introduction to multiple texts…?

Similarly, the text of lines 13 ff. comprises the more general wish, directed to the wayfarer, to read the inscription that has been carved here, to ensure that the mortal remains buried in the adjacent tumulus will rest peacefully – a wish that one might see extended to more than one burial that took place in the vicinity of the inscription.

In turn, the part of the poem that has been written within the tabula ansata, comprises the most personal part of the poem, expressing the father’s grief for his son, who had died prematurely, upsetting the natural order of things (since a father is supposed to predecease his son).

If this is the case (and I am aware of the great deal of speculation in this), then one might, in fact, be looking at a rather considerate way of encroaching on a pre-existing burial spot – a practice not at all unknown, but commonly frowned upon in the Roman empire (cf. text no. 22 in my paper on Attitudes Towards Wall Inscriptions in the Roman Empire; a freely accessible version with inaccurate pagination can be found here).

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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