Departure, Abandonment, and Grief: Latin Poems about Death in Childbirth

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the poem for a Roman lap-dog named Margarita (‘Pearl’), whose splendid inscription I managed to visit in the British museum.

Epitaph for Margarita. – Photo: PK (2015).

Epitaph for Margarita. – Photo: PK (2015).

The text of the inscription – moving, personal, and affectionate – has been on my mind ever since.

Several weeks ago, I revisited the inscription, when I became increasingly intrigued by the poem’s explicit reference to the absence of violence and cruelty from Margarita’s well-protected, carefree life.

There is more to be explored, however.

An aspect that I had not thought through before, but that I was prompted to consider more recently, is related to the poem’s conclusion: a conclusion that I, clearly lacking empathy and delicacy of feeling, did not find all that remarkable at the time:

sed iam fata subii partu iactata sinistro
quam nunc sub parvo marmore terra tegit.

But I have already met my fate, stricken down during ill-omened whelping – me, whom earth now covers under this little marble plaque.

Death – even death under particularly moving circumstances – is such a ubiquitous feature of the Latin verse inscriptions that it, at times, seems to cause a certain numbness in my brain (in addition to its regular numbness, that is).

From an unfeeling academic perspective, there are two things that are clear about a mother’s death in childbirth: first, it was a significantly more common occurrence in the ancient world than it is now in modern societies; secondly, for all its violently traumatic potential, death in childbirth is a prime recurrent motive of story-telling (ancient and modern) – providing a narrative that functions as a feminine counterpart to the theme of paternal abandonment.

From a caring, humane, and plain human perspective, of course, it is hard to think of a scenario in which the long-awaited joys of young parenthood and the sheer horrors of bereavement and helplessness would be intertwined to an even higher degree.

There are several Latin inscriptions that allow a glimpse into this nightmarish scenario.

An inscription from Salona/Solin in Dalmatia, for example, mentions the pains of what turned out to be a deadly, unsuccessful birth after all (CIL III 2267 cf. p. 2260):

D(is) M(anibus). | Candidae coniugi bene me|renti ann(orum) p(lus) m(inus) XXX qu(a)e me|cum vixit ann(os) p(lus) m(inus) VII | qu(a)e est cruciata ut pari|ret diebus IIII et non pe|perit et est ita vita fu|ncta. Iustus conser(vus) p(osuit).

To the Spirits of the Departed. For Candida, my most deserving wife, aged approximately 30 years, who lived with me for approximately 7 years, who was tortured in her attempt to give birth for 4 days and did not give birth and thus died. Iustus, her fellow slave, erected (sc. this memorial).

Equally heartbreaking is the story recorded in a memorial from Sarnum/Sarno, dedicated to a woman named Orestilla by her husband, who also mentions that he does so against what he had promised the gods in case of their not answering his prayers, contra votum (CIL X 1112 = ILCV 4363):

Felix Orestilla qu(a)e | feliciter Crispino Euodio | nupsit puerperio vix | educta infeliciter obiit. | maritus pientiss(imus) ucsori s(uo) | b(ene) m(erenti) fecit | contra votum.

Fortunate Orestilla [rather than Felix Orestilla], who, under good fortune, was married to Crispinus Euodius, died unfortunately, barely emerged from childbirth. Her most dutiful husband had this made for his well deserving wife, even though his prayers were not answered.

A similar story is known for one Aeturnia Zotica from Ankara, which expressly refers to the concept of maternal abandonment (Galatia; CIL III 272 cf. p. 975 = III 6759 = ILS 1914; image available here):

D(is) M(anibus) (sa)c(rum). | Aeturniae Zotic(a)e | Annius Flavianus | dec(urialis) lictor Fufid(i) | Pollionis leg(ati) Gal(atiae) | coniugi b(ene) m(erenti). vixit | ann(is) XV mens(ibus) V | dieb(us) XVIII. quae | partu primo post | diem XVI relicto | filio decessit.

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed. For Aeturnia Zotica: Annius Flavianus, decurialis lictor of Fufidius Pollio, legate of Galatia, for his well deserving wife. She lived 15 years, 5 months, 18 days. She died 15 days after her first childbirth, with the boy left behind.

While adding a sense of pain, tragedy, and helplessness to their account, the texts of these three inscriptions remain relatively factual, down to the level of the (presumably) factual listing of the number of days that were involved when the incidents unfolded.

There are not only prosaic accounts of such experiences, however: poetic forms of expression have also been sought – offering the advantages of refuge and consolation in artifice and a world in which trauma becomes controllable through narrativisation and the incomprehensible becomes fathomable through a supporting framework of familiar imagery.

Only very rarely poeticising approaches remain as short and factual as the following piece from Salaria/Ubeda la Vieja (Hispania citerior; HEp 4.495 = HEp 5.526 =  AE 1991.1076 = AE 1994.1060):

Gemina D(ecimi) Pu-
blici Subici ser(va) an(norum)
XXV h(ic) s(ita) e(st). obi(i)t in
partu. C(aius) Aerariu[s l(ibertus)]
posuit [ci]ppum. pa-
[rca fuer]as. mihi si qu[a]
inferi sapent vi m[e]
abduceres. si me
amasti fac abd[u]-
cas. s(it) t(ibi) t(erra) l(evis).

Gemina, slave of Decimus Publicius Subicius, aged 25, is buried here. She died in childbirth. Gaius Aerarius, freedman, had this cippus erected. You were thrifty. If the gods of the underworld had any reason towards me, you’d take me away by force. If you loved me, have me taken away. May earth rest light on you.

It feels as though Gemina’s thriftiness was depicted in the wording of the text itself (a form of verbal artistry known from other instances as well), allowing little space for mourning.

This, however, is an exception.

The single most remarkable case (to my mind anyway) is a heavily damaged, but plausibly restored inscription from Salona/Solin in Dalmatia, which expresses the trauma and the pain in all its undiluted force (CIL III 9632 cf. p. 2326 = CLE 1438a-b = CLE 2133a = ILCV 2368 add. = ILJug 3.2420):

[Heu, q]uamquam las[si cunctamur]
sca[lpere versus],
utpote qui [maesto funere con]-
[ficimur] idcircoque [omni luctus renovatur in]
audemus tamen haec e[dere cum]
ex iu[- – -]
– – – – – –
[- – – g]e[n]itam.
[huic placidam requiem tri]buat deus omni-
[pote]ns rex [insontique animae s]it bene post obitum.
[multa tulit nimis adversi]s incommoda rebus
[infelix, misero e]st fine perempta quoq(ue)
[quadraginta a]nnos postquam trans-
[egit in aevo].
[fu]nesto gravis heu triste puerperio
nequivit miserum partu depromere fetu(m)
hausta qui nondum luce peremptus abiit,
adque ita tum geminas g[e]mino cum corpore
laetum (!) ferali [transtu]lit hora an[imas].
at nos maerentes coniux natique
carmen cum lacrim[is] hoc tibi [condidimus].

Woe is us! Even though, exhausted, we hesitate to inscribe these verses (for, as we are moved by this sad funeral, our sadness is thus renewed with every stroke [sc. of the hammer/chisel]!), we still dare to make this public, together with our lamentation … [several words missing here] … daughter.

May God, the all-powerful king, grant her peaceful rest, and may he be well-disposed towards her innocent soul after her death.

Ill-fated, she took many inconveniences in an overly harsh world, and she died a wretched death as well, after she had survived forty years in her life. When she was pregnant, woe is us! the sadness!, in calamitous childbirth she was unable to bring forth, through giving birth, the wretched offspring, who left, dead, before he even managed to see the light, and thus a rushed death in a funereal hour took double souls with a doubled body.

But we, the husband and the children and the son-in-law, give you this poem in mourning, together with our tears.

Embedded in opening and closing lines that refer to the artifice of an inscribed poem, likening the forceful process of stone-carving to inflicting pain on oneself, and divided by a central invocation of God the Almighty, the poem reflects on the daughter’s life (fragmented) and the special circumstances of her death.

The deceased’s suffering throughout her lifetime culminates in an extraordinary death by childbirth. The delivery (puerperium) is described as funestum – hinting death and burial, a grotesque, outrageous oxymoron in conjunction with the process of birth. A similar antithesis is contained in the notion that the offspring died before he even got to see the light of day.

A particular verbal gem is to be seen in the expression geminas g[e]mino cum corporeanimas, two souls and two bodies were snatched away, but while the two souls are clearly separate (in the plural), the body is still perceived as one (in the singular), and thus described as doubled.

A similar idea is expressed in a poem from Tusculum, dating to the first century A. D., driving the idea a little further still (CIL XIV 2737 = CLE 1297):

Rhanidi Sulpiciae l(ibertae)
nata brevi spatio, partu subiecta nec ante
testatur busto tristia fata Rhan<i>s.
namque bis octonos nondum compleverat annos
et rapta est vitae, rapta puerperio.
p<ar>entis tumulus duo funera corpore in uno,
exequias geminas nunc cinis unus habet. ||

Sulpicia Trionis l(iberta)

For Rhanis, freedwoman of Sulpicia, our delight.

Born only a short while ago, not accustomed to birth before, Rhanis bears witness to a sad fate on her pyre. For she had not yet completed sixteen years and was snatched away from her life, snatched away in childbirth.

This parent’s tomb contains two burials in a single body, one pile of ashes the remains of two.

Sulpicia Rhanis, freedwoman of (Sulpicia) Trio.

Who is to blame?

Just like its Tusculan counterpart, the poem from Salona/Solin doesn’t seem to ask that question. Life was harsh on the deceased, and she was ill-fated (infelix) – an attitude reflected in an inscription from Satafis/Ain el Kebira in the province of Mauretania Caesariensis (CIL VIII 20288 = CLE 1834 = ILCV 3436):

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
v(ixit) a(nnos) XXV.
causa meae mortis partus fatu[mque malignum].
set tu desine flere mihi kariss[ime coniux]
[et] fil(ii) nostri serva com[munis amorem].
[- – – ad caeli] transivit spi[ritus astra]
[- – -] maritae [- – -].

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

Rusticeia Matrona [or: the matron] lived 25 years.

The cause of my death were childbirth and spiteful fate. But you stop crying for me, my most beloved husband and pay heed to the love of our mutual son. My soul has gone to the stars in heaven [what follows cannot be translated/interpreted; all that remains visible is the word ‘wife’].

Those who were left behind in the inscription from Salona/Solin conceive themselves as having a hard time coming to terms with the incident: memory is painful, and the act of remembering re-opens wounds that are barely healing: the gift of the poem is coupled with the survivors’ mournful tears – perhaps hoping to find a means to contain and compartmentalise their pain in the future, after this act of duty and remembrance has been fulfilled.

Similar expressions of pain can be found in a poem that was discovered in the city of Rome, which, however, is rather less concerned with any attempts to reflect on the duality of life and death as well as on the tragic irony of finding the two juxtaposed: instead, it seeks refuge in art for art’s sake, as the poem itself eventually points out (CIL VI 28753 cf. p. 3536 = CLE 108 cf. p. 854; image available here):

Veturia Grata. ||

Vel nunc morando resta, qui perges iter,
Etiam dolentis casus adversos lege:
Trebius Basileus coniunx quae scripsi dolens,
Vt scire possis infra scripta pectoris.
Rerum bonarum (!) fuit haec ornata suis,
Innocua simplex quae numquam serbabit dolum,
Annos quae vixit XXI et mensibus VII
Genuitque ex me tres natos quos reliquit parbulos,
Repleta quartum utero mense octavo obit.
Attonitus capita nunc versorum inspice,
Titulum merentis oro perlegas libens:
Agnosces nomen coniugis Gratae meae.

Veturia Grata

Perhaps take a break now and rest, as you are about to make your journey, and read of the adverse turns of fate of someone who is in pain: I, Trebius Basileus have written this, in pain, so that you may learn the writings, below, straight from my heart.

She was decorated with her gifts of goodness, innocent, uncomplicated, who never  planned deceit: she lived 21 years and 7 months and she gave birth to three little children of mine, which she left behind: she died, her uterus filled again, for the forth time, in the eighth month.

Thunderstruck now behold the beginnings of the lines, read willingly, I request, the inscription of someone who deserves it: you will learn the name of my dear wife [or, due to wordplay with the etymology of the name: my wife Grata].

Maternal death did not necessarily mean death of the child as well, as the following third-century inscription from Alba Fucens in Samnium shows (CIL IX 3968 = CLE 498):

D(is) M(anibus) [s(acrum)].
Aediae [- – -].
Haec tenet exanimam [tellus natalis, in urbe]
quae nupsit Roma, morbi [sed fraudibus atri]
post annos ueniens uisum La[ris arua paterni]
incidit infelixs pregnax, sa[luamque puellam]
enixa est misera acerbaq[ue decidit ipsa]
lugentesque suos miseros [cum prole reliquit]
et tulit Elysium uiginti e[t quattuor annis].
Eutyches et Hi[- – -].

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

To Aedia …

This land, the land of birth, holds a deceased woman, who got married in the city of Rome, but, cheated by a dark illness, as she visited after years the realm of her paternal household, she died, ill-fated, pregnant:  she, wretched, gave birth to a healthy girl, and bitterly she fell down dead, leaving her family, together with her offspring, in mourning, and she moved into the underworld aged twenty-four.

Eutyches and Hi…

Blaming the deceit of a ‘dark illness’ (morbus ater),  Aedia’s relatives offer the narrative of a woman torn between her native land (Alba Fucens) and the city of Rome, where she married, letting her return to her homeland coincide with her death in high pregnancy – yet the child, a girl, could be saved and was healthy.

The proximity of exanimam (‘deceased woman’) and tellus natalis (‘land of birth’ – incidentally not just for Aedia, but also for her daughter!), if restored correctly, in the first line is rather striking.

The concept of maternal abandonment (again: if the text has been restored correctly!) features prominently, mixing expressions of pity (infelixs, ‘ill-fated’, misera, ‘wretched’) with imagery of deceit and bitterness (fraudibus, ‘cheated’, acerba, ‘bitterly’).

The most poignant expression of despair over maternal abandoment, however, can be found in an inscription from Carthage, commemorating Daphnis, a slave-girl who is presented as interfering with her master’s plans regarding her life on multiple levels (CIL VIII 24734 = CLE 2115 = ILTun 987; image available here):

Daphnis ego Hermetis coniunx sum libera facta;
cum dominus vellet primu(m) Hermes liber ut esset,
fato ego facta prior, fato ego rapta prior.
quae tuli quod gemui, gemitus viro saepe reliqui,
quae domino invito vitam dedi proxime nato.
nunc quis alet natum? quis vitae longa ministrat?
me Styga quod rapuit tam cito eni(m) a(d?) superos.
pia vixit annis XXV. h(ic) s(ita) e(st).

I, Daphnis, Hermes’ wife, was freed. While my master wanted to free Hermes first, I was made free before, by fate, I was snatched away before, by fate. By embracing what I mourned, I left my husband with frequent mourning, as I just very recently gave life to a son, against the wish of my master. Who will now feed the son? Who will cater for him for the duration of his life? For death snatched me so quickly to the heavenly gods.

She lived dutifully for 25 years. She is buried here.

The sense of realism behind this inscription – praising the deceased as dutiful (pia), yet demanding an answer to the question of who is supposed to take care of the boy whom the master did not want – may seem brutal. Then again, to the present day employers seem to have a keen interest in the question as to whether their employees intend to become parents, focusing on the economic cost (to them!) of the miracle of life and the need for childcare.

Margarita’s owners do not seem to have thought that way, which may suggest that the puppy (or puppies) did not survive either.

The main difference between the dog’s epitaph and all other texts that were presented here is, however, that Margarita’s owners were the only ones who, despite their loss, felt as though they could focus on the delightful time they got to spend with their canine companion – a facet conspicuously absent from all the poems presented here written for women, who tragically lost their lives in childbirth.

How come?

Turns out, Margarita, for all that humanising language used in her epitaph, was ‘just a dog’ after all.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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4 Responses to Departure, Abandonment, and Grief: Latin Poems about Death in Childbirth

  1. Pingback: More Than Meets the Eye: Fragrance, Sensuousness, and Inscribed Latin Poetry | The Petrified Muse

  2. Hi. I came across this blog by accident, and have been happily frittering away my Sunday morning and afternoon reading through various interesting inscriptions you’ve posted. Thanks for the efforts you put into the blog.

    I’d offer a different interpretation for the Daphnis inscription. You suggest that the slave owner is being portrayed in a negative light, but I think this unlikely for the following reasons:

    1) To speak ill of one’s owner/patron would have been considered “impious”.
    2) It’s hard to see how Hermes could have been in a position to put up an inscription that reflected badly on his owner even if he wanted to. Apart from anything else, that sounds like a bad idea from his own utilitarian point of view.
    3) The owner is shown to be well-disposed toward the couple since he does want to free them, and in any event, the pseudo-marriage (having no legal basis) must have been allowed by him.

    I think it best to start with the manumission itself. The owner is said to have wanted to free the “husband” first, but the wife both died first and was freed first. The easiest explanation for this is that the owner had previously made his ultimate desire to free the couple clear, with the man getting his freedom first (and not by testamentary manumission, since in that case they would have been freed simultaneously). Perhaps he was older and so was to get his reward first, or perhaps it was a hierarchical thing. In any event, it’s clear that the “premature” freedom for Daphnis was the result of her dying via child birth (either during the birth itself or as a result of post-partum fever). The owner freed her on her death bed, so under the circumstances, it seems hard to imagine that he is being portrayed as acting in a negative way.

    I think a different interpretation of “domino invito” solves the problem. You take it to mean that the birth was against his will. In the first place, this seems unlikely on the surface. If (as is clearly the case) he was well-disposed toward the couple, then why should he begrudge them a child? After all, having children was the entire purpose of marriage as the Romans conceived of it. In any event, since they were both his slaves, the child would be his own property (even if he wouldn’t let them have it). In any case, this doesn’t matter, becasue the clause in which “domino invito” appears doesn’t say “she gave birth” but “she gave her life”, so that what the master objected to was not her having a child but her dying becasuse of it. Note the play on words by having “invito” and “vitam” sit side-by-side. It’s her death that he opposes.

    So I’d say that the inscription shows a rather different sort of relationship. The owner has a pair of favored slaves whom he allows to act as spouses, and he’s told them that he intends to free them both in the future, the man first. But when the wife contracts a fatal illness because of childbirth, he frees her on her death bed. While all was undoubtedly not a bed of roses in Roman slavery (and there must have been some reason why the owner didn’t free them right away), this inscription indicates, it seems to me, a much more “human” side to the institution.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to read through my humble musings – and for your comment.

    The passage you comment on has intrigued me as well, and, reading it again, I’m sure you’re right: the dominus is (at first) complaining about Daphnis’ death (rather than her giving birth). That said, however, it is indeed the economic aspect of the upbringing of the child (‘Who will now feed the son? Who will cater for him for the duration of his life?’) that the owner continues to lament – the child is now a liability rather than a desired outcome of marriage. Or am I missing something else here?

    Again, thank you so much for your comment and your time – I really appreciate it!


  4. Yes, there is that. For the first question, it has to do with the immediate issue of a wet nurse for the motherless infant. Upper-class women regularly used wet nurses (see Favorinus’s famous rant against the practice in NA 12.1; Pliny the Younger’s mother had employed one for him: Ep. 6.3), but it seems hard to imagine that people of moderate means had ready access to it. Presumably, Daphnis is being portrayed as worrying about who will carry out the maternal job that she herself would normally have done if she hadn’t died. Perhaps the *familia* in question was a small one, like the that of M. Junius Euphrosynus (the man in CIL 6.20905 whose freedwoman wife absconded with their two slaves when she ran off with her lover) and didn’t have the resources for the employment of a wet nurse.

    As for the second question, it may depend on what exactly is meant by the somewhat obscure phrase “vitae longa ministrat”. Under the circumstances, since the father Hermes at the very least is around to look after his own child, it occurs to me that maybe what is meant is a variant on the question of the wet nurse. That is, in death the mother is portrayed as wondering pathetically about who will carry out the functions that she herself would have done while raising the child. That is, I don’t think it’s really a question of her thinking that the child will be entirely left to its own devices but that there isn’t another female readily available to act as a surrogate mother (and we all know how much the Romans had a social prejudice against stepmothers).

    Basically, since the poem is meant to concentrate on the loss of the wife/mother, it focuses on the maternal contributions that she now can’t make for the family. It would sort of undercut the sentiment for her to say, “Oh, well, you’ll muddle through somehow.” But presumably they did (or at least tried to). One always has to bear in mind that the words are put in her mouth by the survivors (I would guess the dominus, but maybe this is Hermes’s doing). One might usefully compare the words attributed to Cornelia under similar circumstances in Propertius 4.11.

    But of course one of the pleasures of reading texts is that we can all make of them what we ourselves wish to!


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