Interpreting the Interpreter’s Poem

Some time ago, I published a little piece about the idea that the etymology of a name should reveal something about the character of a person – nomen est omen – as reflected in the Latin inscriptions.

One piece that I did not include at the time – whether to keep it short or to disguise my lack of understanding I am not so sure – keeps resurfacing in my current research, so it is time to share it, as a little exercise in being intrigued.

There is a (highly fragmentary, early Christian) inscription from Carthage, dating to the fifth century A. D. or slightly later still, which (with its numerous restitutions) appears to have read  as follows (CIL VIII 13535 = CLE 1417 = ILCV 780 = ILTun 925):

Rure o[pulens caru]sq(ue) suis Callistrat[us ipse]
[in]terpres [voluit] nominis [es]se sui.
qu[i li]cet et [cen]su dives mansis[s]et et a[uro]
invid[iae n]umqua[m fer]vida <t>ela t[ulit].
fortunatus o[li]m u[ni non] sibi vixit, ami[cis]
[au]xit congest[o p]redia rure no[vo].
[i]n pace v[ix]it ann(o)s [- – -], [de]positus III K(a)l(en)d(a)s Apri[les].

Rich in land and dear to his family, Callistratus wanted to be the interpres of his name himself.

Yes, he would always have remained rich in terms of property and gold; but he never reached for those violent weapons of envy.

He did not just live a blessed life for himself: he created the country estates for his friends by adding new soil.

He lived in peace for . . . years, and he was buried on the 30th of March.

Unlike many other inscriptions, in which the etymology of a name is merely alluded to, Callistratus makes the meaning of his name his prime concern: he wishes to be its interpres – its interpreter, its mediator, its facilitator. (Did you know that there’s a fabulous project on language intermediaries? Check out the work of my Reading colleague Rachel Mairs and her collaborator Maya Muratov on the Hermeneis blog!)

Etymologically, there is little to achieve in the interpretation of the name Callistratus – it is a compound made up of two constituents, κάλος (‘good, beautiful’) and στρατός (‘army’), meaning something like ‘good warrior’.

What is there to interpret, mediate, facilitate?

Callistratus, self-disclosed rich landowner in late (or post) antique North Africa, clearly saw room for potential. But where?

Was it, like the editors of the excellent volume Vie, mort et poésie dans l’Afrique romaine thought, just the equivalent of bona militia as in ‘bonne gestion’, decent management (at a significant stretch of the meaning of militia, one must add)?

A look at the poem’s structure and its way of story-telling may be helpful.

Disregarding its prosaic final line, the inscribed text consists of three elegiac couplets:

  • 1-2. The first of these couplets introduces Callistratus as the poem’s subject and the interpres of his own name.
  • 3-4. The second couplet asserts Callistratus’ significant wealth and points out that the tela (‘missiles’), those weapons of war, were alien to him – certainly with regard to envy.
  • 5-6. The third and concluding couplet represents the honorand as someone who generously shared his wealth for the benefit of his friends (in the Roman sense of the word), putting them in an economically more advantageous position.

It thus seems reasonable to assume that the ‘re-interpretation’ of his name is something that Callistratus hoped to achieve between lines 3-4 on the one hand and lines 5-6 on the other.

The middle distich makes explicit reference to weaponry (the invidiae … fervida tela, which Callistratus refused to take): the kind of (literal) warrior that Callistratus did not wish to be.

Instead, Callistratus expresses an explicit desire to share his wealth – and he claims to have undertaken measures to ensure that this could happen, improving his friends’ farmland through the provision of fresh, fertile soil.

It is noteworthy that this resembles a dichotomy that the poet had already introduced in the first line – rure opulens (‘rich in land ) and carus suis (‘dear to his family’)

Could it be therefore that Callistratus was hoping to present himself as a warrior for the good cause (as opposed to ‘merely’ being a good warrior) . . . ?

[The thought crossed my mind to take interpres in the meaning of ‘translator’ and to consider if Callistratus meant to derive the second half of his name from Latin sternere etc. (‘to scatter’, incidentally a term that is etymologically related to Greek stratos), referring to his earthworks. This, however, would seem both extraordinary per se and very far-fetched. But I thought I’d mention it nonetheless, however absurd it may seem.]

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Callistratus is presented as referring to the battle-related part of his name’s etymology in the middle distich – rejecting this approach for himself.

Just where the poet of this epitaph subsequently intended to go with this, remains somewhat of a mystery.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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