This year’s August is a strange month for me.
On the one hand, this August is the final month of my British Academy Fellowship, which has allowed me to work on my project ‘Poetry of the People’, focusing on the Latin verse inscriptions and subject of many a blog post over the last twelve months. Nearly there now, but no time for complacency: who knows when I will ever be able again to spend so much continuous time on a single research project!
On the other hand, this year’s August is also the main month of summer holidays for my son – a period during which I try to spend as much time with him as possible (or at least next to him, as he’s busy doing things on his computer that, as he continues to assure me, I would not understand anyway).
And then there are a couple of other obligations for me – in particular, correcting the page proofs for my forthcoming book on the Latin inscriptions of Reading, which will be out next month, beautifully produced by Reading’s exquisite Two Rivers Press.Hiding in the hinterland of my native Berlin – by one of those many wonderful, deep, clean, and extremely bathe-able lakes that are characteristic of the landscape of Berlin and Brandenburg – I am currently trying to combine those aforementioned strands of my life.
As I enjoy my time here, between work and leisure, I am trying to persuade myself that it is perfectly acceptable to merge otium and negotium in this way, seeking sanity in the countryside and frequent dips in the lake, as temperatures have been approaching 40º Celsius.
Reassurance is provided, as it is so often, by the infinite collective wisdom of the Latin verse inscriptions themselves – on this occasion by an early Christian piece, consisting of one dozen (partly damaged) elegiac couplets, from the city of Rome (ICVR I 1485 = ILCV 1901):
Balnea, quae fragilis suspendunt corporis aestum
et reparant vires, quas labor afficerit,
quae constricta gelu validis aut solibus usta
admixto latici membra [- – -] levant,
[ut]amur causa propri[ae suadente] salutis. 5
[at cave ne mala mors sit me]dicina homini!
lubrica ne sensus rapiat turpetque boluptas,
effera ne mentem luxuries stimulet,
ebria neu vino dapibus neu viscera crud[a]
dissol[v]at fluxo corde lab[ante liquor], 10
sobria sed casto foveant [tibi membra labacro]
et quaesi[ta salus sit sine damno animae]. ||
Haec [tibi, si quis amor vitae] te tangit h[onestae],
[quicumque es homi]num, dicta fuisse [putes]!
[tu tam]en ista magis cautus servare me[mento], 15
grex sacrate d(e)o corpore men[te fide],
cui bellum cum carne subest, quae et vic[ta resurgit],
quam cohibere iubat, si refobere p[aras].
clau[- – – s]aluti [- – -]
vulnere [ne doleas – – -], quod medeare iterum. 20
[- – – in]veni bene parta remedia carn[is].
[- – – – – -]
[non] nostris nocet officiis nec culpa labacri
quod sibimet generat: lubrica vita malum est.
1–6. Baths that remove the heat of the fragile body and rejuvenate strengths weakened by one’s toil, baths that bring ease to one’s limbs when they have become rigid from frost or burnt from the sun’s powerful heat if there’s (text damaged – balm?) added to the liquid – let us use those in the interest of our health! But beware, lest what is meant to cure humankind becomes its ill-omened downfall.
7–12. Don’t let slippery lust take away and defile our senses, don’t let unrestrained luxury stir up the mind, and don’t let the water loosen your intestines, whether they are intoxicated from wine or full of food, as the fluctuating heart begins to slip: instead, let sober limbs enjoy a bath of self-restraint, and let the health you seek be without harm to your soul.
13–18. Consider this said for your benefit, you, whomever the love for an honest life has touched, whoever you are among men! You in turn, flock, sacred to god in body, mind, and faith, remember to follow this advice with even greater care, as you continually lead a war against your flesh, which will rise again even after it was defeated, which you must contain even when you prepare to refresh.
19–24. (text partly damaged) . . . lest you suffer from a wound, which you need to heal again. . . . I discovered a remedy well designed for the flesh . . . The bath does not cause harm to our duties, and the bath is not to blame for what it spawns: slippery life is the true evil.
Almost a Christian counterpart to the pagan motto balnea vina Venus | corrumpunt corpora | nostra set vitam faciunt | b(alnea) v(ina) V(enus) (‘baths, wines, and sex are our bodies’ downfall: but then that is what life is all about: baths, wines, and sex’; CIL VI 15258 cf. p. 3517, 3913 = CLE 1499 = ILS 8157 = AE 2010.238), this inscription from Rome’s church San Martino ai Monti preaches moderation – both to those of the Christian faith, but also to anyone who has discovered a ‘love for an honest life’ (amor vitae … honestae, line 13) for themselves.
Where balnea vina Venus (‘baths, wines, and sex’) hold the potential to cause pro|perantia fata (‘fate rushing along’, CIL III 12274c = CLE 1923), the poet of the Christian epigram (masterfully discussed by Stephan Busch in his work on poetry about baths and bathing in the Roman Empire) suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong about enjoying the physical pleasures of balnea, baths, as long as moderation is kept. (Unsurprisingly, he is less clear about vina and Venus – though he does seem to suggest that getting into the water drunk, or after a recent meal, is a sure-fire recipe for a heart attack.)
Baths don’t spoil humans – humans do (as the National Trifle Association has long since argued), and only where they succumb to the temptations of the flesh, defeated in that eternal struggle, there is a danger to enter the slippery slope . . . or so the poet claims.
And with the inscription’s blessing, I shall continue my work-and-bathing-and-son-chasing routine (at least as long as this summery weather lasts) . . .