As the current debate over refugees, migrants, EU-wide quotas, and immigration-vs-national identity strikes increasingly bizarre, shrill, and discordant notes, I recently had the pleasure to contemplate in somewhat greater depth a remarkable funerary inscription from Aquileia in north-east Italy:
The inscription’s text, engraved on a medium-sized marble panel (66 x 47 cm) that would appear to date to the fifth century A. D., a text that shows several dactylic runs without ever altogether amounting to a poem written in hexameters, reads as follows (CIL V 1703 = CLE 1878 adn. = CLE 2199 = ILCV 4813a):
Hic iacet Restutus peleger in pace fidelis.
ex Africa venit ut istam urbe(m) videret.
hec invisa tellus istum voluit corpus habe-
re. hic quo natus fuerat optans erat illo
reverti. id magis crudelius ut nullum suo-
rumque videret. invenerat satis amplius
quam suos ipse parentes. nec iam erat exter, si-
cut provenit ut esset ab ipsis. sed quo fata vocant
nullus resistere possit. huic sodalicium Floren-
sium contra votum fecerunt.
Here lies, faithful in peace, Restutus, a foreigner.
He came from Africa, so as to visit that city. This spiteful soil desired to hold on to him as a corpse. He held the desire to return there from where he hailed. The situation was made a lot worse still by the fact that he did not get to see any of his family members again. Yet he had got to meet rather more still than his parents (sc. here): no longer was he an alien, but he was to live as if he was an offspring of ourselves. Yet, no one may resist (sc. going) where fate is calling.
For him the sodalicium Florensium had this made, against their vow.
The inscription honours one Restutus who is described as peleger, which has been (sufficiently credibly) explained as a variant of Classical peregrinus (cf. Ital. ‘pellegrino’, Engl. ‘pilgrim’) – suggesting that he was a foreigner of sorts at least to this part of the Roman Empire (without necessarily implying any specific legal status to the man or even suggesting that he was not a Roman citizen: in fact, the name that he is given in this inscription, Restutus, is perfectly Roman and reasonably well attested).
In addition to that, the opening line also suggests that Restutus was of Christian faith – the phrase in pace fidelis is an unambiguous giveaway for that.
Restutus’ origin was in Africa – not very specific information, of course, though one must wonder if this refers to the province of Africa proconsularis more specifically, where the name Restutus is well attested otherwise as well.
Why did he come to Aquileia? The inscription is not altogether clear about that – all it says is that he desired to see ista urbs, ‘that city’: was that city Aquileia? Or Rome, in fact? (And if the latter, why would he take such a detour from Africa, going via Aquileia? Was this part of his pilgrimage?)
The word used for the pilgrimage-related context of Restutus’ travel is videre, ‘to visit’ – a paradigm that is immediately picked up in the next sentence in the term invisus, literally ‘un-seen’, denoting something that conveys an evil, spiteful gaze: the tellus, the soil of Aquileia, that had its own plans for Restutus – to hang on to him forever … as a corpse (assuming that istum is, in fact, a reference to Restutus, and not an alternative form for istud, which would give a slightly different nuance to the text: ‘to hold on to that body’).
Restutus appears to have dwelled in Aquileia for an extended period of time – a period of time, however, during which he never gave up hope of returning home. The intensity of his desire to return is expressed in the phrase optans erat, ‘he held the desire’, as in ‘he was wishing (all the time)’ – heightening the immediacy of the phrase vis-a-vis the more common way of expressing an action that went on for a longer period of time in Latin: optabat.
Quite apart from Restutus’ inability to return home, what appears to have tormented him in particular (note the hyper-characterisation of his pains in the double comparative magis crudelius!) was the physical separation from his family (expressed in an ut-clause rather than a Classically elegant accusative-cum-infinitive: times for prescriptive grammar rules are a-changin’!).
But what was magis crudelius, more crueller (if you will), was also a blessing in a way (or so the inscription wishes to make us believe): for Restutus found satis amplius (‘sufficiently more’, quite literally – another hyper-characterisation) in terms of a replacement at Aquileia for what he had been forced to leave behind in Africa: his parents!
No longer was he regarded an outsider, an alien: nec iam erat exter – he was treated as if he was an offspring of the community where he was grounded against his plans, as the rather convoluted phrase sicut provenit ut esset ab ipsis, barely rendered as ‘he was to live as if he was an offspring of ourselves’ is trying to explain to its readership.
But no one can escape death – and so the (otherwise unknown) sodalicium Florensium (which could be anything from a burial society to a religious community of some sort) decided to do the decent thing, much against what they had hoped to do: they organised his burial and gave him this monument contra votum (‘against their vow’, a phrase that is a not altogether uncommon expression in contexts in which friends rather than family members took care of a burial).
One may easily overlook this text as one of hundreds of thousands of Latin inscriptions – as one of thousands of poetic and poeticising Latin poems on tombstones.
Doing so, however, means overlooking a text that, more so than most other ancient Latin texts, captures perfectly the worries of staggering numbers of displaced people (back then just as much as nowadays): the fear of dying far away from one’s home, without any hope of seeing one’s native soil and one’s family again; the fear of permanently remaining an alien, without a domicile, without a network of friends, without being part of a community.
The sodalicium Florensium, whoever they were, claim to have made a difference in the life of Restutus – and they have made a difference beyond the time of his life, in the commemoration of his death.
They gave him dignity in a foreign place, and they claim to have given him the same support, and more, that he could have expected from his own parents, so that he no longer had to feel like an alien – he had become one of them (and still he always desired to go home!).
What a beautiful statement to make, and what a beautiful way to be commemorated.
Will our own communities be able to write similarly touching, unquestioningly welcoming statements on the tombstones of those foreigners who die far away from their home and family?