Death has been on my mind lately, having recently learnt of the untimely passing of two of my colleagues at the University of Reading.
Whether death was imminent or came suddenly, whether it hits the old or the young – sensations of unpreparedness, abandon, and unfinished business are likely occur, coupled with feelings for those whose lives are changed more dramatically still than one’s own due to someone’s passing away.
Little does it seem to matter that death is inevitable, part of the human experience, part of who we are, and part of how we live our lives. Little does it seem to matter that death is constant part of my own research – not so much because Latin is regarded a dead language, but because funerary poetry is at the heart of my research into the Carmina Latina Epigraphica.
You live. You die. Nobody knows what comes after that (or, in fact, what lies before it). As simple as that.
Or is it?
One could be inclined, of course, simply to accept and to embrace this. The result might look a bit like the sobering conclusion provided by following poem from a tombstone from the city of Rome (CIL VI 22215 cf. p. 3527 = CLE 801):
M(arcus) Marius M(arci) l(ibertus) Sa[- – -]
M(arco) Mario M(arci) l(iberto) Th[- – -]
suo et Mariae M(arci) l(ibertae) Faus[- – -]
Rufo uitai consolata [- – -]
quid sumus aut loquimur uita est quid deniq[ue nostra,]
uel modo nobis cum uixit homo, nunc homo no[n est]:
stat lapis et nomen tantum, uestigia nulla.
quid quasi iam uita est, non ⸢e⸣s⸢t⸣ quod quaerere cu[res].
Marcus Marius Sa…, freedman of Marcus, for his Marcus Marius Th…, freedman of Marcus, and Maria Faus…, freedwoman of Marcus … (to Rufus … life’s … consoled …)
Who we are or what we say that our life is at last
just as a man was living with us just now, and now he is no more:
the stone stands and his name alone; no further traces.
Just what exactly life is – that is nothing you wish to enquire about.
But then there is something deeply unsatisfactory about this – uestigia nulla, ‘no further traces’: was it really all in vain, was it really all without meaning, without consequence? Should we seek to create meaning where there was none before to make our existences bearable and even worthwhile?
Death – and unexpected, untimely death in particular – raises profound questions: questions for which there are no definitive answers.
There are many ways in which one may approach such questions, of course, ranging from despair to scientific investigation.
What we, as humans, appear to be craving most of all, however, in our quest for meaning and guidance, are images and narratives – meaning-laden, yet easily accessible, intuitive reflections of real-life experiences that provide structure and direction to what we cannot (or do refuse to) otherwise fathom.
Such images and narratives are likely to succeed in cases in which they match an obvious, common everyday life experience to some of life’s biggest questions of them all: questions in which discrepancies between ‘academic’, philosophical responses on the one hand and popular wisdom on the other hand are especially noticeable.
A particularly interesting example for this can be seen in the context of the question ‘why do people die before old age?’ – a scenario, in which the sensation of ‘unfinished business’ prevails and in which an unjust, greedy fate receives many a scolding.
A striking verbal image, however, may provide a rather different perspective on matters, as the following poem suggests (CLE 1543; Rome):
Meam amice ne doleas sortem:
sic sunt hominum fata,
sicut in arbore poma
et matura leguntur.
My fate, dear friend, mourn not: I had to die. That’s our human fate, just like on a tree fruits either tumble to the ground before their time has come or get collected when ripe.
There are two ways, the poem suggests, in which fruits – as a metaphor for human fate – will abandon the nourishing tree of life: either they tumble before ripe (immatura cadunt), or they will get collected (whether still on their branches or not) when the right time has come (matura leguntur).
This is usually the point where people say: ‘but that’s a commonplace, something from a textbook for the composition of inscribed funerary verse – it has been discovered in many places across the Roman Empire’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the image is a familiar one. But not only do we not have any credible evidence for the existence of such pattern books: we also have no reason to believe that the surviving instances for the use of this verbal image are interchangeable or even remotely the same.
Images, verbal or otherwise, commonplace or not, are surprisingly adaptable and accommodating – and every single onlooker will focus on what resonates most with their own experience.
Also from the city of Rome, just as the previous example, comes the following inscription (CIL VI 7574 cf. p. 3431 = CLE 1490):
– – – – – –
[- – -]RA[- – -]IA is quo modo
mala in arbore pendunt,
sic corpora nostra
aut matura cadunt aut
cito acerva ruunt.
. . . just in the same way that apples are hanging in a tree, thus our bodies either tumble to the ground when ripe or plummet to the ground quickly, unripe still. Domatius Tiras for his sweetest daughter.
At first glance, this expresses the exact same sentiment, through which a father, Domatius Tiras, apparently tried to console himself over the loss of his daughter. But there are noticeable differences. Not only were the poma (fruits) replaced with the more specific mala (apples); it is no longer a story about human fata, fates, but one about human bodies (corpora). Moreover, it is not about harvest and reaping of fruits (leguntur in the previous inscription), but one of their general falling down, either when ripe (matura) or, all too soon, while still unripe and unpalatable (acerva ~ acerba).
The differences may be deemed small – but they open up an opportunity to expand the fruit-related imagery, as acerba, denoting a form of being unpalatable commonly through bitterness, is a quality that in Latin is very commonly being associated with mors, death: mors acerba is among the most common figures of speeches in Latin funerary inscriptions.
Slightly different still, the image employed in a verse inscription from Cordoba in Spain (CIL II ed. alt./7.567; image here):
[D(is) M(anibus)] s(acrum)
[- – -] an(norum) XVIIII
[- – – h(ic)] s(ita?) e(st) s(it) t(ibi) t(erra) l(evis).
[doleas tu qu]i stas et releges titu-
[lum monu]menti mei qu(a)e XVIII anno
[iam finito] dulcissimae matris meae
[gaudium e]xcidi animo. et noli do-
[lere mate]r: (?) moriendum fuit sic
[ut sunt pom]a sic et corpora nostra
[aut matu]ra cadunt aut nimis
Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.
. . . , 19 years old, lies buried here. May earth rest lightly on you.
May you, who stands here and reads out my memorial’s inscription, feel the pain: having just finished my 18th year, I cut joy out of my sweetest mother’s heart. Do not be in pain, mother: I had to die: as if they are fruits, thus our bodies too either tumble to the ground when ripe or plummet, all too unripe still.
In this case, it is no longer just the similarity of the action (dangling, dropping) that provides the comparison between fruit (or apple) and human body (or human fate), but the human body is now declared to be tantamount to a fruit (sic ut sunt poma), therefore following the same principles of falling down at some point, whether when ripe or before that.
Moriendum fuit, I had to die – an unavoidable necessity, expressed before the image itself is introduced, just as in the following poem from Lucca in Etruria (CIL XI 7024 = CLE 1542):
Achelous et Heorte
tu [hic q]ui [stas atque spectas] monimentum
meum, [aspice quam indign]e sit data
vita m[ihi. quinque] annos
sui[- – – pare]ntes.
sextu[m annum insce]ndens
anim[am deposui mea]m.
nolite no[s dolere, paren]tes: mori-
endum fuit. pro[pe]rav[i]t aeta(s). Fatus
hoc voluit meus. sic quomodo mala
in arbore pendent si(c) corpora nostra
aut matura cadunt aut cit(o) acerba [r]uunt.
te, lapis, optestor leviter super ossa [re]sidas,
ni tenerae aetati tu [ve]lis gravis.
To the Spirits of the Departed of Nymphe. Achelous and Heorte (sc. had this made) for their sweetest daugther.
You, who stand here and look at my memorial, behold how undignified a life was given to me. For five years . . . the parents. As I was approaching the sixth year, I departed from my life. Do not vex yourselves, parents: I had to die. My lifetime was rushed. My fate desired this. Thus, how apples hang in a tree, thus our bodies either tumble to the ground when ripe or, all too quickly, they plummet, unripe still.
I ask you, stone, to rest lightly above my bones, lest you wish to be a heavy burden to a tender age.
The phrasing in the three aforementioned cases contrast cadere (‘tumble to the ground’) and ruere (‘plummet’). Both words denote the fruit’s downward movement from the branch to the ground. What exactly is the distinction? In the Digests, there is an interesting passage that might help to understand (Dig. 39.2.43.pr.6):
non videri sibi ruere, quod aut vento aut omnino aliqua vi extrinsecus admota caderet, sed quod ipsum per se concideret.
An object does not appear to ruere (‘to plummet’) when it drops (cadere, ‘tumble to the ground’) either through the wind or altogether driven by some other external force, but (sc. it does so) when it collapses (concidere) of its own accord.
The distinction, though from a different context, may, in fact, be important: when ripe (matura), fruits will come off easily e. g. by wind; when unripe still (immatura, acerba), there would appear to be some internal cause for the sudden, unexpected drop – quod ipsum per se concideret, as the Digests put it.
This maps on to a passage from Cicero’s treatise Cato Maior on old age, where Cato is represented as saying the following (Cic. Cato mai. 71, transl. W. A. Falconer):
Itaque adulescentes mihi mori sic videntur, ut cum aquae multitudine flammae vis opprimitur, senes autem sic, ut cum sua sponte nulla adhibita vi consumptus ignis exstinguitur; et quasi poma ex arboribus, cruda si sunt, vix evelluntur, si matura et cocta, decidunt, sic vitam adulescentibus vis aufert, senibus maturitas; quae quidem mihi tam iucunda est, ut, quo propius ad mortem accedam, quasi terram videre videar aliquandoque in portum ex longa navigatione esse venturus.
Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples [a judicious translation; the Latin has, in fact, poma, fruits] when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this ‘ripeness’ for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.
Ripeness for consumption, re-conceptualised by Cicero’s Cato as a reassuring thought for old age, is something that inspires little hope in those who think of themselves (or their beloved) as far away from that age still; Cicero’s Cato offers advice to those who are rather closer to old age than those who got commemorated through the aforementioned memorials.
In a way then, those who chose the sentiment and its imagery for those memorials and developed it further, thinking it through, noticing that death does not only come to those who are old, and expanding the image accordingly along the lines suggested by nature herself. There is not just vis, force, alone that may cause unripe fruits to plummet: it may be a quality of the fruits themselves, whether or not determined by fate, that initiates their untimely fall from the nourishing tree.
Thus far, it seemed logical to assume that the tree itself, with its fruit, is a general, unspecific provider of life to everyone alike – whether they die young or old. But it is possible to push the imagery even further still. As early as in the Iliad, the image of the (family) tree has been used – not with reference to the fruit it bears, but with regard to its ever-changing foliage, as an image for the many subsequent generations that make a family’s lineage (Il. 6.144–9; transl. A. T. Murray):
τὸν δ᾽ αὖθ᾽ Ἱππολόχοιο προσηύδα φαίδιμος υἱός:
‘Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ᾽ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ᾽ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ᾽ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ᾽ ἀπολήγει.
Then spake to him the glorious son of Hippolochus: ‘Great-souled son of Tydeus, wherefore inquirest thou of my lineage? Even as are the generations of leaves, such are those also of men. As for the leaves, the wind scattereth some upon the earth, but the forest, as it bourgeons, putteth forth others when the season of spring is come; even so of men one generation springeth up and another passeth away.’
But what if we ourselves were to be the tree in this ever-changing, ever-shifting image . . . ?
The author of the stoic treatise De remediis fortuitorum (‘On remedies against happenstance’), sometimes assigned to the younger Seneca, advises in the case of child-loss without any display of gratuitous kindness (Rem. fort. 13.1–3):
‘Amisi liberos.’ Stultus es, qui defles mortem mortalium. quid istic aut novum aut mirum est? quam rara est sine isto casu domus? Quid, si infelicem voces arborem, quod stante ipsa cadunt poma? et hic tuus fructus est. Nemo extra ictum vulneris positus est: ducuntur ex plebeia domo inmatura funera, ducuntur et ex regia. Non est idem fati ordo, qui et aetatis. non quomodo quisque venit, emittitur. quid hic tamen est, quod indigneris? quid contra exspectationem tuam evenit? periere perituri. ‘sed ego illos superstites optaveram.’ sed hoc nemo tibi promiserat.
‘I lost my children.’ You are stupid, as you weep over the death of mortals. What is new or strange here? How rare is a household without such an incident! What if you were to call a tree ill-omened, as its fruits tumble to the ground while itself still stands? And this is your fruit! No one is above the blow of such a wound: there are premature burials in a plebeian household, and they exist in royal ones as well. Fate does not form the same orderly queue as does age. One does not get to leave in the same way one arrived. What is it anyway that you take offence with? What happened against what you were expecting? Those who were to die … they died. ‘But I had hoped that they would outlive me.’ But no one promised you that!
Harsh words, no doubt – emphasising the supreme rule of order as established by fatum, fate (rather than one established by one’s date of birth). This recurs in a poem from Aix-en-Provence commemorating a physician (CIL XII 533 cf. p. 814 = CLE 465; images here):
Paulo siste gradum, iuvenis
pie, quaeso, viator, ut mea per
titulum noris sic invida fata. uno
minus quam bis denos ego vixi per ann(o)s,
integer innocuus semper pia mente
probatus, qui docili lusu iuvenum
bene doctus harenis pulcher et ille fui
variis circumdatus armis. saepe feras lusi,
medicus tamen is quoque vixi et comes
ursaris, comes his qui victima(m) sacris
caedere saepe solent et qui novo tempore
veris floribus intextis refovent
simulacra deorum. nomen si quaeris
titulus tibi vera fatetur:
Sex(tus) Iul(ius) Felicissimus.
Sex(tus) Iulius Felix
alumno incompara[bili et]
Felicitas f[ec(erunt)]. ||
Tu quicumque legis titulum
qui fuerim, quae vota mihi,
quae gloria disce:
bis denos vixi depletis
[e]t virtute potens et pulcher
[e]t qui praefferrer (!) populi
[q]uit mea damna doles? fati
non vincitur ordo.
[res] hominum sic sunt ut
[citre]a (?) poma:
[aut matur]a cadunt aut
Stall your travels a little, dutiful young man, I ask you, wayfarer, so that you get to know, through my inscription, just how invidious my fate was. I lived for one fewer than twenty years, unharmed, without a fault, always under the guidance of a dutiful mind – I was the beautiful one, well taught in the arena through the skillful game of the young, also clad in varying armour. Often I challenged wild beasts, and yet I led a life as a physician as well, joining the bear-baiters also, and accompanying those who usually to slay the beasts for sacrifices and to those who during the time of a new spring redecorate the statues of the gods with interwoven flowers. If you ask my name, the inscription will reveal it truthfully: Sextus Iulius Felicissimus. Sextus Iulius Felix and Felicitas had this made for their incomparable foster-child.
You, whoever you read this funerary inscription of this deceased, learn who I was, what my fate was, and in what honour I was held: I lived for twenty years, with just a few months short of that, mighty in bravery, beautiful in the flower of my youth, and a favourite in the love of the people and their praise. Why does my loss cause you pains? One cannot overcome the order imposed by fate. Human affairs are just like those golden fruits: either they tumble to the ground when ripe or they get collected before.
What at first glance may seem like yet another manifestation of the same sentiment is, however, its exact inversion: the poem from Rome that was used as a starting point for our considerations, above, put it in the opposite order:
sic sunt hominum fata,
sicut in arbore poma
et matura leguntur.
That’s our human fate, just like on a tree fruits either tumble to the ground before their time has come or get collected when ripe.
There are three possible explanations:
- The (alleged) inversion may be a mere oversight of the scholar who restored the text (one might just as well supply something along the lines of [immatur]a cadunt aut | [iam matura] leguntur, maintaining the established order), or
- the writers had different types of fruit in mind, or
- the writers had different approaches to what a premature death meant in the grander scheme of things: forceful removal from the stem (in the case of the inscription from Rome) vs. careful selection at the time of one’s physical peak (in the case of the inscription from Aix-en-Provence), before, past one’s prime, the only way was down.
The last explanation may well be the most likely one, connecting this text with the well-known principle that those whom the gods love die young.
Verbal imagery, however close it gets to resembling uninspired commonplace thinking, can be surprisingly flexible and accommodating, depending on how far authors are prepared to push their metaphors.
The verbal image that draws on the observation of varied behaviours of fruits on a tree, employed as a means to explain how it is that some people die sooner than others, is no exception to that.
Does it help us to address, or even to overcome, the sensations of unpreparedness, abandon, and unfinished business that emerge when confronted with death (and premature death in particular)? And how much of a difference does it make whether one gets to read about it in the context of a philosophical treatise or adopted as a motto by someone who personally experienced such loss?
You tell me.