Until I moved to Britain, just over ten years ago, 11 November exclusively marked one thing for me: the beginning of the carnival season. In the United Kingdom, however, as well as in many other states, 11 November marks an altogether different occasion – it is Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.
A difficult day for a German citizen in Britain – even seventy years after WW II.
For me, this day is about remembering those who fought in battles and wars, led (or mis-led) by their betters, in the hope of achieving the best for their respective fatherlands – as well as to distinguish themselves; remembering those who got injured, those who suffered, those who died; remembering the horrendous cost of human life during the atrocities of war.
A day devoted to the human side of war. A day to be mindful of those who are engaged in armed conflict now (as well as their relatives!), and a day to show respect to those who did and who have paid a huge price for it.
A day and an aspect of human life we need not glorify or romanticise or promote, but must acknowledge and include in our thoughts if we would like this world to become a better place – not just a day when everyone must wear a poppy and bow down lower than Jeremy Corbyn did.
The human side and cost of war and military service is something one does not hear a lot about when it comes to the Roman army – one can tell from the levels of amazement surrounding the mostly trivial messages that survived in the Vindolanda writing tablets, showing that Roman soldiers and their relatives were just as bored, cold, and hungry as one would have expected of them in an outpost at the north-westernmost frontier.
Rome and her great literary writers were better at celebrating and showcasing their military endeavours in broad strokes.
But occasionally, very rarely, we get to listen to voices that tell us of the other side of things – voices like that of the following inscribed poem that was discovered in the city of Rome and that commemorates one Ulpius Quintianus (CIL VI 32808 cf. p. 3385 = CLE 474):
Respice praeteriens, uiator, consobrini
pietate parata: cum lacrimis statui, quan-
to in munere posto uidetis. Pannonia terra
creat, tumulat Italia tellus ann(is) XXVI. ut sibi
castris honorem atquireret ipse, dolori ma[g]-
no substentauit tempore longo. postea cum
sperans dolorem effugisse nefandam, ante
diem meritum hunc demersit at Styga Pluton.
quotsi fata eo sinuissent luce uidere,
ista prius triste munus posui<sset> dolori repletus,
munus inane quidem. terra nunc diuidit ista
ossua sub titulo potius. tu opta, uiator, cum pie-
tate tua ipso terra leue, nobis fortuna beata,
ex qua tu possis obitus bene linquere natos.
Val(erius) Antoninus et Aur(elius) Victorinus hered(es)
Vlpio Quintiano eq(uiti) sing(ulari) ben(e) mer(enti) posuer(unt).
Behold as you pass by, traveller, the offerings made by a cousin’s dutifulness.
Under tears I erected what you see placed here as an offering.
Pannonian land begot, Italian land buries him at the age of 26. To acquire for himself by his own efforts the honour of having served the army, he endured great pain over a long time. Later, when he hoped to have escaped that unspeakable pain, Pluto plunged him into the underworld before his time was up.
Had the Fates allowed him to see the light, he himself, filled with pain, would have preceded me in the duty – an unrewarding duty, too! – to erect such [a memorial]. Now this soil spreads out his bones instead.
You, traveller, wish him, in your dutifulness, earth that rests lightly on him, (wish) us a blessed fate, so that you may safely relinquish your offspring after you died yourself.
Valerius Antoninus and Aurelius Victorinus, the heirs, had this set up for Ulpius Quintianus, Imperial Horseguard, who deserved it well.
From Pannonia (i. e. the area of modern-day Hungary) originally, Ulpius Quintianus – so his cousin tells us – tried to distinguish himself, seeking the honour of having served the army (ut sibi | castris honorem atquireret ipse).
One way of looking at this piece and its sculpture of an armed horseman, crushing the bodies of his defeated enemies with a ferociously barking dog to accompany him, would be simply to acknowledge and he was successful, too, having become a member of the equites singulares, the imperial horseguards. (Pannonians and Dacians were made members of this prestigious unit from the time of Septimius Severus, and soldiers who joined this unit, typically signing up for 25 years, were given Roman citizenship straight away.)
But in his striving for honour, according to the stone, Quintianus’ service in the Roman army mostly meant one thing for him: major pain, magnus dolor, endured for a long time (tempore longo) – and, in fact, unspeakable pain (dolor nefandus). While the stone does not tell us what had happened or what had caused the pain, it seems to be clear that Quintianus eventually resigned his service (postea … effugisse), in the hope that things would improve.
He hoped in vain, as he died shortly thereafter, far away from home, with his cousin as his closest family member around who would erect this stone in Quintianus’ honour.
Military service, pain, separation from one’s loved ones, and premature death – things we choose to remember on 11 November.
They were not alien to Rome’s armed forces – armed forces that are rather better known for their inflicting suffering and pain on countless peoples around the Mediterranean and beyond for centuries.
The true(r) picture is just very hard to spot indeed behind the layers of imperial propaganda and the deeply romanticising accounts of Rome’s imperial historians and inscriptions: they typically focus on the glorious generals and their outstanding centurions rather than those men who actually fought the battles for them, having joined the army for reasons romantic, honourable, or even entirely selfish – distinction, honour, glory, and citizenship.
In a world in which armed conflicts are increasingly taking the shape of an extended sick computer game, it is indeed important to remember that the first rule of war is that people get injured and die, and that pain, suffering, and death do not distinguish between right and wrong, justified and unjustified.
Our narratives may romanticise war and create dreams of honour, distinction, but reality will always remain brutal, painful, and best captured in casualty statistics: the very dichotomy that is at the heart of Quintianus’ epitaph as well as the very contradiction that is at the heart of our nations’ luring young people into military service and then leaving them and their families without necessary means and support.
And while we are in the remembering business: let us not forget all the innocent bystanders of war – civilian victims, people who get injured and/or lose everything, refugees, widows and widowers, orphans . . .
They all are part of the human cost of war, and they all are worthy of our commemoration.