Hello Stranger, or: Pompeian Greetings from Beyond the Grave!

The Roman town of Pompeii has provided us with many a remarkable piece of evidence for virtually all aspects of Roman life and civilisation. Yet there are a number of things which are conspicuously lacking (and not for all of them is there an obvious reason for their absence).

Today, I will take one item off that list (well, my list, anyway), though not necessarily in the way I expected it to happen.

Followers of my blog will know that, among my various hobbies, inscribed Latin poems – poetry on tombstones and the like – rule supreme.

Even though extensive cemeteries outside the city gates of Pompeii have been excavated, documented, and studied (see here for a recent, excellent comprehensive study), not a single monumental funerary poem has emerged from the graveyards of Pompeii thus far.

The closest one gets to a monumental poetic text from Pompeii’s cemeteries is a stunning, intriguing curse from a tomb at the Via delle Tombe outside the Porta Nocera (near the amphitheatre; AE 1960.64). The text is not a poem stricto sensu, even though it contains phrases that are certainly reminiscent of inscribed Latin verse:

Hospes paullisper morare | si non est molestum et quid euites | cognosce. amicum hunc quem | speraueram, mi esse ab eo mihi accusato|res subiecti et iudicia instaurata. deis | gratias ago et meae innocentiae, omni | molestia liberatus sum. qui nostrum mentitur | eum nec Di Penates nec inferi recipiant.

Visitor, sojourn a little, if it is no bother, and learn what to avoid: this friend, whom I had hoped to be my friend – by him were accusers brought forth and legal proceedings initiated against me. I thank the gods and my innocence, I was freed from all bother. He who lies about us: may he never be welcomed by the household gods and the gods of the underworld.

I have talked about this piece a couple of times before (see here and here). While it is a most astonishing document indeed for all sorts of reasons, I was never particularly intrigued by the way it interacted with the audience.

This may have been a mistake, for two reasons.

First, what occurred to me the last time I saw this inscription (on occasion of a summer course on which I had the good fortune and absolute pleasure to teach for the École Francaise de Rome) was just how peculiar its opening really is.

To be sure: Roman tombstones address the wayfarer (uiator) or stranger/visitor (hospes) all the time, and there is nothing unusual about it here. Unless, of course, one is not already standing in front of the text . . . !

The way in which we tend to study Latin inscriptions is static and often on the basis of transcriptions, not in the field and with a genuine understanding of how they would have been encountered by the Romans themselves, in time and space.

So I had this idea.

I decided to produce a piece of amateur-ish applied epigraphical science – epigraphy in 4D, using the camera of my mobile phone at eye level while going on a little walk.

The following video is the result of that: it takes you from the cippus of Titus Suedius Clemens in a westbound direction along the Via delle Tombe to the tomb of Vesonius Phileros, at an idling pace, and with a readiness actually to look at the monuments (no sound included – but imagine the sound of birds and crickets to accompany it, as well as almost unbearable heat, as additional features that shape the actual experience):

Having gone through this sequence again and again, immersing myself into the four-dimensional world of Roman graveyards, I now feel safe in the assumption that a phrase like hospes paullisper morare, ‘visitor, sojourn a little’, is not an attempt to reach out to an audience that is in a hurry (as often implied in the texts that use related phrases).

In fact, unless one is already idling and ready to read these texts, it is virtually impossible to read these words (and thus to get drawn into the text) at all.

Much rather, they would appear to be an invitation to sojourn extended to those who are already idling – a polite form of address, like that of an inn-keeper outside their restaurants, trying to draw a paying crowd (which, incidentally, makes good sense with regard to the word hospes – a hospes is a ‘guest’: hence the English word ‘hospitality’!).

And then there is that second reason.

The phrase hospes paullisper morare, ‘visitor, sojourn a little’, made me think of something else as well – and that is where my considerations regarding (the lack of) funerary poetry from Pompeii come full circle.

One of the reasons that have been adduced by scholars for the absence of monumental poems from the graveyards of Pompeii is the date of Pompeii’s destruction. While there are a lot of poetic graffiti and dipinti from Pompeii (even  in the context of the burial areas), the practice of funerary Latin verse inscriptions had not fully developed yet around Pompeii at A. D. 79, some colleagues have argued.

I was inclined to believe that, to an extent, until I searched for further uses of the term hospes at Pompeii. Much to my surprise (I knew the text that I found, in fact I have talked about it here before, but I simply had not made the connection), there IS a funerary poem that has emerged from Pompeii after all!

Why did I not notice it before?

The reason is simple: the poem was not discovered on a graveyard, and it is not monumental.

And yet it is irrefutable evidence for an awareness of the practice of inscribed Latin verse in funerary contexts at Pompeii. It reads (CIL IV 8899 = Zarker 124, discovered at III 5.4, along the Via dell’Abbondanza):

Hospes adhuc tumuli ni meias ossa prec[antur],
nam si uis (h)uic gratior esse caca.
Urticae monumenta vides discede cacator
non est hic tutum culu(m) aperire tibi.

Stranger, my bones beg you not to pee at my tomb: if you want to do the deceased an even bigger favour: take a dump! You see the tomb of Urtica [= ‘Stinging Nettle’]: go away, shitter! It is not safe for you to open your buttocks here.

It seemed only too fitting: a commemorative, funerary poem about bodily functions in honour of a deceased stinging nettle!

Only Pompeii would provide us with a subversive, heavily scatological parody of an established genre for which there is no actual evidence at Pompeii itself (so far) rather than the real thing . . . !

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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