Hope, Freedom, and Being Human: A Poetic Approach

The 2016 Being Human Festival – a festival of the Humanities, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy – commences today. This year’s theme is ‘Hope and Fear’, and my university, the University of Reading, offers its distinctive view on this with a number of great events under the headline of ‘Hope, Fear, and Freedom‘.

The issue of freedom and slavery has long fascinated me (see, for example, here for a paper on notions of slavery in Tacitus; and then there was my recent piece on the rather strongly worded poetry and blunt art from a place that symbolises the absence of freedom): and then, of course, working on the Latin verse inscriptions, I work on material inextricably linked to the sphere of Roman slavery and that of Roman freedmen and freedwomen.

There are a great many texts one might put together under the rubric of hope, fear, and freedom – for example the most remarkable tombstone of one Gaius Ofillius Aeimnestus, who experienced the personality-changing trauma of enslavement and eventually managed to buy himself free again (which I discussed in an older blog entry).

But instead of repeating material, I thought it might be of greater interest to share some rather remarkable pieces that actually talk about freedom, libertas in Latin, and the achievement of libertas – texts that, to an extent, link to the very notion of life, the human existence, and the human body as forms of life-long, inescapable enslavement and incarceration (the latter being a theme which I briefly touched upon in this piece).

The following piece is a short inscription from Venafrum (Venafro) for a uilicus, a slave who worked as bailiff or estate manager and who died before he was to achieve freedom from his masters (who, most likely, commemorated him through the following inscription, CIL X 4917 = CLE 1015):

Narcissus uil(icus)
T(iti) Tituci Floriani
et Teiae L(uci) f(iliae) Gallae
uixit an(nos) XXV.
debita libertas iuueni mihi lege
morte immatura reddita perpetua est.

Narcissus, bailiff of Titus Titucius Florianus and Teia Galla, daughter of Lucius, lived 25 years.

The freedom that I was owed, yet denied by law as a young man, has permanently been restored through an untimely death.

According to the lex Aelia Sentia, the minimum age for manumission was 30 years – and the inscription would appear to allude to this regulation, almost apologetically, in its desire poetically to reconcile the deceased’s social status at the time of his death with the notion of eternal freedom that comes with one’s passing over from this world to the other.

Throughout, this inscription plays with terms that relate to Narcissus’ occupation – debt (freedom was debita), legal requirements (freedom was lege negata), payment of debt and return of goods on loan (freedom was reddita perpetua through the mors immatura).

At the same time, the distich raises a number of questions that remain unanswered – who owed Narcissus his libertas: his owners? Life? The gods? After all, nothing could provide him with freedom in quite the same way as death (though not necessarily only by means of a mors immatura)? And how does death mean libertas perpetua? Is this the only real freedom that we, being human, can achieve? Freedom from the only inevitable obligation that all humans have in common: our ultimate obligation to die?

An inscription from Carthago (Carthage) in Tunisia, commemorating the burial of someone who chose to remain anonymous, addresses the same issue (CIL VIII 25006 = CLE 1331 = ILTun 1001):

D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
nomen non dico nec
quod (!) uixerit annis
ne dolor im (!) mentem (!)
cum legimus maneat (!).
infans dulcis eres (!) sed
tempore paruo
mors uitam uicit ne li-
bertatem teneres.
heh[e]u (?) non dolor es ut
quem amas pereat.
nunc mors perpetua liber-
tatem dedit.

Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.

I do not state the name nor how many years s/he lived, lest pain gets to settle in our mind as we read this. As a baby you were sweet, but within a short time death overcame life, lest you obtain freedom. Woe is me, there is no pain equal to that when one loses whom one loves. Now death bestowed eternal freedom.

Similar to the example from Venafrum, above, this text, too, operates with a double concept of freedom – personal freedom (from slavery), potentially in reach within one’s life, and spiritual freedom, which ultimately can only be achieved through death – an ultimate reward, that comes at the cost of great pain for everyone else involved with the person who achieves it.

A third example of this attitude can be found in a text from Ravenna, which commemorates the death of two foster-children in a shipwreck (CIL XI 188 = CLE 1210 – contextualised here):

Duo Iuvan(ensium?) Lupi et Apri.
una Iuuaniae domus
hos produxit alumnos.
libertatis opus contulit una dies
naufraga mors pariter rapuit
quos iunxerat ante
et duplices luctus
sic periniqua dedit.

[This is the monument of] two from Iuvanum (?), Lupus and Aper.

One house in Iuvanum brought forth these two as its foster-children, a single day bestowed the gift of liberty upon them. [The fate of] death in shipwreck snatched away alike those whom it had united before, and thus, most unfairly, brought about double grief.

A most remarkable poem from the city of Rome pushes the idea further still (CIL VI 9632 cf. p. 3470 = VI 33813 = V *334 = CLE 89):

L(ucius) Valerius Zabdae mercatoris venalici l(ibertus) Aries.
Seu stupor est huic studio siue est insania nomen
omnis ab hac cura cura leuata mea est.
monumentum apsolui et impensa mea, amica
tellus ut det ho(s)pitium ossibus, quod omnes
rogant sed felices impetrant. nam quid
egregium quidue cupiendum est magis quam
ube (!) lucem libertatis acceperis lassam (!) senectae
spiritum ibi deponere. quod innocentis signum
est maximum.

Lucius Valerius Aries, freedman of Zabda, the slave-trader.

Whether numbness of madness is the name of such endeavour, all my trouble was lifted by this trouble. I paid for the monument, too, at my own expense, so that a welcoming earth provides shelter to my bones, what everyone hopes, but only the lucky ones achieve. For what is more egregious and more to desirable than to deposit one’s spirit of one’s weary old age as one receives the light of freedom? This is the greatest sign of an innocent man.

Following a quote from Ovid’s Tristia (Ov trist 1.11.11-12) to set the scene – a final trouble to end all troubles –, the deceased is introduced as speaker of his own epitaph: everyone, he claims, has the same hope in life: to find a hospitium, a safe shelter, for one’s mortal remains (ossa); only the lucky ones, the felices, achieve this, though – and Valerius Aries, freedman of a slave-trader, regards himself as someone whose hopes had come true, and he managed to achieve this without being a financial burden to anyone else.

Valerius Aries, who had known slavery and achieved the status of freedman, and/or his patron Zabda (possibly a Jew, if the name is anything to go by), who made a living from other humans’ lack of freedom, describe the ultimate freedom in life – death, that is – as lux libertatis, the (shining) light of freedom, that one acquires at long last, at least if innocent.

But not everyone finds it possible to see consolation in the promise of freedom after death. Being free, as free as one can be, in this world remains a hope (and as such also a constant source of disappointment), as the following piece from Narona (Vid, in Dalmatia) implies:

– – – – – –
C(ai) l(iberta) Fortu[nata]
an(norum) h(ic) s(ita) e(st) XIIX.
si pietas prodest
cuiquam uixisse
modeste, uos precor
o Mane[s, sit] mihi
terra leu[i]s.
libertas [cui] olim fuerat
promissa ,[s]et ante Ditis sub
fatum venit [i]n arbitrium.
uiuite felices quibu[s]
est Fortuna superste[s]:
spenque (!) meam oppress[i]t
fatus in Hiluricum (!).

[- – -] Fortunata, freedwoman of Gaius, lies here aged 18.

If dutifulness makes it useful to anyone to have led a life in modesty, I beseech you, divine Manes, may earth rest lightly on me. I was once promised freedom, but fate skipped ahead for me under Pluto’s judgement. Live happy, those of you, who have fortune by their side: fate has crushed my hope in Illyria.

This last piece speaks of disappointment – the disappointment that promised freedom never came to be. The previous texts spoke of pain and the inability to fight against the necessities of nature’s and human laws.

All of these texts emerge from social contexts in which wealth, independence, and all other manifestations that upper-class freedoms may take, were fundamentally out of reach.

Are they expressions of hopelessness or even fear?

I don’t think so.

To me, they are testament to the unbreakable human spirit, that, in the face of great adversity, one may still harbour hope and entertain one’s dreams: dreams of freedom in this life, freedom before that ultimate freedom in a death that may make us independent from all constraints – a freedom, libertas, that we may struggle to achieve or even be denied (negata), but one that we all – being human! – are owed, debita, as the first inscription beautifully suggested.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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3 Responses to Hope, Freedom, and Being Human: A Poetic Approach

  1. Pingback: Hope, Freedom, and Being Human: A Poetic Approach — The Petrified Muse | Unchain the tree

  2. tuuliahlholm says:

    Thanks for the post, what a fascinating topic! These epitaphs and your thoughts on the ‘unbreakable human spirit’ they embody heavily remind me of the meditations of imperial Roman Stoics on suicide, where freedom and death are inherently linked. Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and esp. Seneca all seem to consider suicide morally commendable whenever libertas in life becomes impossible, whether that is libertas to make rational choices free from oppressive pain/emotions or from the compulsion of tyrants or masters. The latter sort of freedom, of course, was a rather pressing philosophical problem for the Roman upper class, too! The Stoics think that death, especially if freely chosen, embodies the ultimate individual freedom even under a tyrannical monarchy. I’m thinking especially of Seneca’s *Ep.* 70, where he e.g. praises the heroism of a gladiator slave who chose to a disgusting way to kill himself, since praeferendam esse spurcissimam mortem servituti mundissimae. And he concludes:

    Nihil obstat erumpere et exire cupienti. In aperto nes natura custodit. Cui permittit necessitas sua, circumspicit exitum mollem: cui ad manum plura sunt, per quae sese adserat. is dilectum agat et qua potissimum liberetur. consideret: cui difficilis occasio est, is proximam quamque pro optima arripiat, sit licet inaudita, sit nova. Non deerit ad mortem ingenium, cui non defuerit animus. Vides, quemadmodum extrema quoque mancipia, ubi illis stimulos adegit dolor, excitentur et intentissimas custodias fallant ? Ille vir magnus est, qui mortem sibi non tantum imperavi:, sed invenit.

    “When a man desires to burst forth and take his departure, nothing stands in his way. It is an open space in which Nature guards us. When our plight is such as to permit it, we may look about us for an easy exit. If you have many opportunities ready to hand, by means of which you may liberate yourself, you may make a selection and think over the best way of gaining freedom; but if a chance is hard to find, instead of the best, snatch the next best, even though it be something unheard of, something new. If you do not lack the courage, you will not lack the cleverness, to die. See how even the lowest class of slave, when suffering goads him on, is aroused and discovers a way to deceive even the most watchful guards! He is truly great who not only has given himself the order to die, but has also found the means.” (Wikisource translation)

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  3. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I think you’re exactly right – this is an important background for Roman thought in general, and it is fascinating to see the theory put into practice and to see how they lived this philosophical approach (or at least used it in practice as an explanation in challenging situations).


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