You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, the saying goes. And it made me wonder: considering that Roman literature is full of stories about family relations, how much do we really know about family life in ancient Rome that goes beyond narratives involving the infamous figure of the all powerful head of the Roman family, the pater familias?
How much do we know about the Roman family that goes beyond the key points of the human life-cycle: childbirth, adoption, marriage, and death (including inheritance)?
How much do we know that goes beyond broad-brush comments on education and duality of the bloodline (gens) vs. that of the extended household (familia, involving the slaves)?
How much do we know about families that were not at the top or anywhere near the top of the society (for a fresh, comprehensive take on the latter, focusing on Seneca, one-time quasi-Emperor of Rome, see here), but part of the lower strata of society – about the realities of family life for slaves and freedmen?
Susan Dixon, in her book The Roman Family (see here for a review), has been very cautious in using the evidence that comes from Roman epitaphs (and rightly so).
Every now and then one encounters texts that seem to say so much more about a given topic than others. One of those texts is the following (now lost) inscription from Salona/Solin in Dalmatia (Croatia) (CIL III 2609 (cf. p. 1032, 1037, 1635) = III 2964 = III 9418 = III 13895 = CLE 1141):
L(uci) Pomponi Pietatis ver(nae)
Pieris hoc tumulo tegitur de matre Venusta
sexto nata loco quae fuit a reliquis.
nondum viginti iuvenis compleverat annos,
quoi quoque virginitas nuper adempta fuit,
grataque florebat cunctis mortalibus aetas,
quam Fors ad superos noluit esse diu.
non pudor huic aberat, pietas non grata parenti,
non amor in fratres eius avarus erat,
cara fuit mater, fuerant caraeque sorores,
et pia coniugio grataque semper erat,
invita Pieridi cum venit letifer(a) hora,
qua cubuit molli languida saepe toro.
hanc Atropos rapuit Lachesisq(ue) et tertia Clotho:
infelix mater tollit ad astra manus
incusatque deos, incusat denique Parcas
quae vitam pensant quaeque futura canunt.
implerunt fratres magnis mugitibus auras,
et cuncti flebant, nec minus ante rogum.
haec fuit at tumulum miserae vox ultima matris,
ossa simul vidit tabida Pieridis:
‘hanc humus excepit, leviter precor illa prematq(ue)
infantem ex utero quae quoque sustinuit’.
coniunx Pieridi supremum munus amatae
hunc titulum scripsit pro pietate sua.
(1-4) Vitalis (had this made) for Pieris, homeborn slave of Lucius Pomponius Pietas, who deserved it well.
(5-10) Pieris is covered by this grave, who was born of Venusta, her mother, sixth to those left behind. A youth, she had not yet completed twenty years of age, who only just had her virginity taken away from her, and her delightful age flourished among all mortals, which Fate no longer desired to exist in the world above.
(11-16) She was not lacking in bashfulness, nor in dutifulness, delightful to her parent, nor was her love towards her brothers ever covetous, the mother was dear (to her), dear were her sisters, and towards her union in marriage she was always dutiful and full of delight, as the spiteful, death-bringing hour approached Pieris, when she slept, as often, exhausted, on a soft blanket.
(17) Atropos snatched her away, Lachesis, too, and Clotho, three.
(18–22) Her ill-fated mother raises her hands to the stars and scolds the gods, scolds even the Parcae who attribute lifetime and who prophesy the future. Her brothers fill the sky with many a groan, and everyone cries, hardly less so by the pyre.
(23–26) These were her mother’s final words by the grave (and at the same time she saw the dissolving bones of Pieris!): ‘Earth receives her, and embraces her lightly (I pray) who, too, gave birth to her as a child from its lap.’
(27–28) The husband wrote this inscription for Pieris, a final gift for his beloved, as an expression of their devotion.
Composed by a man named Vitalis, this inscription celebrates his short-lived wife Pieris (‘Muse’; he calls himself coniunx, husband, in relation to her).
Pieris was a homeborn slave (verna) to one Lucius Pomponius Pietas, born of a mother called Venusta (‘Charming’). She was (at least) the sixth child of Venusta, with a number of older brothers and sisters. No father is named or even alluded to – it is entirely possible, however, that it was one of the freeborn members of Pomponius Pietas’ household (including this very man himself): we cannot know.
The inscription began with four lines of a prose introduction. After that, from line 5 onwards, it displayed a poem, some 24 lines long, consisting of twelve elegiac distichs.
The poem’s first half (lines 5–16) is carefully planned – it comprises two segments of six lines (i. e. three distichs) each. The first segment (5–10) introduces the deceased, her mother and siblings, and her (relatively) young age at the time of death – she was only nineteen when she died, and thus only just grown out of maidenhood (and lost her virginity to her husband, Vitalis, who himself was of lowly origin, as the name suggests).
The second segment (11–16), ending in a reference to welcome breaks from a hard working life, is nothing but remarkable: it describes Pieris’ relationship with her family – her mother, her brothers, and her sisters. She is described as bashful (pudor) and dutiful (pietas; incidentally, this is also the name of her master!), full of affection for her mother (cara) – and the same goes for her sisters (carae). Her relationship to her brothers, in turn, is described as non amor … avarus erat, a love that was not covetous, implying, of course, that the brothers had more of which to be envious and jealous than the sisters did.
Pieris’ relationship with her husband is described as pius, with a sense of duty and love, and grata, delightful, terms that almost verbatim invoke the cordial, close relationship that Pieris had with her mother.
All of this – idealised, no doubt, but full of affection and an obvious implication that such particularly close, affectionate relationships between siblings, especially between boys and girls, were rare – is destroyed by spiteful, hateful (invita, or possibly invida, which has been suggested as an alternative reading) death which descended upon Pieris in a moment of utter exhaustion (yet in a cuddly place).
Right here, in the very middle of the poem (line 17, the opening of the second set of six distichs), a second, rivalling group of sisters is introduced – antiquity’s infamous Sisters of No Mercy: the Fates.
This second half of the poem, one might argue at first glance, again consists of two segments of six lines each, introducing the Fates, those cruel siblings who act in relentless harmony, and their unjust decision to snatch away Pieris as its central turning point. And yet, when looking closer, the harmony of the composition has begun to crumble, to disintegrate, just as the life (and the body) of Pieris has begun to decay.
Line 17 stands alone, isolated – a hexameter in a distich, to which even the pentameter does not seem to be able to respond. The subsequent pentameter (18) introduces the mother’s lament, then follows her accusation of the Fates, her mourning, in which she is joined by the brothers (19–22) (the sisters remain without mention now).
Whereas the third block of six lines was divided as 1+5, the fourth and final segment is divided into 4+2 lines – a moving record of the mother’s final words by the pyre (with a gory image of disintegration of the human body that the mother has to face: ossa simul vidit tabida Pieridis, ‘and at the same time she saw the dissolving bones of Pieris’.
All of this is then concluded by the husband’s final farewell.
To my mind, this poem is a little masterpiece of composition, reflecting order and disarray, harmony and disintegration in its composition, harbouring the relentless sisters that are the Fates in its very middle, as a stark contrast to the unusual, yet positive, life-affirming family relationship that filled the poem’s first half just as much as it (allegedly) filled Pieris’ life.
In doing so, the poem, while not necessarily evidence for actual family life and sibling relationships, paints a powerful ideal of what these ought to have been like – even under most difficult circumstances, at the bottom (or near the bottom) of Rome’s social scale.
You can’t choose family.
But sometimes you do get rather lucky.