Blazing with passion

It has been just over one year now since the devastating fire of Grenfell Tower in London – a horrendous, fast-spreading blaze that killed dozens of people and left over two-hundred of the tower block’s inhabitants in the sudden need to find a replacement home.

Many problems resulting from this horrendous incident persist, many questions remain. And while in the past some found it necessary to express their upset over their being banned from a media-covered display of compassion (or attempt to shift blame), it is the community spirit and the heroic work of the firefighters and emergency services, rather than the pettiness of shameless self-promoters, that will remain on the mind of the many.

Already at the time when disaster struck, I was reminded of a Roman tombstone from Lyon (Lugudunum) that relates an ancient story of a blaze in which a man lost his life in the attempt to get back into the burning building and to salvage whatever could be saved.

I decided against posting about this at the time, as it seemed in poor taste to talk about this piece while the pain was so very present and on everyone’s mind, while the ashes were – quite literally – still smouldering.

Over twelve months on, the Grenfell Tower fire is no less upsetting, considering what has emerged with regard to the causes so far. But I feel that the time that has passed has allowed me to reflect a bit more on human responses to extreme challenges – and this is what the Gallic tombstone is all about (CIL XIII 2027 = ILS 8520):

[D(is) M(anibus)]
et memoriae aetern(ae)
L(uci) Secundi Octavi Treveri
acerbissima morte de-
functi. qui cum ex incen-
dio seminudus effugis-
set, post habita cura salutis
dum aliquit e flammis eri-
pere conatur, ruina parie-
tis oppressus naturae socia-
lem spiritum corpusque ori-
gini reddidit. cuius exces-
su graviore damno quam
rei amissione adflicti
Romanius Sollemnis et Secun-
di Ianuarius et Antiochus
conliberti merita eius
erga se omnibus exemplis
nobilissima titulo sepul-
chri sacraverunt et
Erophilus in modum frater-
nae adfec[t]ionis et ab in-
eunte aeta[te] condiscipu-
latu et omnibus bonis artibus
copulatissimus amicus et
sub ascia dedicaverunt.

In a 19th century translation (slightly adapted):

To the Gods of the Shades, and to the eternal memory of Lucius Secundus Octavius of  Treves, taken away by a most cruel death; who, after having saved himself half-naked from a fire, having neglected the care of his life, in order to save something from the flames, was destroyed by the fall of a wall, rendering up to nature his pleasant spirit, and his body to its original (dust). More afflicted at his death than by the loss of their property, Romanius and Solemnis, as well as Januarius and Antiochus, who became freedmen together with Secundus, have consecrated by the inscription on this tomb the noble qualities of which he had given them all kinds of proof; in concert with Erophilus, bound to him by an affection which we may call fraternal, having been his fellow-pupil from his infancy, and intimately connected with him in his taste for all the useful arts; and they have dedicated this monument sub ascia.

Like many of those at Grenfell Tower, the honorands, Romanius, Solemnis, Januarius, and Antiochus all lost their property in the blaze. Yet, they regard the loss of their friend Lucius Secundus Octavius as the biggest loss of them all – the loss of a friend of noble qualities, who was ready to go back into the fire to see what else could be saved, without due regard for his own safety or survival.

In the moment of personal loss, material, but much worse still, in terms of human life, these individuals decided to focus on the celebration of friendship and affection, celebrating and eternalising what truly matters: helping one another in the times of need, focusing on humans first and material property second.

The survivors of Grenfell Tower, with their loss of their personal property and their homes alongside their sense of safety and security, have paid a huge price; but nothing will weigh more heavily on their mind than the knowledge that others lost their lives – and that it might easily have been them instead.

The survivors, together with the relatives of those who died in the fire twelve months ago, suffered the ultimate damnum, a loss that has become unbearable through the loss of human life (excessu), not through the loss of property (rei amissione) – and due to circumstance they will not be able to shake the feeling that their loss resulted in someone else’s gain.

This (and every) anniversary of the Grenfell Tower blaze should be about the memoria aeterna of those who suffered losses, not about the remarkable ego of those who first propose to reduce fire cover for the City of London, then insult those who challenge them on that very matter, and finally, when everything has gone horribly wrong, still feel the need to blame others in the tragedy’s aftermath.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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