Strength, achievement, and token gestures

Phaedrus, a writer of fables in the style of Aesop in the first century A. D., tells the following tale (Phaedrus 4.17, transl. B. E. Perry):

De capris barbatis

Barbam capellae cum impetrassent ab Iove,
hirci maerentes indignari coeperunt
quod dignitatem feminae aequassent suam.
“Sinite,” inquit, “illas gloria vana frui
et usurpare vestri ornatum muneris,
pares dum non sint vestrae fortitudini.”
Hoc argumentum monet ut sustineas tibi
habitu esse similes qui sunt virtute impares

The Bearded She-Goats

When the she-goats had obtained, by application to Jupiter, the favour of a beard, the male goats were very unhappy about it and began to express their indignation that women had attained unto a dignity equal with their own. “Let them,” said Jupiter, “enjoy their empty glory and usurp your badge of service, so long as they are not your peers in stoutheartedness.”

This example teaches you to endure it with patience when those who are inferior to you in merit wear the same uniform as yourself.

Phaedrus’ fable teaches a powerful lesson: token gestures – in this case: the mere adornment of females with an item commonly associated with males – is already enough to upset some especially fragile male egos.

But real power – embodied by the father of the gods himself in this scenario – sees right through it: these token gestures are a mere distraction to satisfy the vanity of those who benefit from such ultimately meaningless adornment, boasting their gloria vana, their ’empty glory’, while parading their ornatum muneris, their ‘service badge’.

Pares dum non sint vestrae fortitudini, ‘so as long they are not your peers in stoutheartedness’, Jupiter explains to those who had complained: as long as they are not of your fortitudo, of your strength, your power, your bravado.

Phaedrus adds in his auctorial voice: sustineas tibi / habitu esse similes qui sunt virtute impares, ‘endure it with patience when those who are inferior to you in merit wear the same uniform as yourself’. Habitus, outfit, gear, and demeanour are one thing; what matters is the continued difference in virtus, in ostentatious achievement as associated with manliness.

Whether Jupiter would have granted the she-goats access to fortitudo and virtus, remains unclear. He certainly understood their relevance and their importance over mere token gestures such as permitting a certain habitus.

Alas, the she-goats, do not appear to have asked for what really mattered. Thus their inequality was perpetuated through the provision of a mere distraction.

There is a lesson in this fable – a lesson beyond the interpretation that Phaedrus provides.

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Shit poetry (no, seriously)

A sixth-century poem, preserved in the Anthologia Palatina and ascribed to Agathias Scholasticus, celebrates the renovation of Smyrna‘s suburban latrines by Agathias himself in his capacity as father of the city (AP 9.662, transl. W. R. Paton):


Latrines at Ephesus.

Χῶρος ἐγὼ τὸ πρὶν μὲν ἔην στυγερωπὸς ἰδέσθαι,
πηλοδόμοις τοιχοις ἀμφιμεριζόμενος.
ἐνθάδε δὲ ξείνων τε καὶ ἐνδαπίων καὶ ἀγροίκων
νηδὺς ἐπεγδούπει λύματα χευομένη.
ἀλλὰ πατήρ με πόληος ἐναλλάξας Ἀγαθίας
θῆκεν ἀρίζηλον τὸν πρὶν ἀτιμότατον.

I am a place formerly hideous, divided by brick walls, and here the bellies of strangers, natives, and countrymen thunderously relieved themselves. But Agathias, the father of the city, transformed me and made me distinguished instead of most ignoble.

Transformation was clearly on Agathias’ mind when he reflected on the purpose of the place in another poem – potentially giving generations of modern-day archaeologists ideas of what to look out for in their excavations of latrines and ancient sewage systems (AP 9.642):

Πᾶν τὸ βροτῶν σπατάλημα, καὶ ἡ πολύολβος ἐδωδὴ
ἐνθάδε κρινομένη τὴν πρὶν ὄλεσσε χάριν.
οἱ γὰρ φασιανοί τε καὶ ἰχθύες, αἵ θ᾿ ὑπὲρ ἴγδιν
τρίψιες, ἥ τε τόση βρωματομιξαπάτη
γίνεται ἐνθάδε κόπρος· ἀποσσεύει δ᾿ ἄρα γαστὴρ
ὁππόσα πειναλέη δέξατο λαυκανίη.
ὀψὲ δὲ γινώσκει τις, ὅτ᾿ ἄφρονα μῆτιν ἀείρων
χρυσοῦ τοσσατίου τὴν κόνιν ἐπρίατο.

All the extravagance of mortals and their expensive dishes excreted here have lost their previous charm. The pheasants and fishes, and the mixtures pounded in the mortar, and all that variety of kickshaws, become here dung. The belly rids itself of all that the ravenous gullet took in, and at length a man sees that in the pride of his foolish heart he spent so much gold on nothing but dust.

Similarly, if in a somewhat more, shall we say, constipated style (AP 9.643):

Τί στενάχεις κεφαλὴν κεκακωμένος; ἐς τί δὲ πικρὰ
οἰμώζεις, μελέων πάγχυ βαρυνομένων;
ἐς τί δὲ γαστέρα σεῖο ῥαπίσμασιν ἀμφιπατάσσεις,
ἐκθλίψαι δοκέων μάστακος ἐργασίην;
μόχθων τοσσατίων οὔ σοι χρέος, εἰ παρὰ δαιτὶ

μὴ τοῦ ἀναγκαίου πουλὺ παρεξετάθης.
ἀλλ᾿ ἐπὶ μὲν στιβάδος φρονέεις μέγα, καὶ στόμα τέρπεις
βρώμασιν, εὐτυχίην κεῖνα λογιζόμενος·
ἐνθάδε δ᾿ ἀσχάλλεις· μούνη δ᾿ ἀλιτήματα λαιμοῦ
ἡ γαστὴρ τίνει πολλάκι τυπτομένη.

Why do you moan with the headache and groan bitterly for the heaviness you feel all over, and keep on smacking your belly, thinking to force out the work of your jaws? You would never have had all this trouble and labour if you had not largely exceeded yourself at table. When you are lying there guzzling you have a high opinion of yourself, and delight your palate with the viands, deeming that happiness. But here you are in distress, and your belly only gets many smacks to pay for the sins of your gullet.

This theme reminds me of a set of inscriptions from Ostia.

But Agathias does not only have words for those who greedily overate. He has some words of relief (sorry, not sorry) for those unable to afford lavish meals as well, thereby implicitly acknowledging the democratic nature of communal latrines (AP 9.644):

Εὖγε μάκαρ τλήθυμε γεωπόνε· σοὶ βίος αἰεὶ
μίμνειν καὶ σκαπάνης ἄλγεα καὶ πενίης·
λιτὰ δέ σοι καὶ δεῖπνα, καὶ ἐν ξυλόχοισι καθεύδεις,
ὕδατος ἐμπλήσας λαιμὸν ἀμετροπότην.
ἔμπης ἀρτίπος ἐσσί, καὶ ἐνθάδε βαιὰ καθεσθεὶς

αὐτίκα γαστέρα σὴν θῆκας ἐλαφροτάτην·
οὐδὲ καταψήχεις ἱερὴν ῥάχιν, οὐδέ τι μηροὺς
τύπτεις, αὐτομάτως φόρτον ἀρωσάμενος.
τλήμονες οἱ πλουτοῦντες ἰδ᾿ οἱ κείνοισι συνόντες
οἷς πλέον ἀρτεμίης εὔαδεν εἰλαπίνη.

Blest are you, long-suffering labourer! You have only to put up, all your life, with the pains of hoeing and poverty. Simple are your meals, and you sleep in the woods, after satisfying your throat’s vast thirst for water. Yet you are perfectly sound, and sitting here for a few moments lighten your belly. You don’t rub down the lower part of your spine, or beat your thighs, but you get rid of the burden naturally. They are in evil case, the rich and those who associate with them, whom feasting pleases more than sound health.

Some might say that these epigrams are just crap.

I would argue that they’re not to be sniffed at.

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Happy New Year!

1,870 years ago, Marcus Cornelius Fronto wrote the following letter (Fronto 5.45) to Marcus Aurelius, then heir apparent to the throne of the Roman Empire:

Marcus Aurelius. – Image source here.

Domino meo.

Annum novum faustum tibi et ad omnia, quae recte cupis, prosperum cum tibi tum Domino nostro patri tuo et matri et uxori et filiae ceterisque omnibus, quos merito diligis, precor.

Metui ego invalido adhuc corpore turbae et impressioni me committere. Si dei iuvabunt, perendie vos vota nuncupantes videbo.

Vale mi Domine dulcissime. Dominam saluta.

In the translation of C. R. Haines:

To my Lord.

A happy New Year and a prosperous in all things that you rightly desire to you and our Lord your Father, and your mother and your wife and daughter, and to all others who deservedly share your affection—that is my prayer!

In my still feeble state of health I was afraid to trust myself to the crowd and crush. I shall see you, please God, the day after to-morrow offering up your vows.

Farewell, my most sweet Lord. Greet my Lady.

A happy New Year and a prosperous 2019 in all things that you rightly desire – to all of you!

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Craving facts: the new graffito from Pompeii

Yesterday news broke about the discovery of a graffito from Pompeii that was, in the usual sensationalist way, hailed as a text that would require us to rewrite our history books:

The text, according to Massimo Osanna and Antonio Varone and on the basis of the published photo, ought to be read as follows:

XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) in[d]ulsit 
pro masumis esurit(ioni).

In English:

On the 16th day before the Kalends of November [i. e. on October 17th] s/he gave free rein to her/his hunger to the max.

Pliny’s famous description of Pompeii’s last hours has the eruption happen on August 24th, A. D. 79.

This date was long disputed as a mistake, either by Pliny himself or as a result of a faulty manuscript tradition. The main reasons to challenge the date were discoveries of certain foodstuffs (pomegranates in particular) that would not yet have been ripe at a date in August. Moreover, some of the clothing that was detected in the remains seemed to point at a date in cooler autumn rather than August.

All of this is known, and it has been known for some time.

Nevertheless the discovery of the new graffito has generated a veritable media hype. Stories have already been fabricated about the piece as a builder’s graffito, left during an alleged renovation of the room. Stories about how the graffito could not possibly refer to any other October 17th than that of A. D. 79, as charcoal graffiti are not very durable and therefore would not have survived for years.

All of this is disingenuous, though to different degrees.

Charcoal was commonly used to write graffiti. Martial mentions it, famously. Pompeii has yielded a fair few charcoal graffiti, most of which have been lost now due to unsuitable forms of, or lack of proper, conservation. There is no actual study to confirm the time a charcoal graffiti was likely to last under ‘Pompeian’ conditions. Chances are that graffiti written on the inside of houses, such as this most recent addition to our body of evidence, would have lasted rather longer than those on the outside. Are we to assume that all reported charcoal graffiti from Pompeii were only a few months old, at best? The onus of proof would be on those who wish to make that claim. Could it have survived for about a year, or just under, if not wiped out?

And where does that idea of a builder’s graffito come from? Surely if the builder chose to overeat ‘to the max’, he had no business of recording this in a room of a house that wasn’t his? And why would he record this anyway? Is it not much more likely that the graffito was written by someone who had actually lived in this house, recording this questionable feat – just like many Pompeians chose to record low-key life events, from bodily functions to erotic conquests?

The only thing that we may add to our history books with any level of certainty at this point is that an unknown individual significantly overate on one October 17th, either in A. D. 79 or before.

We may add this to a growing body of evidence in favour of a destruction date in autumn 79 (rather than August). But it provides no certainty by any means.

As academics, it is important that we remain clear about this. The graffito is sensational in its own right, it doesn’t have to be the most important graffito ever found.


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People of Changing Colour

In a vitriolic letter to Marcella about one Onasus, dated to A. D. 385, St. Jerome, one of the Christian fathers, makes a remarkable, commonly overlooked statement (Letters 42.2):

non et lucus ideo dicatur, quod minime luceat, et Parcae ab eo, quod nequaquam parcant, et Eumenides Furiae, et vulgo Aethiopes vocentur argentei?

Isn’t the grove (lucus) called just that because it doesn’t at all shine (minime luceat), and aren’t the Fates (Parcae) called just that, because they spared (parcant) no-one ever, or the Furies the ‘Well-Meaning Ones’ (Eumenides), and aren’t the Aethiopes commonly called ‘the silvery ones’ (argentei)?

The sentiment was then recontextualised and reused in the seventh-century work Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville (1.37.24):

Antiphrasis est sermo e contrario intellegendus, ut “lucus” quia caret lucem per nimiam nemorum umbram; et “manes” id est mites (quum sint inmites) et modesti, cum sint terribiles et inmanes; et “Parcas’ et “Eumenides” Furiae quod nulli parcant vel benefaciant. Hoc tropo et nani Athlantes et caeci videntes et vulgo Aethiopes argentei appellantur.

Antiphrasis is a phrase that is to be understood from its opposite, like lucus (‘grove’) because it lacks light (lux) due to the excessive shade that groves have; or manes [denoting the spirits of the deceased] which means ‘gentle’ (although they are the opposite) and modest, as they are terrifying and savage; or the ‘Parcae’ and ‘Eumenides’, the Furies, has they spare (parcant) no-one nor show any good intention. By this trope dwarves are also called Athlantes, the blind are called the seeing, and, commonly, Aethiopes ‘the silvery ones’.

Recent and not-so-recent studies of black people in Roman antiquity – taking Aethiopes (probably correctly) as a catch-all term for ‘black people’ (as opposed to, say, people of a swarthy skin type) regardless of regional origin – have not altogether ignored this passage.

At the same time, this most remarkable throw-away statement has never been discussed in any noteworthy detail: instead, it was typically put into footnotes about ancient disparaging references to black skin – a common (vulgo!) slur, if anything.

Both Jerome and Isidore touch on antiphrasis, a hobby-horse of folk etymologists in the ancient world (and ever since): allegedly, according to this mode of reasoning, words have been formed on the basis of terms that express the opposite of a thing’s main characteristic. A grove is called lucus, because there is no light (lux) in it. A dog is called canis, because it cannot sing (canere).

Funny, but obviously false.

The inclusion of Aethiopes – a word that has been in use since the beginning of European literature in Homeric epic – in this list, however, puzzled me. Aethiops quite literally means ‘(person with a) burnt face’, and, as already indicated, it is one of those terms that are rather unambiguously used to refer to black people in ancient literature, Greek and Roman.

Jerome and Isidore claim that they were commonly – or by the common people –, vulgo, referred to as argentei in ancient Rome. There is no other evidence for that, of course, but all other examples they list are well documented otherwise – making this one unsuspicious of being a hoax.

But is it really a case of antiphrasis? I have my doubts about that.

Silver, as is well known, is a precious metal – and a metal with one annoying characteristic: it tarnishes, rendering the shiny precious metal rather dark (and robbing it of one of its most useful characteristics, namely to reflect light, e. g. when used as a mirror).

Assuming that my suspicion is right and argenteus was not, in fact, used as an antiphrasis, then it would seem that argenteus is a rather more potent slur: there is something valuable underneath, but discolouration has rendered the silver less attractive and seemingly less valuable.

This ties in nicely with the common trope of the need (or the impossibility) ‘to wash an Aethiopian white’, which was recently studied in great detail by my colleague Federico Faloppa.

The passages from Jerome and Isidore may not, however, be the only Roman references to black skin as something that has changed its appearance. There is a famous, often debated graffito in verse from Pompeii that reads as follows (CIL IV 6892 = CLE 2056):

Quisquis amat nigra(m) nigris carbonibus ardet.
nigra(m) cum video mora libenter {a}ed{e}o.

Whoever loves a black woman burns on black coals. When I see a black woman, I gladly eat a mulberry.

Many aspects of this are puzzling – not least the reference to ‘black coals’, as black coals may well be understood as coals that are not, in fact, ablaze, as coals of course turn white once they are set on fire.

To me, this Pompeian piece is an expression of fetishising black women, however – coals are black again, once the white layer of ash is blown off and the heat rises even stronger.

And then there is the reference to mulberries.

The archetypical story related to mulberries in the ancient world is that of Pyramus and Thisbe, as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.

Ovid has the pair of hapless lovers meet by the tomb of Ninus under a mulberry tree (Ov. met. 4.88-90, transl. F. J. Miller):

conveniant ad busta Nini lateantque sub umbra
arboris: arbor ibi niveis uberrima pomis,
ardua morus, erat, gelido contermina fonti.

They were to meet at Ninus’ tomb and hide in the shade of a tree. Now there was a tree there hanging full of snow-white berries, a tall mulberry, and not far away was a cool spring.

Later on, when Pyramus thinks that Thisbe has been killed, he impales himself on his sword – and the blood gushing out of his wound has a remarkable effect on the tree (without which the story, of course, would not have qualified for inclusion in the Metamorphoses, Ov. met. 4.121-127, transl. F. J. Miller):

ut iacuit resupinus humo, cruor emicat alte,
non aliter quam cum vitiato fistula plumbo
scinditur et tenui stridente foramine longas
eiaculatur aquas atque ictibus aera rumpit.
arborei fetus adspergine caedis in atram
vertuntur faciem, madefactaque sanguine radix
purpureo tinguit pendentia mora colore.

As he lay stretched upon the earth the spouting blood leaped high; just as when a pipe has broken at a weak spot in the lead and through the small hissing aperture sends spurting forth long streams of water, cleaving the air with its jets. The fruit of the tree, sprinkled with the blood, was changed to a dark red colour; and the roots, soaked with his gore, also tinged the hanging berries with the same purple hue.

Thisbe, upon realising the way in which events had begun to unfold, chooses to end her own life – and she utters a wish as she does so (Ov. met. 4.158-161, transl. F. J. Miller):

at tu quae ramis arbor miserabile corpus
nunc tegis unius, mox es tectura duorum,
signa tene caedis pullosque et luctibus aptos
semper habe fetus, gemini monimenta cruoris.

And do you, O tree, who now shade with your branches the body of one, and soon will shade two, keep the marks of our death and always bear your fruit of a dark colour, meet for mourning, as a memorial of our double death.

– a decision that has an additional impact on the very tree itself (Ov. met. 4.162-166, transl. F. J. Miller) –

dixit et aptato pectus mucrone sub imum
incubuit ferro, quod adhuc a caede tepebat.
vota tamen tetigere deos, tetigere parentes;
nam color in pomo est, ubi permaturuit, ater,
quodque rogis superest, una requiescit in urna.

She spoke, and fitting the point beneath her breast, she fell forward on the sword which was still warm with her lover’s blood. Her prayers touched the gods and touched the parents; for the colour of the mulberry fruit is dark red when it is ripe, and all that remained from both funeral pyres rests in a common urn.

Not only is the mulberry the symbol of fatal attraction – it is also a fruit that goes from white (unripe and poisonous) to black (ripe and delicious): an observation that surely must have informed the writer of the Pompeian graffito. (Interested in another story about interracial relationships in the Roman world? Click here!)

Thus for once, however, a skin turned black – namely that of the mulberry – symbolises something ultimately positive, something that has changed for the better, even though it gave reason for lament in the process.

The vulgus that referred to Aethiopes as argentei, silvery ones, almost certainly were not try to flatter. But there is scope in that image nevertheless. To my mind, all human beings are made of the same precious material – and that is something we should celebrate, not only during Black History month.

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Weird hair, mushrooms, showers, and laughing girls

In PetroniusSatyricon, Eumolpus, drunk and trying to make fun of balding people and criminals, eventually bursts out in an ode about hair: (ch. 109, vv. 7–13):

Infelix, modo crinibus nitebas
Phoebo pulchrior et sorore Phoebi.
At nunc levior aere vel rotundo
horti tubere, quod creavit unda,
ridentes fugis et times puellas.
Ut mortem citius venire credas,
scito iam capitis perisse partem.

You wretch, a moment ago your hair shone bright, more beautiful than Apollon and Apollon’s sister. But now, smoother than bronze, or that round toadstool of the garden that a shower helped to rise, you flee and fear the girls that are laughing about you. As you believe that death shall come quickly, let it be known that part of your head has died already.

Any resemblance to reality and current events is purely coincidental.

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Loneliness in Old Age

Poetry and song do wonderful and – in the truest meaning of the word: awesome – things.

They allow us to create entire worlds using nothing but words. Alternative worlds in which we may explore and experience what we are denied exploring and experiencing in real life. Worlds in which we may think the unthinkable. Worlds in which we shape our own fate and the fate of others.

Poetry and song give shape to our hopes and desires, to our innermost feelings, but also help us to express, and to come to terms with, our concerns, worries, and deepest fears.

For Papiria Tertia, who lived in first-century A. D. Ferrara in northern Italy, her deepest fears and worries appear to have become a dire reality: all of a sudden, at an advanced age, she was bereft of her loved ones, when both her husband Titus Truppicus and their son, Titus Truppicus jr. died.

A tombstone with three sculpted busts represents the couple and the son, labelling them accordingly: the couple T(itus) Truppicus T(iti) f(ilius) (Titus Truppicus, son of Titus) and Papiria T(iti) f(ilia) Tertia (Papiria Tertia, daughter of Titus) at the top, and T(itus) Truppicus T(iti) f(ilius) f(ilius) (Titus Truppicus, son of Titus, the son) at the bottom:

Image source:$OH_CIL_05_02435_1.jpg: © Center for Epigraphical Studies, Ohio State University.

In the middle of the monument, there is a short poem of four hexameter lines:

cernis ut orba meis, hospes, monumenta locavi
et tristis senior natos miseranda requiro.
exemplis referenda mea est deserta senectus
ut steriles vere possint gaudere maritae.

In English:

You behold how I, bereft of my loved ones, erected their memorials,
And sad, of a rather advanced age, and pitiable, long for offspring.
My old age, in its abandonment, should be included among the evidence
For the view that barren wives may truly rejoice.

(CIL V 2435 = CLE 369 = EDR140913)

The final line of the poem seems to imply that she wished never to have had a child in the first place – a trope, of course, to cope with the loss of her child, inverting the natural order of parents dying before their children: it would have been easier never to have had a child, than to be blessed with one first, only to lose it to an untimely death. But in the second line she says something else: natos … requiro – ‘I long for offspring’, craving what is lost.

The most remarkable aspect of this poem, however, has to be the phrase deserta senectus – old age, abandoned by those whom she loved (and who loved her back), orba meis, ‘bereft of my loved ones’.

It does not require much imagination to gather the dire consequences that Papiria Tertia must have feared for herself in old age after the loss of her husband and, crucially, that of her son: who was going to look after her now, financially and otherwise?

But there seems to be more than just the notion of (lack of) care that is implied in the expression deserta senectus. In addition to the feeling of abandonment and, related, the inability to rely on others, the expression seems to convey a profound feeling of isolation and detachment from meaningful social relationships and interaction.

Papiria Tertia was not alone in that situation. Many a verse inscription implies fear of old-age loneliness and social isolation.

The most extensive, moving Latin poem on this topic, however, has to be the following piece, written by the fourth-century poet Ausonius (Parentalia 9; transl. H. G. Evelyn-White):

Hactenus ut caros, ita iusto funere fletos
functa piis cecinit nenia nostra modis.
nunc dolor atque cruces nec contrectabile vulnus,
coniugis ereptae mors memoranda mihi,
nobilis a proavis et origine clara senatus,
moribus atque bonis clara Sabina magis.
te iuvenis primis luxi deceptus in annis
perque novem caelebs te fleo Olympiadas,
nec licet obductum senio sopire dolorem;
semper crudescit nam mihi paene recens.
admittunt alii solacia temporis aegri:
haec graviora facit vulnera longa dies.
torqueo deceptos ego vita caelibe canos,

quoque magis solus, hoc mage maestus ago.
vulnus alit, quod muta domus silet et torus alget,
quod mala non cuiquam, non bona participo.
maereo, si coniunx alii bona; maereo contra,
si mala: ad exemplum tu mihi semper ades.
tu mihi crux ab utraque venis: sive est mala, quod tu
dissimilis fueris; seu bona, quod similis.
non ego opes cassas et inania gaudia plango,
sed iuvenis iuveni quod mihi rapta viro.
laeta, pudica, gravis, genus inclita et inclita forma,
et dolor atque decus coniugis Ausonii.
quae modo septenos quater inpletura Decembres

liquisti natos, pignera nostra, duos.
illa favore dei, sicut tua vota fuerunt,
florent, optatis adcumulata bonis.
et precor, ut vigeant tandemque superstite utroque
nuntiet hoc cineri nostra favilla tuo.

Thus far my dirge, fulfilling its sacred task, has sung in loving strains of those who, though dear, were mourned but in the course of nature. Now my grief and anguish and a wound that cannot bear a touch—the death of my wife snatched away untimely, must be told by me.

High was her ancestry and noble in her birth from a line of senators, but yet Sabina was ennobled more by her good life. In youth I wept for you, robbed of my hopes in early years, and through these six and thirty years, unwedded, I have mourned, and mourn you still.

Age has crept over me, but yet I cannot lull my pain; for ever it keeps raw and well-nigh new to me. Others receive of time a balm to soothe their grief: these wounds become but heavier with length of days. I tear my grey hairs mocked by my widowed life, and the more I live in loneliness, the more I live in heaviness. That my house is still and silent, and that my bed is cold, that I share not my ills with any, my good with any—these things feed my wound.

I grieve, if one man has a worthy wife; and yet again I grieve if another has a bad: for pattern, you are ever present with me. Howe’er it be, you come to torture me: if one be bad, because you were not like her; or if one be good, because you were like her.

I mourn not for useless wealth or unsubstantial joys, but because in your youth you were torn from me, your youthful lord. Cheerful, modest, staid, famed for high birth as famed for beauty, you were the grief and glory of Ausonius your spouse.

For ere you could complete your eight and twentieth December, you deserted our two children, the pledges of our love. They by God’s mercy, and as you ever prayed, flourish amid an abundance of such goods as you desired for them. And still I pray that they may prosper, and that at last my dust may bring the news to your ashes that they are living yet.

There is little – if any – consolation in the fact that old-age loneliness is an age-old ill of human civilisation.

The two Roman poems are both, on very different levels, heartfelt, deeply moving expressions of pain, fear, and – worst of all – devastating helplessness and isolation. They speak of deafening silence. Of heaviness. Of frustration and anger, undeservedly (yet inevitably, almost unwittingly) taken out on others.

To me,  these texts are so much more than ‘merely’ historical documents. As poems, they are imaginations, they are conceptualisations: complex, immediate, and intense crystallisations of our human condition. They inspire awe – and fear.

But in doing so, they also point towards the obvious solution.

We all are aware of lonely people around us.

When have we last spoken to them? Offered our support? Or a bit of our time?

I’m not always good with that. Not as good as I should be. Or would like to be.

I must try to get better.

We all must.

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‘You’re dead, you’re a joke,’ or: How should one respond to that image of a Pompeian who was struck by a massive piece of rock?

Contrary to what most people think, there is not only one certainty in life, namely that we all must die: there is a second one, and that is that, before we die, we must live with the certainty of death.

The way in which we respond to the death of fellow human beings is subject to constant, often (no pun intended) grave judgement. Is it ever acceptable to laugh about someone’s death? Or to guffaw if the encounter is particularly outrageous?

It seems safe to say that there is no general answer to these questions, and individual responses are informed by philosophical and religious considerations and beliefs to such an extent that strong disagreements with one’s own firmly held views invariably result in heated arguments.

(For the record: if my death is outrageous, feel free to laugh away – I won’t mind, I won’t come to haunt you, and I’ll probably laugh at it myself if I still can. But that’s my problem, and I won’t bother you with that any further.)

Our shared conscience was put to the test recently when, following new excavations in Pompeii, a particularly remarkable find came to light (image source here):

The Superintendency at Pompeii was quick to circulate pictures that showed the profound respect that Prof. Massimo Osanna, the current superintendent had in the face of such human tragedy (see here for a short clip in Italian).

Unsurprisingly, responses on social media were not so kind and respectful.

There is no need to repeat any of the jokes, memes, and collages that were rapidly produced: they covered the full spectrum from the stupid to the tasteless to the moderately amusing (you may not share my view, of course).

In response to this, rather human, reaction – laughing in the face of death, not least as an expression of helplessness – Ellen Finn, a doctoral researcher in Classics at Trinity College Dublin, wrote a piece for The Conversation, in which she contextualises this response with similar recent incidents and then reminds us that Pompeii should teach us to celebrate people’s lives rather than to mock their death.

To my mind, these two are not exclusive options, though I fully respect different views on the matter. We all need to come to terms with our (and everyone’s) mortality, and we all do so in different ways: accepting that would also be a form of celebrating people’s lives, but – again – not everyone may agree with that. Which is fine.

What Ellen Finn’s piece made me wonder, however, was the following: how did the Pompeians themselves talk about death and mortality? Did they address it in their graffiti at all? (I will disregard other types of inscriptions, as they tend to be more ‘official’ and restrained, and they thus give a redacted picture.)

Yes, they did, a quick search in the Manfred Clauss database revealed.

Unsurprisingly, considering the central role of the theme at hand in our shared human condition, ‘they’ were just like ‘us’, for they, too, knew that death was out there to end our existence (CIL IV 5112 = CLE 1491):

Discite dum vivo mors | inimica venis

Learn this: while I live, you, death, come as a fiend.

Apart from those who loosely talk about death as a response to unrequited or otherwise painful love (CIL IV 1837 = CLE 949, IV 9054a), general notices of death (CIL IV 4777, IV 9132, IV 10032b), and what appears to be someone wishing death onto a fellow human being (CIL IV 8910), some talk about their pain and devastation (CIL IV 2258a):

Africanus moritur | scribet (!) puer Rusticus | condisce(n?)s cui dolet pro Africano

The translation is not altogether straightforward in all places, but one could translate as follows:

Africanus dies. The boy Rusticus writes this. As you learn of this, who is in agony over Africanus?

Or this one (CIL IV 8605):

Anus | vita(e) m|eminit | Scio | Aquiti | mortis | t[a]e|duisti

An old lady recalls her life. I know: you were deeply vexed by Aquitius’ death.

Other pieces are rather more open to debate, such as this one (CIL IV 3129):

Cadaver mortu(u)s

(a) dead body

and (CIL IV 7355):

Sporus (h)om|o mortu(u)s

Sporus (is) a dead man.

The most remarkable pieces perhaps, are two instances of the same text that draw on the notion of death as something that permanently renders its victims meaningless (CIL IV 5279 and 5282; the text is identical):

Tu mortu(u)s es | tu nugas es

You’re dead, you’re a joke.

While this seems to, but does not, describe the current predicament of Pompeii’s most recently discovered victim, it certainly reveals an attitude towards death (though in this case figuratively speaking rather than literally) as something that potentially also engenders ridicule, abuse, and meaninglessness at Pompeii.

In other words: the notion that, when confronted with death, disrespect was also an option, existed at Pompeii just as much as it exists in our own society today. This does not mean that the poor sod with the rock on his skull necessarily shared this view – but it is highly unlikely that this notion was alien to them.

And why should one care about death, as the following, final piece rather pointedly asks (CIL IV 8832):

Qui meminit vitae scit quot (!) morti s[it habendum]

He who recalls life knows what to make of death.

[Update, 28 June: media today report that earlier assumptions on how the individual from Pompeii, hit by the door jamb, died were incorrect: apparently the man suffocated. Read more here.]

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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.

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Love Island

According to Suetonius, Rome’s foremost purveyor of biographical detail laced with outrageous gossip, the emperor Tiberius enjoyed the island of Capri as his retreat (Suet. Tib. 43, transl. J. C. Rolfe [only in the online version of the Loeb, not in Rolfe’s original translation]):

On retiring to Capri he devised ‘holey places’ as a site for his secret orgies; there select teams of girls and male prostitutes, inventors of deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its many bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with the books of Elephantis, in case any performer should need an illustration of a prescribed position. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he contrived a number of spots for sex where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside grottoes and sheltered recesses; people openly called this ‘the old goat’s garden,’ punning on the island’s name.

I was reminded of this passage when reading how ‘some of Britain’s top academics’ tried to ‘explain Love Island’s gruesome fascination’: Love Island, a TV show first aired on British television in the mid 2000s, and then revived on ITV in 2015.

The show’s blurb explains the underlying principle of Love Island as follows:

‘Glamorous singles live in a beautiful villa under the watchful gaze of the audience at home, who have the power to decide who stays and who goes.’

‘The watchful gaze of the audience at home’: the makers of the show are careful to create an illusion whereby the show’s audience gets to climb Tiberius’ throne and to satisfy their voyeuristic needs.

The audience’s affection for the show may indeed derive from that sensation of being in control over other people’s lives and behaviours to an extent.

But is it more than an actual illusion?

Tiberius was able to realise the exact shape and form of his fantasies – everything had to be acted out according to his instructions, supported by graphic props and locations specifically designed for the occasion. The performers could not escape the parameters of this format or any other of his orders.

How much control does the audience of Love Island have, once they buy into watching this format?

Nothing needs to be said about the show’s contestants – unlike Tiberius’ performers they apply to take part in this format out of their own volition (and apparently they do so in greater numbers than there are applicants for Britain’s top universities).

As for the audience, however, the reality is that they are part of the show, not in control of it (however much they relish the illusion).

They are no Tiberiuses: this remains the producers’ and ITV’s cynical privilege, as they call all the shots; they are part of the cast, and the illusion is so beautifully perfect, and so cynically devised, that they don’t even notice.

In exchange for our time and attention – crucial for the station’s commercial interests – we get to share some of the emperor’s voyeurism and an illusion of control.

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