‘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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A couple of days ago, Verne Troyer died.

At 81 cm (2 ft 8 in), Troyer was one of the shortest men in the world, his Wikipedia entry claims; he is likely to be remembered, most of all, for performance as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films.

Little people have long had their place in public and private entertainment.

In Roman times, they often featured as ‘freaks of nature’, being the object of ridicule and abuse.

Among the most remarkable stories in that regard is that of Zercon.

Zercon is introduced as a ‘court-jester’ by the late-antique Greek historian Priscus of Panium in his description of the court of Bleda, the brother of Attila the Hun.

Zercon, of Moorish origin, quickly became a token gift to provide amusement for the high and mighty due to his overall appearance as well as his stammer (τραυλότης) (Prisc. frg. 13.2 (I p. 287) Blockley):

Διὰ δὲ κακοφυίαν σώματος καὶ τὸ γέλωτα ἐκ τῆς τραυλότητος τῆς φωνὴς καὶ ὄψεως παρέχειν (βραχὺς γὰρ τις ἦν, κυρτός, διάστροφος τοῖς πόσι, τὴν ῥῖνα τοῖς μυκτῆρσι παραφαίνων διὰ σιμότητος ὑπερβολήν), ῎Ασπαρι τῷ ᾽Αρδαβουρίῳ ἐδεδώρητο . . . καὶ Ἀττήλας μὲν οὐδὲ τὴν αὐτοῦ ἤνεγκεν ὄψιν· ὁ δὲ Βλήδας ἥσθη τε λίαν αὐτῷ φθεγγομένῳ οὐ μόνον γέλωτος ἄξια, εἰ μή γε καὶ βαδίζοντι καὶ περιττῶς κινοῦντι τὸ σῶμα.

Because of his physical deformity and the laughter which his stammering and his general appearance caused (for he was rather short, hunchbacked, with distorted feet and a nose that, because of its excessive flatness, was indicated only by the nostrils) he was presented to Aspar, the son of Ardabur (. . .). Attila could not stand the sight of him, but Bleda was most pleased by him, not only when he was saying amusing things but even when he was not, because of the strange movements of his body as he walked.

The amusement that Zercon provided is described as follows (Prisc. frg. 13.3 (I p. 289) Blockley):

τότε δὲ διὰ τὸν τῆς εὐωχίας καιρὸν παρελθὼν τῷ τε εἴδει καὶ τοῖς ἐσθήμασι καὶ τῇ φωνῇ καὶ τοῖς συγκεχυμένως παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ προφερομένοις ῥήμασι (τῇ γὰρ Αὐσονίων τὴν τῶν Οὔννων καὶ τὴν τῶν Γότθων παραμιγνὺς γλῶτταν) πάντας διέχεε καὶ ἐς ἄσβεστον ὁρμῆσαι γέλοτα παρεσκεύασε πλὴν Ἀττήλα.

Now, during the banquet he came forward and by his appearance, his clothing, his voice and the words which he spoke all jumbled together (for he mixed Latin, Hunnic and Gothic) he put all in a good humour and caused all to burst into uncontrollable laughter, except Attila.

To the modern scholar, Zercon’s extraordinary level of multilingualism, in conjunction with an apparent communication disorder, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this report.

To Bleda and his court, however, Zercon was little more than a freak, whose presence serves the sole purpose of entertainment.

There is, however, evidence, for rather more sympathetic treatment – and in this context one must mention the funerary inscription of Hector, a Phrygian performer and (arguably, though by no means certainly) the slave of Vespasian’s wife Flavia Domitilla.

The following piece, dating to the second half of the first (or early second century?) A. D., was discovered inscribed in the city of Rome (CIL VI 10098 (cf. p. 3906) = VI 33961 = CLE 1110 = ILS 5172, EDR 109247; image source here; for a detailed discussion in French see here):

Qui colitis Cybelen et qui Phryga plangitis Attin
dum vacat et tacita Dindyma nocte silent
flete meos cineres. non est alienus in illis:
Hector et hoc tumulo Mygdonis umbra tegor.
ille ego qui magni parvus cognominis heres
corpore in exiguo res numerosa fui:
flectere doctus equos, nitida certare palaestra,
ferre iocos, astu fallere, nosse fidem.
at tibi dent superi quantum, Domitilla, mereris
quae facis exigua ne iaceamus humo.

In English translation:

You who worship Cybele and mourn Attis the Phrygian, when there is time and when the heights of Dindymon lie silent in soundless night, weep over my ashes. There is no stranger in these: I, Hector am covered by this tomb, a shade of Mygdon no less.

A little heir of a big name, I myself was a versatile thing in a tiny body: I was taught to control horses, to fight in the resplendent palaestra, to make jokes, to deceive cunningly, to recognise trustworthiness.

So – may the Gods grant you, Domitilla, whatever you deserve, as you allow us to rest under more than just a thin layer of soil.

Praised for his skills in the same way other performers were, this piece, though full of hardly subtle references to Hector’s dwarfism, at first would appear to paint a sympathetic picture to a distinguished artist.

At the same time, one cannot help but notice the reference to the cult of Cybele – seemingly a reference to Hector’s Phrygian origins (though one that typically combined spectacular performances with infliction of self-mutilation) – as well as the final couple of lines which are, unsurprisingly, about the benefactor behind the tomb: Domitilla.

Considering the presentation of this memorial, it would therefore not seem to be entirely unreasonable that Domitilla, too, saw the freak of nature in Hector – a spectacle for others to behold, a versatile thing (res numerosa), but still just that: a thing.

So why bother and write an epitaph?

The inscription gave Domitilla one last chance to benefit from her little play-thing – a final opportunity to represent herself as benefactor and good patroness, a final way to derive personal gain from Hector’s abilities (in which she presumably had invested a fair amount).

The struggles of the artist, by contrast, remain unseen.

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An arrogant boss, an overwhelmed manager, a botched valuation, and the exploitation of workers

In the so-called Zenon archive, a cache of some 2,000 papyri from Philadelphia (Fayyum), covering a time-span from 263 to 229 B. C., there is a complex deposit that starts with a letter from one Panakestor to Zenon, the Egyptian official from whom the archive derives its name (PSI V 502, translation from here):

Panakestor to Zenon greeting. If you are well, and other matters are turning out in a satisfactory way for you, that would be as we wish. We too are well. Please remember us, and when you find a suitable moment with Apollonios, remind him about the notes I gave you in Memphis, and you said that you would take care of it. Be sure to remind him that he should get instructions from the king, as he agreed with us; for I know that if you want, everything will be achieved for us. I have appended for you a copy of the letter sent to me by Apollonios, and also a copy of the letter I sent to him. Farewell. Year 29, Pachons 15.

Apollonius was the chief financial administrator of Egypt under king Ptolemy II. Philadelphus, who led Egypt, now the successor state to a province of the realm that Alexander the Great had created, to renewed cultural heights.

The aforementioned Panakestor worked in what one might call Apollonius’ middle management (as it has been presented in this excellent piece). And Apollonius, it turns out, was not happy with how Panakestor had handled his job:

From Apollonios to Panakestor. I was astounded at your negligence that you have written nothing, either about the estimation or about the harvest of the grain. Write to me now how each matter stands. Year 29, Artemisios 23, Pharmouthi 30.

Apollonius, as this piece suggests, in the best top-down managerialist tradition, was expecting constant reports and updates on unpredictable matters – including a forecast of the harvest(s) that could be expected.

Panakestor had passed Apollonius’ request on to the farmers, the experts in the field (quite literally) – and this is where Hellenistic Greek bureaucracy hit the brick wall of Egyptian farmers who were accustomed to a very different system.

Ancient Egyptian management (stock photo). (Image source: https://bilbosrandomthoughts.blogspot.de/2011/05/cartoon-saturday.html)

Here is what happened according to Panakestor, trying to suppress his indignation towards Apollonius’ original letter, and seeking a constructive solution:

From Panakestor to Apollonios. I received your letter on 14th of Pachons from Zoilos, in which you write that you are astonished that I have sent you nothing concerning the estimation or the harvest of the crop. I happened to be present in Philadelphia on the 16th of Phamenoth and wrote at once to Zoilos and Zopyrion and to the royal scribes to join me and help manage the operation. Now, Zoilos happened to be making the inspection rounds with Telestes; he was therefore unavailable, but the royal scribes and Pauēs, Zopyrion’s assistant, came twelve days later. Together we went out into the fields and spent five days measuring the land by farmer and by crop.

We completed this, sent for the farmers, and announced your order to them. We then thought it right to call on them to make an estimation, just as you directed, or to work with us and draw up plans for an alternative. They said that they would inform us when they had considered the matter. Four days later they sat down in the temple and said they would not make an estimation, justly or unjustly, but would rather abandon the crop, for there was already an agreement that they should give you a third of the produce. Damis and I said many things to them, but we accomplished nothing; so we went to Zoilos and asked him to come along with us, but he said he was busy with the dispatch of the sailors.

Therefore when we returned to Philadelphia after three days we decided that since, as is written for us in the memorandum, they would not allow us to conduct an assessment or make any progress, we should ask them to give us their own assessment of their liability, whatever seemed appropriate to each of them. They gave us the assessment, which we sent to you previously. After arranging this, we were occupied in measuring the land planted with sesame and trees, in the company of the royal scribes, who gave us their account on the 22nd of Pharmouthi. Therefore please do not charge us with any negligence, because it is not easy for anyone working for you to be negligent. That should be clear to you from the fact that the corn was brought in, even though there was not much supply in this area.

{Addressed}   To Zenon.

{Docketed}   From Panakestor, a copy of his letter to Apollonios. Year 29, Daisios 14, in Alexandria.

Pushed hard by his line manager, and trying to do the conscientious thing, Panakestor first tried to implement the required estimation or a workable alternative.

He tried to align the workers through multiple stages of conversation. They in turn considered the request and then rejected it, threatening a walk-out and strike action, potentially resulting in a major loss of crops, should they be required to co-operate. In order to work around that, Panakestor even tried to enlist the services of others – to no avail.

In the end, Panakestor obtained information structured in a traditional way, and this is what he passed on to his better. He even accomplished other tasks, and brought in the required shares, against all the odds – only to be charged with negligence.

Were the Egyptian workers insubordinate and resistant to change, refusing to take part in what modern-day division heads might call a review of efficiency and effectiveness?

One might spin it that way, but Panakestor’s version allows for a very different take on the matter.

It is quite clear from one statement in particular –

‘they sat down in the temple and said they would not make an estimation, justly or unjustly, but would rather abandon the crop, for there was already an agreement that they should give you a third of the produce

– that the workers’ concern was something else: the fear that collaboration with a system that required forecasts and targets would force them into an impossible situation. In this impossible situation, it is no longer reality and experience that determines the course of the world, but made-up, fictive managerial figures and planning charts, imposed not actually for planning purposes, but as a means to exercise power and control, shifting the risk from the employer to the employee.

This is confirmed by another, later phrase in the text –

‘we decided that since, as is written for us in the memorandum, they would not allow us to conduct an assessment or make any progress, we should ask them to give us their own assessment of their liability, whatever seemed appropriate to each of them.’

The eternal dilemma for the middle manager is that they have a decision to make: do they wish to be the head of the unit that has been entrusted to them (or for which they were elected), or do they wish to be the rear extension of the upper levels, from which they cannot expect any gratitude. Panakestor tried to be a bit of both, and it made his life miserable.

The quintessential message for those who do the work on the ground is: do not ever allow managers with knowledge of planning and no understanding of realities to take over your core business.

Once you do, a neverending misery of constantly shifting goalposts in the name of effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability planning begins.

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Advice, Conciliation, Arbitration

It is difficult to find solutions in conflicts in which emotions run high, and it requires insight on either side of such conflicts that presumably not all demands can be met. At the same time, it requires a desire to reach out with genuine respect for certain red lines that have been drawn – as well as for a sense of basic dignity that allows either party to leave the conflict with their heads held (relatively) high.

In Egypt, in A. D. 153 or 154, there was a violent revolt in the context of which the prefect, Lucius Munatius Felix, was killed.

Subsequently, the riots were suppressed, but many had fled and abandoned their accustomed lives and jobs in fear of retribution – a chaotic walkout, so to speak, effectively leading to a standstill in the economy as well as in the everyday running of the province.

In A. D. 154, most likely, on the 29th of August, Munatius’ successor, a man called Marcus Sempronius Liberalis, from Acholla in North Africa originally, issued the following edict (BGU II 372; translation A. C. Johnson – P. R. Coleman-Norton – F. C. Bourne):

Marcus Sempronius Liberalis, prefect of Egypt, proclaims:

I learn that, because of the recent unpleasantness, some persons have abandoned their homes and provided for themselves a living elsewhere, and that others, avoiding their compulsory public duties because of their impoverishment at the time, are still living away from home through fear of the proscriptions made at that time. Accordingly, I urge all persons to return to their homes, to reap the first and greatest fruit of prosperity and of the care which our lord the emperor displays to all men, and not to wander without hearth or home in an alien land. That they may do so with greater zeal and pleasure, they shall know that anyone who is still held back for these reasons will experience the good will and generosity of our greatest emperor in permitting no inquiry against them nor even against others who were proscribed by the strategi for any cause whatsoever. For these persons also are urged to return to their home . . .

. . . those persons who voluntarily unite with fugitives who have chosen a life of criminal brigandage. That they may realize that I exhort not only these persons but also others to return and that I am taking steps to this effect, they shall know that I have issued orders to the most excellent epistrategi, to the strategi, and also to the troops sent by me for the security and peace of the countryside, to check their raids at their inception by taking the aggressive with careful planning, to pursue at once the raiders: and the criminals caught in the act need no further examination beyond their participation in the raid, but they are not to trouble those persons who were once proscribed but who are living quietly and attending to their own farming. Accordingly, all persons shall return without fear, and the time limit shall be within three months of the posting of this edict in each nome. If anyone after this great manifestation of my clemency is found wandering away from home he shall be arrested and shall be sent to me no longer as a suspect, but as an acknowledged criminal.

Year 18 of our Lord Antoninus, Thoth 1.

The message – and its associated red lines – are perfectly clear: go home and get on with your previous lives and jobs, you have three months!

But language matters.

There are incentives, to sweeten the deal (‘that they may do so with greater zeal and pleasure’, ἵ]να δὲ τοῦ̣το προθυμ[ότ]ε|ρ̣ο̣[ν κ]α̣ὶ̣ ἥδιο[ν π]ο[ιή]σ̣ω̣[σιν), the promise to experience ‘the good will and generosity of our greatest emperor’ (α[ἰσ-]|θ[ή]σεσθαι τῆ[ς] τοῦ μ[εγίσ]του Αὐτο̣κ̣ράτορος εὐ[μ]ε|ν[εί]ας καὶ χρη[σ]τότητος ἐ[πι]τρεπούσης):

  • the prospect of reaping the fruits of prosperity vs. a life on the run (π]ρῶτον καὶ μέγιστ[ον] | κ[α]ρπὸν τῆς εὐετ[ηρίας)
  • benefitting from imperial protection (τῆς τοῦ κυρίο[υ] ἡμ[ῶ]ν |Α[ὐτο]κράτορος περὶ πά[ντας] ἀνθρώπους κη[δε]|μ̣ονίας ἀποφέρεσθαι)
  • a general amnesty (μ[ηδ]ε|μίαν πρὸς α[ὐ]τοὺς ζήτησιν ἔσεσθαι), resulting in a life free from fear of further prosecution

The prefect, a successful, seasoned, and well-connected Roman knight, chose to put a time limit of three months on his offer.

Similar to the unknown official who dealt with the building workers’ strike at Pergamon (discussed here), Liberalis asserts philanthropia, ‘the love of humankind’, as the theme of his offer: με]τὰ τὴν τοσαύτην μου φιλαν|θρωπίαν, ‘if anyone after this great manifestation of my clemency...’, as the translation has it.

What is different in the present case, however, is that this ‘philanthropy’ does not seem to have come with a catch: this offer genuinely appears to reach out with a wish to make peace. It offers impunity, protection, reward, and a desire to move – elements designed to sweeten the deal that the prefect was hoping to make, without entirely removing the pressure to revert to law and order following the upheaval.

Those who decided to walk away have a choice, and their choice does not only have implications for their own future lives, but – crucially – for that of the future prosperity of their entire community.

Leaders with an understanding of this, like Liberalis, will be mindful of their people’s collective power and thus avoid pettiness and retaliation without being seen as weak, paving the way to move forward.

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Abusive working relationships

Many strikes do not leave any substantial traces in the historical record.

In other cases, the historical record proves extremely hard to read.

The following instance is one such example – to show just how sketchy the evidence can be sometimes.

A frequently mentioned instance of an ancient ‘strike’ that fits the narrative about a strike-prone Eastern Roman Empire is the strike of building workers of Pergamon.

The sole piece of evidence for this event is a Greek inscription that has been read as follows (IGR iv 444 = MDAI(A) 24 (1899) 197.62; text from here):

[- – – ἀν]θύ(πατος) (vac.) λέγει·
[- – – ὅ]σοι μὲν παρῆσαν, ὅτε περὶ τῶν
[- – -]αν τῆς τῶν ἔργων κατασκευῆς
[- – – ὅπως – – -] ἴδω πρὸ ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτοὺς
[- – -] φιλανθρωπίᾳ κέχρημαι καὶ α-(?)
[- – – ὅσ]οι δὲ τῷ μὲν μὴ ἀντειπεῖν πρὸς
[- – -] ὅθεν γεινωσκέτωσαν ὅτι, ἐὰν
[- – – γεινώσ]κ̣ειν αὐτοὺς ὡς καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους
[- – – τ]όκους αὐτοῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ χρόνου
[- – – ἐ]κτελέσαι τὰ ἔργα· τοὺς ἐργε-
[πιστάτας – – -]ων ἀποθέσθαι παραχρῆμα
[- – -] προιεῖσιν τριβῆς ἐν τ̣[- – -]
[- – -]κότες, εἰ δ’ ἄρα καὶ εὐ̣[- – -]
[- – – ἐργε]πιστάται ὅσον ὑπὸ [- – -]
[- – -]νη καὶ γεινωσκέτ̣[ωσαν – – -]
[- – – μισθ]ὸν λαμβάνειν ἐπ̣[- – -]
[- – -]οιντο ἐκ τοῦ  [- – -]
[- –]ο ἐπ[- – -]
– – – – – –

Although at first glance this may appear to be a substantial chunk of text, it just so happens that very little useful information can actually be derived from it due to the text losses that have occurred.

The opening line makes it clear that this is the edict (λέγει – ‘he states’) of a proconsul (ἀν]θύ(πατος)), whose name does not survive, but who presumably was the provincial governor at the time (probably during the reign of Hadrian).

The proconsul appears to have visited a building site.

In the text he mentions those who were present (ὅ]σοι μὲν παρῆσαν; — ὅτε περὶ: when he was there, perhaps?) and somehow occupied with the construction of the works (τῆς τῶν ἔργων κατασκευῆς) – something he witnessed with his own eyes (ἴδω πρὸ ὀφθαλμῶν αὐτοὺς).

For the benefit of those individuals, it would appear, he chose to exercise benevolence (φιλανθρωπίᾳ κέχρημαι). He may have extended the same policy also to those who chose not to raise their voices in anger (ὅσ]οι δὲ τῷ μὲν μὴ ἀντειπεῖν).

What follows is rather less clear. One might deduce, however, that the proconsul decided to dock a day’s pay from those who (presumably) were found to be on strike, or otherwise protesting, for the time they were not working (τ]όκους αὐτοῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ χρόνου), thus failing to work towards completion of the works (ἐ]κτελέσαι τὰ ἔργα).

Finally, the proconsul addresses the site managers (τοὺς ἐργε|[πιστάτας), equipping them with instructions that are not altogether clear, but may have related to additional walkouts (ἀποθέσθαι παραχρῆμα), friction (τριβῆς), and docking (?) of salary (μισθ]ὸν λαμβάνειν).

The scaremongering rhetoric has not changed much over time. Still employers talk about their generosity and benevolence and suddenly discover their deep concern for health and safety and security. Yet they feel right docking pay for work they expected to be completed during disputes as well as using their alleged concern to rid themselves of confrontational voices that they don’t want to hear and listen to.

The Greek term for generosity and benevolence used by the proconsul in this text is philanthropia, literally ‘the love of humankind’.

One might think that the proconsul had a warped sense of love and a narrow definition of humankind.

But that would mean to miss the quintessential point.

This is rhetoric.

It is designed to inspire a sense of fear and dependence on goodwill, nothing to do with love and care – and the limits of his alleged love are reached as soon as there is a disagreement.

He thinks such ‘love’ can be unilaterally ’employed’.

This isn’t love.

This is an expression of a toxic, abusive relationship in which the abuser wants to force their ways on the abused while maintaining the pretence of a deeply held care, expecting gratefulness for the abuse itself.

One mustn’t fall for such rhetoric.

Posted in Epigraphy, Labour disputes, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Debased and changed beyond recognition

Bankers, money-lenders, and money-changers do not carry a particularly high reputation in present-day discourse when it comes to virtues such as ‘honesty’ and ‘trust’ – which is strange, to a degree, as the entire sector fundamentally relies on belief in these two qualities.

In an earlier blog piece I commented on the so-called monetariorum bellum, a ‘revolt among the mint-workers’ that apparently took place during the reign of emperor Aurelian in the 270s A. D. in response to increasing debasement of Rome’s coins.

This was by no means the first time the bankers in the Roman empire had ever staged a revolt against the system, however.

There is a fascinating papyrus from Oxyrhynchus which relates an event that happened about one decade earlier, in A. D. 260 (P. Oxy. xii 1411):

From Aurelius Ptolemaeus also called Nemesianus, strategus of the Oxyrhynchite nome. Since the officials have assembled and accused the bankers of the banks of exchange of having closed them on account of their unwillingness to accept the divine coin of the Emperors, it has become necessary that an injunction should be issued to all the owners of the banks to open them, and to accept and exchange all coin except the absolutely spurious and counterfeit, and not to them only, but to all who engage in business transactions of any kind whatever, knowing that if they disobey this injunction they will experience the penalties already ordained for them in the past by his highness the praefect. Signed by me. The 1st year, Hathur 28.

As it seems out of character for bankers (and, in fact, anyone) to go out of business just for the sake of it, one must ask how come that the bankers and money-changers of the Oxyrhynchus district chose to take this extraordinary step – again (‘they will experience the penalties already ordained for them in the past‘)?

Two reasons have been discussed first and foremost:

  • an increasing level of debasement affecting the Roman coinage system, rendering the imperial coins in question, if not worthless, at least rather less valuable than they once were, and/or
  • an increasing level of risk to deal with counterfeit money, as the types who claimed to be, and also those who actually were, Roman emperors at the time was changing at a breathtaking pace, meaning that it was impossible to tell whether it was still possible to rely on the actual currency of imperial coins submitted for exchange (a point made, e. g., by S. L. Vennik here [p. 83-4]).

As bankers are notoriously risk-averse when their own profit is at stake (as opposed to that of others), chances are that the answer involves both aspects to some extent rather than only one of them.

The impact of the bankers’ strike, so to speak, was substantial, and it affected the local economy to such an extent that a complaint was made to the authorities – whence the injunction came about.

There are many aspects that one might wish to explore further. The one that strikes me most, however, is the extent to which the bankers of Oxyrhynchus were forced to resume their operations.

On the basis of what the papyrus says, they were required to accept everything from everyone ‘except the absolutely spurious and counterfeit‘ (πλὴν μάλ̣ι̣σ̣[τα] | παρατύπου καὶ κιβδήλου, as the original Greek has it).

This expression certainly gives some credence to the view, mentioned above, that the constant regime changes were partly to blame for fading trust in the validity of the coins in circulation (certainly on the side of the bankers themselves): with usurpers coming and going, who even has the right to issue coins and thus to generate money for themselves?

It is easy, of course, to understand why the provincial government had to act in this case, considering the central role of the bankers for the local economy to function.

For that to work, however, and for that to work at a time where the money professionals would rather shut down their operations than to take further risks, the local leadership chose to interfere with essential security and quality standards at any cost, effectively legitimising counterfeit money (unless it was of absolutely appalling quality).

A devastating decision, no doubt, to those whose entire business model ultimately – at least in theory – relies on honesty and their customers’ trust in it.

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Strike action and the creation of cheap labour

Until very recently, I believed that the strike of Egyptian artisans at Deir El-Medina in the twelfth century B. C., as recorded in a famous papyrus now in the possession of the Museo Egizio at Turin, was the oldest actual strike ever recorded.

And it may well be that.

There is, however, an even older record of a strike, mentioned in the so-called Epic of Atrahasis, dated to seventeenth century B. C. Mesopotamia (and an important source for the epic of Gilgamesh), which, among other things, records an ancient deluge narrative akin to the biblical story of Noah.

Cuneiform tablet preserving the epic of Atrahasis (image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atra-Hasis#/media/File:Bm-epic-g.jpg)

More pertinent to the recent theme of this blog, though, is the Atrahasis epic’s version of the creation of humankind: the result of a heavenly strike no less, when the lower gods began to comprehend their predicament (all translations from this wonderful web resource):

[1] When the gods were man
they did forced labor, they bore drudgery.
Great indeed was the drudgery of the gods,
the forced labor was heavy, the misery too much:

[5] the seven great Anunna-gods were burdening
the Igigi-gods with forced labor.


[21] The gods were digging watercourses,
canals they opened, the life of the land.
The Igigi-gods were digging watercourses
canals they opened, the life of the land.

[25] The Igigi-gods dug the Tigris river
and the Euphrates thereafter.
Springs they opened from the depths,
wells … they established.

They heaped up all the mountains.

[Several lines missing]

[34]  … years of drudgery.

[35] … the vast marsh.
They counted years of drudgery,
… and forty years, too much!
… forced labor they bore night and day.
They were complaining, denouncing,

[40] muttering down in the ditch:
“Let us face up to our foreman the prefect,
he must take off our heavy burden upon us!
Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling;

[45] Enlil, counsellor of the gods, the warrior,
come, let us remove him from his dwelling!”

[Several lines missing]

[61] “Now them, call for battle,
battle let us join, warfare!”
The gods heard his words:
they set fire to their tools,

[65] they put fire to their spaces,
and flame to their workbaskets.
Off they went, one and all,
to the gate of the warrior Enlil’s abode.

When the lower gods thus resorted to insurrection, the higher gods were quick to respond: first and foremost, they wanted to know who was the ringleader.

But the lower gods stand united:

“Everyone of us gods has declared war;

We have set … in the excavation,
excessive drudgery has killed us,

[150] our forced labor was heavy, the misery too much!
Now, everyone of us gods
has resolved on a reckoning with Enlil.”

A meeting of the higher gods then ponders possible responses:

[a1] Ea made ready to speak,
and said to the gods, his brothers:
“What calumny do we lay to their charge?
Their forced labor was heavy, their misery too much!

[a5] Every day …
the outcry was loud, we could hear the clamor.

There is …
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.
Let her create, then, a human, a man,

[a10] Let him bear the yoke!
Let him bear the yoke!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god.”
Belet-ili, the midwife, is present.

[190] Let the midwife create a human being!
Let man assume the drudgery of the god.”

Following some consultation, the higher gods soon began to realise that one way around the strike and the riots of the lower gods would be the employment of weak, vulnerable, dependent serfs – beings that resembled the lesser gods (and were in fact created in their likeness and made from the remains of one of the lesser god, with some added clay), that are forced to live up to the original ethos, but left without the gods’ original powers or entitlements:

[215] From the flesh of the god let a spirit remain,
let it make the living know its sign,
lest he be allowed to be forgotten, let the spirit remain.”

(Most of those on precarious, temporary, part-time contracts will have a clear idea of what that means, I am tempted to add.)

And thus it happened. One of the lesser gods is sacrificed, and cheap labour takes his place:

You ordered me the task and I have completed it!
You have slaughtered the god, along with his inspiration.

[240] I have done away with your heavy forced labor,
I have imposed your drudgery on man.
You have bestowed clamor upon mankind.
I have released the yoke, I have made restoration.”

Human population quickly grows, and their clamour begins to annoy Enlil, disrupting his heavenly sleep – eventually to such a degree that the decision is taken to wipe out most of their creation by means of a deluge (and subsequently imposed restrictions to life-span and the ability to procreate).

The gods appear to have celebrated this as a success.

A more realistic way of looking at it would be that they sacrificed one of theirs in vain, that they promoted slavery of those who once formed part of them, and failed to protect those who made their lives better and easier.

As a result of that, they brought great misery over the world, because they failed to do the obvious: to challenge the questionable privilege of those at the top who, though seemingly superior, were once recruited from the same stock.

The fact that, when standing united, they could challenge even the supreme gods, without retribution, should have told them something about their actual might to change something for the better.

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If they win on this point, what then will they not try…?

In 195 B. C., Rome’s women had had enough.

It had been for almost exactly twenty years that, due to a decision taken in 215 B. C., at the height of the Second Punic War, their right to possess, and to display, wealth had been severely restricted.

Originally perhaps devised as an austerity measure during the Hannibalic war, the lex Oppia, a so-called sumptuary law, affected not only the possession and display of precious objects but even regulated their dress and modes of transportation.

The law’s supporters – very much like those who advocate school uniforms – argued that, among other things, this law had reduced unnecessary competition and therefore was in everyone’s interest – a means to rein in wasteful spending and extravagance.

Those who argued against the law, at a time when austerity was no longer a major concern, suggested that it put Roman women at a disadvantage to their peers in other communities who were not affected by such measures.

Eventually, after much debate, with the elder Cato as the most prominent supporter of the lex Oppia, the law was abolished.

One might take this event as yet another example of how, historically, men have been trying to suppress women and making decisions over their bodies as well as over their rights – an unsurprising, somewhat trite observation to make, of course, considering that ancient Rome was a patriarchy and the feminist movement had not yet come about.

Unlike in other ancient societies, however, Roman women were fully well able to organise themselves and to voice their views publicly – much to the annoyance of at least some men.

On occasion of International Women’s Day 2018, and in keeping with the strike theme of my recent posts, I would thus like to celebrate the fear that the women of Rome very clearly managed to inspire in the male establishment.

Cornelia Africana (image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornelia_Africana)

Here is how the elder Cato is represented by the historian Livy responding to the fact that the women of Rome, no longer willing to accept this interference with their interests, took to the streets (Liv. 34.2.4–13, transl. J. C. Yardley):

“I personally have difficulty in deciding in my own mind which is worse, the affair itself or the precedent it may set—one of which is more a concern for us consuls and other magistrates, while the other pertains more to you, my fellow citizens. For whether what is being proposed to you is or is not in the interests of the state is for you to judge—you who will be voting on the matter. But this disorderly conduct of the women, whether it is spontaneous or occasioned by you, Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, must certainly be blamed on the magistrates, and I do not know whether it brings more disgrace on you, the tribunes, or on the consuls. It brings more on you if you have drawn the women into your tribunician revolts, and more on us if laws must be accepted because of a secession of women, as formerly because of a secession of the plebs.

“Frankly, I was blushing somewhat a moment ago when I came into the Forum through the midst of a crowd of women. Had I not been held back by respect for the status and modesty of some of the individuals present rather than of the group as a whole—I feared they might appear to have been rebuked by a consul—I would have said: ‘What sort of conduct is this, all this running out into public places, blocking streets and accosting other women’s husbands? Couldn’t you all have asked your own husbands the very same thing at home? Are your charms more seductive in public than in private and to other women’s spouses more than your own? And yet not even at home should the proposing or repealing of laws in this place have been any concern of yours, not if modesty kept married women within their proper limits.

“Our ancestors did not want women conducting business, even private business, without a guardian acting as her spokesman; they were to remain under the protection of fathers, brothers or husbands. But we, for God’s sake, are now allowing them even to engage in affairs of state and almost to involve themselves in the Forum, in our meetings and in our assemblies. For what else are they doing at this moment in the streets and at the crossroads but urging acceptance of a bill of the plebeian tribunes and voting for repealing a law?”

Cato stylises the women’s taking it to the streets, their ‘disorderly conduct’ (consternatio muliebris in the original Latin) into a major strike and walkout, a mulierum secessio, in the fashion of the fabled walkouts of the Roman people in response to their lack of power and rights in the face of patrician rule.

At the same time, Cato appears to be rather clear about, and afraid of, the very real consequences that such a united walkout would have: it would mean that laws would have to be accepted that are actually in the interest of Rome’s womanhood.

A scary thought to the elder Cato.

After all, where would this end…?

Cato knew the answer to that, of course – and his vision, though terrifying to him, is a message of hope to us (Liv. 34.2.14):

“Give free rein to their wild nature, to this unbroken beast, and then hope that they themselves will impose a curb on their license! If you do not impose it, this curb on them is merely the least of the restraints that women resent having imposed upon them by convention or the law. What they want is freedom—no, complete license, if we are willing to speak the truth,—in everything. If they win on this point, what then will they not try?”

Unity is strength.

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