Love Bites

One of the more bizarre stories of the 2014 FIFA World Cup was the Luis Suárez biting incident: Uruguay’s striker, currently playing for Liverpool, bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini.

Suárez has a remarkable history of this peculiar behaviour:

Meanwhile, the incident has resulted in a record ban for Suárez as well as in a predictable stream of creative effusions on the internet.

Beyond a doubt, Suárez needs help of some sort (certainly not that of the media, though – or that of this blog, for that matter).

What could be the explanation for Suárez’s behaviour?

Was he just as eager as the young Alcibiades, perhaps, who, too, is reported to have bitten an opponent during sports (Plutarch, Alcibiades 2.1-2)?

φύσει δὲ πολλῶν ὄντων καὶ μεγάλων παθῶν ἐν αὐτῷ, τὸ φιλόνεικον ἰσχυρότατον ἦν καὶ τὸ φιλόπρωτον, ὡς δῆλόν ἐστι τοῖς παιδικοῖς ἀπομνημονεύμασιν. ἐν μὲν γὰρ τῷ παλαίειν πιεζούμενος, ὑπὲρ τοῦ μὴ πεσεῖν ἀναγαγὼν πρὸς τὸ στόμα τὰ ἅμματα τοῦ πιεζοῦντος, οἷος ἦν διαφαγεῖν τὰς χεῖρας. ἀφέντος δὲ τὴν λαβὴν ἐκείνου καὶ εἰπόντος· ‘δάκνεις, ὦ Ἀλκιβιάδη, καθάπερ αἱ γυναῖκες,’ ‘οὐκ ἔγωγε,’ εἶπεν, ‘ἀλλ᾽ ὡς οἱ λέοντες.’

He was naturally a man of many strong passions, the mightiest of which were the love of rivalry and the love of preëminence. This is clear from the story recorded of his boyhood. He was once hard pressed in wrestling, and to save himself from getting a fall, set his teeth in his opponent’s arms, where they clutched him, and was like to have bitten through them. His adversary, letting go his hold, cried: ‘You bite, Alcibiades, as women do!’ ‘Not I,’ said Alcibiades, ‘but as lions do.’

Or it could have been an expression of passion of different sorts, along the lines expressed by the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius (Lucr. 4.1073-85) . . .

Nec Veneris fructu caret is qui vitat amorem,
sed potius quae sunt sine poena commoda sumit;
nam certe purast sanis magis inde voluptas    1075
quam miseris; etenim potiundi tempore in ipso
fluctuat incertis erroribus ardor amantum
nec constat quid primum oculis manibusque fruantur.
quod petiere, premunt arte faciuntque dolorem
corporis et dentes inlidunt saepe labellis    1080
osculaque adfigunt, quia non est pura voluptas
et stimuli subsunt, qui instigant laedere id ipsum,
quod cumque est, rabies unde illaec germina surgunt.
sed leviter poenas frangit Venus inter amorem
blandaque refrenat morsus admixta voluptas.     1085

Nor is he who shuns love without the fruits of Venus, but rather enjoys those blessings which are without any pain: doubtless the pleasure from such things is more unalloyed for the healthy-minded than for the love-sick; for in the very moment of enjoying the burning desire of lovers wavers and wanders undecided, and they cannot tell what first to enjoy with eyes and hands.

What they have sought, they tightly squeeze and cause pain of body and often imprint their teeth on the lips and clash mouth to mouth in kissing, because the pleasure is not pure and there are hidden stings which stimulate to hurt, even that whatever it is from which spring those germs of frenzy.

But Venus with light hand breaks the force of these pains during love, and the fond pleasure mingled therein reins in the bites.

Perhaps we will find out some day.

Suárez’s grandmother suggested that her grandson had been treated like a dog by FIFA. The footage, however, largely suggests that his conduct on this occasion was somewhat short of that of an adorable lap-dog – a lap-dog that could get away with lovable little nibbles (CIL XIII 488 = CLE 1512):

Quam dulcis fuit ista quam benigna
quae cum viveret in sinu iacebat
somni conscia semper et cubilis
O factum male Myia quod peristi
latrares modo si quis adcubaret     5
rivalis dominae licentiosa
O factum male Myia quod peristi
Altum iam tenet insciam sepulcrum
nec saevire potes nec insilire
nec blandis mihi morsibus renides     10

How sweet she was, how kind,
while she lived she used to lie in my lap
always a confidante of sleep and the couch.
O the sad day, Myia, when you died.
You would bark liberally if anyone should lie
on your mistress as a rival.
O the sad day, Myia, when you died.
Now a deep tomb holds you unconscious,
you can neither howl nor be silent,
nor do you delight at me with your bites or caresses.

Suárez explanation made matters worse, as he claimed that these things happen all the time: a damaging comment, somewhat along the lines of maxime mortiferi morsus solent esse morientium bestiarum (‘the bites of dying animals tend to be particularly deadly’, Florus, Epitome 1.31.43).

Except that Suárez’s comments clearly ended up biting himself.

At any rate,  his opponents must remain hopeful that this was the last time Suárez would bite someone, and that the involved parties will be able to reconcile. Or, as Pope Symmachus had put it, in an inscription that was produced after the schism over his papacy came to an end (ICUR II 4108 = ILCV 985, line 3):

ni(hi)l formido valet, morsus cessere luporum.

Dread achieves nothing: the bites of the wolves have stopped.

Misappropriation and Misapprehension: Vergil on 9/11

9/11 Memorial. – Image source:

9/11 Memorial. – Image source:

Memorials are difficult: what do we wish to remember, and how, and why? This becomes all the more apparent, the more prominent and the more emotive a monument is in its context.

Recently, there has been some (renewed) debate over the use of a quotation from Vergil’s Aeneid (Aen. 9.447) for the  9/11 memorial in New York.

The memorial, the critics say, allegedly ‘misuses a passage’ by removing it from its original context – commemorating the death of friends rather than mourning randomly inflicted carnage.

In the line’s original context, the poet celebrates his poetic prowess that will result in eternal memory of Nisus and Euryalus, two valiant Trojan warriors, who were close friends (with clear homoerotic undertones in the narrative).

The line(s) in question read thus (Verg. Aen. 9.446-9; translation from here):

Fortunati ambo! si quid mea carmina possunt,
nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo,
dum domus Aeneae Capitoli immobile saxum
accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.

Happy pair! If my poetry has the power,
while the House of Aeneas lives beside the Capitol’s
immobile stone, and a Roman leader rules the Empire,
no day will raze you from time’s memory.

Line 447 (nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo), rendered ‘no day shall erase you from the memory of time’ in the memorial’s inscription, invokes Euryalus’ own words, some two-hundred lines earlier (Aen. 9.281-3):

(…): me nulla dies tam fortibus ausis
dissimilem arguerit; tantum fortuna secunda
haud adversa cadat. (…)

(…) No day will ever find me separated from such
bold action: inasmuch as fortune proves kind
and not cruel. (…)

At any rate, Vergil’s line (as is true for many lines of many of the classical poets) appears to have become somewhat iconic already in antiquity – one can find it, for example, almost verbatim, in a funerary poem from the City of Rome (CIL VI 25427 = CLE 1142, final lines):

fortunati ambo si qua est ea gloria mortis
quos iungit tumulus iunxerat ut thalamus.

Happy pair, if there is something to that glory of death,
as their tomb had united them like a bedchamber.

CIL VI 25427 = CLE 1142. – Image source:

CIL VI 25427 = CLE 1142. – Image source:

One may, of course, wonder if it is a case of ‘misappropriation’ of Vergil’s lines that happens in the 9/11 memorial – as opposed to that Roman tombstone, where the setting is not altogether dissimilar to that in the Aeneid.

Before one jumps to bold conclusions, however, one should be mindful of the fact that Vergil himself was one of the keenest promoters of such forms of ‘misappropriations’, except that in his case we tend to think of artistic borrowings.

The line in question, as used in the 9/11 memorial, is an example of that. Some five years before Vergil died (and left an unfinished Aeneid to be burnt by the Emperor Augustus), Propertius had written the exact same thing – at Elegies 3.2.25-6, which in turn is a reference to Horace’s famous Ode 3.30 monumentum exegi aere perennius (translation from here):

fortunata, meo si qua es celebrata libello!
    carmina erunt formae tot monumenta tuae.
nam neque pyramidum sumptus ad sidera ducti,
    nec Iovis Elei caelum imitata domus, (20)
nec Mausolei dives fortuna sepulcri
    mortis ab extrema condicione vacant.
aut illis flamma aut imber subducet honores,
    annorum aut tacito pondere victa ruent.
at non ingenio quaesitum nomen ab aevo   (25)
    excidet: ingenio stat sine morte decus.

Happy the girl, who’s famed in my book! My poems are so many records of your beauty. The Pyramids reared to the stars, at such expense; Jupiter’s shrine at Elis that echoes heaven; the precious wealth of the tomb of Mausolos; not one can escape that final state of death. Their beauty is taken, by fire, by rain, by the thud of the years: ruined; their weight all overthrown. But the name I’ve earned, with my wit, will not be razed by time: Mind stands firm, a deathless ornament.

Propertius celebrates the fame of the girls he commemorates in his erotic elegies – so is Vergil, too, to blame of misappropriation?

Be that as it may.

Vergil’s line, borrowed by those who designed the 9/11 monument, has a history in the context of funerary commemoration – both in literary imagination and in real life (and death), and its context reminds us that there are things more lasting than any built structure ever will be (with the possible exception of the Egyptian pyramids): poetry.

This may not be such a bad thing to remember.

Whether this is what we were supposed to remember, as intended by those who used the line, is a different matter, of course.

Waxing Poetic: Bees and Death (and Bee Death)

The issue, and in fact the very idea, of bee death and colony collapses – a constant feature of the news for a number of years now – is deeply worrying and unsettling: how will we all survive, if the pollinators die – the pollinators of the very crops that we need in huge amounts?

The most recent addition to the record of bad news in this regard, as to be published in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, is our growing understanding and appreciation of the impact of climate change on food security.

Long-term changes to our climate may have a significant impact on the cycles of the life of animals and plants, including that of plants and bees, and it remains to be seen just how easily pollinators will be able to adapt their life cycles to a changing dynamic of the flora.

The study of evolution has taught us, of course, that nature is likely to find a way to respond to changing environments (though not, perhaps, to the rapid changes inflicted to it by human civilisations).

This raises an interesting question: considering that we cannot actually predict how nature is going to change (and to cope) with the ongoing threat to current types of pollinators, how come we feel so strongly about them?

Clearly, popular responses to issues such as bee death and colony collapse are not informed first and foremost by the fundamental understanding of the relevance of pollination alone.

Much rather, it would seem that, the life-threatening significance to one side, the concept of ‘bee death’ in itself has an almost poetic – fundamentally tragic – ring to it.

The honey bee is an animal that to us, perhaps like no other, is associated with life and the sweetness of life itself. The mythic symbolism of the bee is ancient and complex. The Roman poet Vergil, in a famous passage of his Georgics, celebrates the bees – as an instructive foil for human life, labour, and statal organisation (georg. 4.1–280).

A one-line poem from Pompeii cuts right to the chase as regards the symbolism of bees (CIL IV 8408a):

Amantes ut apes vita(m) mellita(m) exigunt.

Lovers, like bees, lead a honey-sweet life.

So how can these animals, in the phrase ’bee death’, possibly be brought together with something as cruel and terminal) as death . . . ?

Interestingly enough, in ancient Greece and Rome, bees played a major role in funerary cults – as a symbol of hope, afterlife, and resurrection.

A number of poetic inscriptions attest to this, when they mention that the monuments of the dead have turned into a shelter of (bee) life. A funerary poem from the City of Rome goes as far as representing the very tomb itself as a beehive (CIL VI 30113 = CLE 1262):

- – - – - -
sic pia, sic felix, sic quod vita beata

contigit et cunctis auxilians bonitas.
nos tamen hic cruciat dolor intimus et pia cura,
quod te festinans apstulit atra dies.
numina tunc inferna, precor, patri date lucos
in quis purpureus perpetuusque dies.
hic certe ut meruit cunctast data cura sepulcro
texeruntque favi de Siculis apibus.

(…) so dutiful, so lucky, so happy a life he held, and a good nature that came to the help of everyone. But us hurts this pain, deep inside, and dutiful care, for a black day snatched you away rapidly. Spirits of the Underworld, I beseech you, give our father a grove in which there is crimson, eternal daylight. Here, as he deserved, every care has been given to the tomb itself, covered in honeycomb from Sicilian bees.

This must be seen in conjunction with a couple of texts – again poetry from Roman tombstones – that reflect on the ‘secondary’ (involuntary, yet poetic) use of funerary monuments as nesting site for wild bees.

A monument from Arles (Arelate) offers the following text (CIL XII 743 = CLE 454):

Aeliae Aelia[nae].
Littera qui nosti lege casum et d[ole puellae]:
multi sarcophagum dicunt quod cons[umit artus],
set conclusa decens apibus domus ist[a vocanda].
o nefas indignum iacet hic praecla[ra puella],
hoc plus quam dolor est, rapta est specios[a puella].
pervixit virgo ubi iam matura placebat,
nuptias indixit, gaudebant vota parentes:
vixit enim ann(os) XVII et menses VII diesque XVIII.
o felice patrem qui non vidit tale dolorem.
heret et in fixo pectore volnus Dionysiadi matri
et iunctam secum Geron pater tenet ipse puellam.

For Aelia Aeliana. You, who know the letters, read of a girl’s fate and feel the pain: many call a sarcophagus what consumes the limbs: but one must call this a house for bees, shut, and proper. Oh, here lies – an unworthy sacrilege! – a beautiful girl: this is more than just pain, an attractive girl has been snatched away. The girl lived to enjoy aspects of maturity, she announced her marriage, the parents were delighted over the pledge: for she lived 17 years, 7 months, and 18 days. Oh lucky father, who did not get to see such pain. Dionysias, the mother, has a wound tacked onto her heart, and, united with himself, Geron, the father, himself holds the girl.

The poem, expressing a mother’s mourning over the loss of her daughter (and her husband), playfully explores the term ‘sarcophagus’ (literally: ‘flesh-eater’), suggesting that this is in fact a misnomer: the coffin does not (or so the inscription suggest) consume the flesh of the dead, it gives a home to the bees, who will eventually inhabit this as their decens domus, their proper home.

Monument of the Flavii at Kasserine. – Image Source:$CIL_08_11300b_2.jpg

Monument of the Flavii at Kasserine. – Image Source:$CIL_08_11300b_2.jpg

The same idea is driven to an even higher level, adding olfactory sensations to the artifice, in a famous, very long poem from the extraordinary monument of the Flavii at Kasserine (Cillium).

The relevant passages of the poem(s) – poems that consist of a total of 110 lines – read as follows: (CIL VIII 212=11300b = CLE 1552a and CIL VIII 213=11300c = CLE 1552b):

quid non docta facit pietas: lapis ecce foratus
luminibus multis hortatur currere blandas
intus apes et cerineos componere nidos
ut semper domus haec thymbraeo nectare dulcis
sudet florisapos dum dant nova mella liquores.

What does a sense of filial duty not achieve: behold, the gaping stonework, with many a light crack, invites enchanting bees to go inside and to build their waxy nests, so that this home forever will exude a sweet scent from the nectar of thyme, when new honey produces flower-dripping juices.

Driving the imagery just as much to an extreme as the entire monument, this poet sees the way in which a stone structure allows nature to take its course as an act of ancestor worship: bees that nest in the monument will eternally provide a sweet scent worthy of the revered ancestor.

The poet was so taken by the idea that he reverts to it in a twenty-lines postscript to the poem itself (just to make sure the monument’s (sadly lost) weather vane, in the shape of a cockerel, does receive mention as well!). The passage in question, offering a spectacular backdrop for the final punchline, reads as follows:

Huc iterum, pietas, venerandas erige mentes
et mea quo nosti carmina more fove.
ecce Secundus adest iterum qui pectore sancto
non monimenta patri, sed nova templa dedit.
quo nunc Calliope gemino me limite cogis
quas iam transegi rusus adire vias:
nempe fuit nobis operis descriptio magni:
diximus et iunctis saxa polita locis
circuitus nemorum currentes dulciter undas
atque reportantes mella frequenter apes.

Filial duty, direct your worshipful mind to this place again and support my poems in your accustomed fashion. Behold, Secundus is back once again, who, in a reverent frame of mind, gave his father not so much a monument, but a new type of temple. Calliope, you now force me, in a double path, to walk the ways that I had already passed: indeed, we gave a description of the great work: we mentioned the stones, polished and carefully arranged, the waves, running sweet through the adjacent groves, and the bees, that frequently bring back the honey.

Here, in the inscription from Kasserine, the bees have become virtually the sacred priests that support the worship of the human dead.

It is hard to imagine what a world without bees would look like, and we all should hope that it does not come to that. The loss would not only be a factual one – it would be a highly symbolic loss as well, a loss that goes to the core of a human symbolism that existed since ancient times.

The cold grave that is the deep, deep sea

There still is no (confirmed) trace of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. The last few days, however, saw a number of reports that focused on (potential) debris in the Indian Ocean, and the continuous silence of flight systems and crew, passengers, or potential hijackers would appear to render a crash into the ocean the most likely scenario at this stage.

One can only imagine the ordeal relatives of the occupants of the plane continue to go through – the absence of answers, of certainty, of closure must be deeply unsettling (and hard to understand, to say the least, in age that has become the paragon of data collection and world-wide surveillance).

The desire to locate the final resting place of one’s relatives, the wish to mark it in a religious or quasi-religious manner, appears to be deeply rooted in human nature – what else (apart from the rather worldly issue of insurance claims, sadly, as well as the – mostly unrealistic – hope to find survivors at long last) would be the explanation for the expensive hunt for the remains of those who were lost in plain crashes in remote areas?

In the ancient world, the hope to retrieve the bodies of victims of shipwrecks, and to bury them, must have been rather limited to begin with. Yet, as inscriptions show, it was not completely out of the question. The following text from Autun is one such example (CIL XIII 2718):

Eufronia Euf[r(oni)] | filia et m[at(er)] | naufragio |necta nat[a] | pri(die) Kal(endas) No[v(embres)] | percepit | III Id(us) April(es) | decessit pri(die) Kal(endas) Mai(as).

Eufronia, daughter of Eufronius and a mother, killed in a shipwreck (sc. lies here). Born on 31 October, gave birth on 11 April, died 30 April.

Something similar appears to apply in a text from Chester (RIB I 544):

[- - - - - -] | opt[i]onis ad spem | ordinis | (centuria) Lucili | Ingenui qui | naufragio perit | s(itus) e(st).

[- - - - - -], of the Optio-soon-to-be-promoted, in the century of Lucilius Ingenuus, who had died in a shipwreck, lies here.

A rather more common scenario, however, should be that of a body missing – a fate that, for those left behind, results in the need to come up with a cenotaph.

One such example is reported in the tombstone of a boy named Ursinus, in a tombstone that was discovered at Baška Voda (in the Roman province of Dalmatia, now Croatia). The text, partly poetic in nature, tells of his father’s pains when uncertainty had become certainty after all (CIL III 1899 = CLE 826):

D(is) M(anibus) | M(arcus) Allius | Firminus | Ursino f(ilio) | C(ai) Septimi | Carpopo|ri delica|to infeli|cissimo p(uero) | naufragio | obito an(norum) XI | cuius mem|bra consum|sit maris | per | se quot nomen | titulus praestat | suisq(ue) dolorem.

To the spirits of the departed. Marcus Allius Firminus for his son Ursinus, delight of Gaius Septimius Carpoporus, a most unlucky boy, who died in a shipwreck at the age of eleven, whose body the sea has devoured. How many a time does an inscription display a name on it – and thus bring pain to the relatives.

Similarly, an funerary poem from Ravenna tells the following story (CIL XI 188 = CLE 1210):

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

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

Another poeticising  variation on the same motive was discovered in Padua (CIL V 3014 = CLE 2209):

D(is) M(anibus). | P(ublio) Pom(peio?) | Firmo | infelic(issimo) | quem ma|ris apstulit | undis  Iul(ia) | Olympia ma|rito b(ene) m(erenti) p(osuit).

To the spirits of the departed. For Publius Pompeius (?) Firmus, the most wretched, who was snatched away by the waves of the sea: Iulia Olympia had this erected for her well-deserving husband.

Or in a prose text from Ancona (CIL IX 5920):

D(is) M(anibus). | M(arco) Gratio Co|ronario qui | in mare vi tem|pestatis deces(sit) | Scaefia Calliope | coniugi optimo | et Scaefiae Ter|tullae filiae d|ulcissimae quae | vixit annum d(ies) XIII | b(ene) m(erenti).

To the spirits of the departed. For Marcus Gratius Coronarius who died at sea due to the force of a storm: Scaefia Calliope had this erected for the best husband and for Scaefia Tertulla, her sweetest daughter, who lived one year and thirteen days: she was well deserving.

Occasionally, Latin funerary inscriptions do not spare grim and gruesome detail. One such text from Solin in Dalmatia (Croatia), for example, reminds us that even those who already were with one foot in the cold grave that is the deep, deep sea and then managed to escape this fate, are not necessarily safe from a horrendous death soon afterwards (CIL III 8910):

[n]aufragio exi|sse annum | vertentem |vixisse pos an|num mano uma|na sublatum | esse Aur(elius) Aeladi(us) | pater filio pi|entissimo | pos(uit).

Escaped from a shipwreck, lived over the course of a year, then killed by a human hand. Aurelius Aeladius, the father, had this erected for his most dutiful son.

All these texts are testimony to grim fates and deep grief of those left behind. Yet, they also are an expression of the desire to cope and to come to terms with a traumatic loss.

One must hope that this step will soon become possible for those who experience deep anguish over the fate of their beloved ones aboard the Malaysian Airlines flight.

The Power of Song and Music at Pompeii

Clearly some houses at Pompeii are more prone to disaster than others. Not only was dwelling III 5.1, the shop and house of Pascius Hermes, destroyed and covered by volcanic matter just like everything else at Pompeii: it was damaged by a WW II bomb in 1943 as well.

Street music scene on a Pompeian mosaic

Street music scene on a Pompeian mosaic

A third misfortune related to this building was recorded on a pilaster that belonged to a balcony – a balcony, that had already collapsed when the building was excavated in 1918. The inscription, a graffito, reads as follows (CIL IV 8873 = Zarker 156; I give the reading and translation of Elizabeth Woeckner, slightly modified in order to reflect the idiosyncrasies in spelling in the Latin):

Themis amat deos. uinca(t), uinca(t) pantorgana Tal[us]
Cytaredus cantat Apolo, tibicina n<e>mpe ego.
Came<l>opardus abet cor ut Acille<s> ob clarit[atem].
Sum rabid<a>. I<a>m Vulcanus <e>m medicina est.

Themis loves the gods. Let Talus win, let him win the musical contest.
Apollo the citharode sings. Surely I am a tibicina.
The giraffe has a heart like Achilles on account of its distinctiveness.
I am furious. Behold now. Volcanus is the cure.

Decrying the absence of justice (Themis appears to be preoccupied with her divine friends), the tibicina – a flute-girl, and according to the text itself the author of this little piece – emphatically shouts: ‘let Talus win’ (Talus being her rival in a musical competition, called pantorgana, ‘all-instrument [contest]‘, as it would appear), repeating the painful uincat. Talus next appears as the mythological cithara-player Apollo, the divine inventor of the lyre and permanent winner in the lyre-vs-flute contest with Marsyas – increasing the contrast even further by the introduction of a gender distinction between the players of the prestigious cithara and the lowly tibia.

The following line – an insult, no doubt – is less clear, except that it combines an impressive, yet distinctively non-brave animal, the giraffe, with the bravest of the Greeks at Troy, Achilles: a pun on the deceptive nature of the tibicina‘s rival? At any rate, her fury persists, and only the destructive forces of Vulcan appear to be good enough to provide a cure.

The inscription, seemingly rambling in its unfolding, is far more than a spontaneous outburst of anger. It is poeticising, a so-called commaticum, consisting of lines that closely resemble established rhythmical patterns of well-known verse types, but do not altogether adhere to their required formal standards. It also provides us, however, with an opportunity to have a quick glance at the relevance of music at Pompeii in general and its mentions in the Pompeian inscriptions in particular.

odeonExcavations at Pompeii brought to light not only numerous actual musical instruments: the ruins preserve dedicated buildings for poetic and musical performances – Pompeii’s theatre district with its odeum – as well as well-known visual representations of musical scenes.

Moreover, the walls preserved dozens of poems (or quasi-poems, such as the tibicina‘s, above), so-called Carmina Epigraphica, inscriptions in verse.

Some of the Pompeian Carmina Epigraphica are of outstanding literary quality – most notably perhaps the set of poems (or the one extended poem?) that were discovered in the theatre district with the signature of one Tiburtinus: Tiburtinus epoese – ‘Tiburtinus made this’ (CIL IV 4966 ff. = CLE 934 f.). The opening lines of this cluster of texts, describing the overwhelming fires of passion, lust, and love, read thus (transl.: Antonio Varone):

[Quid f]it? Vi me, oculi, posquam deducxstis in ignem
[no]n ob uim uestreis largificatis geneis.
[Vst]o non possunt lacrumae restinguere flamam,
[hui]c os incendunt tabificantque animum.

What’s happening? Oh, eyes, you forcibly dragged me into the fire;
Now, unforced, you flood my cheeks.
But never can the tears extinguish the flame.
These things burn the face and eat away the mind.

The unrestrained, ambiguous power of love emanates from these lines – a fire very different from those that the tibicina had in mind, yet not at all less devastating in its potential. It is love, too, that plays a central role in the following example, again a carmen epigraphicum, if rather fragmentary. More remarkably, however, the text draws attention to its actual form by means of its use of the relevant term carmen in its final surviving line (CIL IV 3691 = CLE 951):

[Non] ego tam
[c]ur[o] Venere[m]
[d]e marmore
- – - – - -

I am not concerned with a Venus made of marble as much in my songs…

… than, presumably, a Venus made of flesh and blood, deserving of hymnic praise just like the goddess of love herself…?

Several other inscriptions mention the term carmina, ‘songs’, ‘chants’, ‘spells’ – and it is not at all clear in all cases what the writer had in mind (CIL IV 1598. 2361?. 4401. 5304; one may have to add CIL IV 1635, previously read as carminibus credo, ‘I fell for charms’ or some such, which triggered numerous fantastic explanations, all of which are most certainly wrong, as the two words may not even be part of the same text, as the design and possibly even the writing itself go to prove).

A clear literary allusion is hiding behind CIL IV 10085a, originally edited as carmina aio summa uiri (‘I pronounce songs, of the highest quality, of the man’), but clearly misread and misinterpreted, as Heikki Solin in his caustic Gnomon review of the relevant volume of CIL has shown. Instead, the text reads, most likely:

Carmina non memini

I don’t remember those songs

– a rather amusing remark, considering that the person who writes this both claims not to remember songs, and writes what he (presumably) remembers of a song.

One song that got remembered at Pompeii, was Vergil’s eighth Eclogue, as the following quote of line 70 of said text goes to prove (CIL IV 1982 = CLE 1785 adn. = 2292 adn.):

Circe socios

With songs (or: spells) Circe bewitched the companions of Odysseus.

This is not what happens in Homer, of course, but it gives a vivid impression of the Roman concept of carmen, words put in a quasi-magical order, to unfold their power upon recital – whether poetic, part of witchcraft, or as elements of religious rituals.

The tibicina of the first text, above, was angry – rabida, as she says. Is her poeticising text itself then a carmen, jinxing her successful rival Talus, and invoking the devastating powers of Vulcan?

It was the power of Vulcan – the power of Pompeii’s neighbourhood volcano Vesuvius (which allegedly was not known to be a volcano by the Pompeians, or so most scholars seem to think) – that unleashed its forces, somewhat rather more drastic than the tibicina may have envisioned. At the same time, rather ironically, it thus preserved a note recording and cursing the success of Talus as well.

Hot Air and Sage Advice, or: Human, All Too Human (A Blog Post for Free Thinkers)

There has been a remarkable wave of outputs recently, traditional and web-based, that conceptualised the wish to find ancient Roman fore-runners of the walls of social media, counterparts for toilet graffiti and related witticisms, or at least some proto-memes by ‘the other 99% of the ancient world’ – preferably from the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is, of course, in addition to the usual, unstoppable flood of popular media outpourings that present ancient erotic art and its reworkings as some kind of mysterious, strangely appealing, yet ultimately revolting freak show.

Whence this most recent wave of publications that indulge in the promotion of (mostly) Erotica Pompeiana – those texts that seem to come straight from a Corpus Inscriptionum Latrinarum? (Here is hoping my former colleagues in Berlin at the CIL will eventually forgive me for this inevitable pun!)

It may be indicative of the process of new generation’s (re-)appropriation of classical material – material that in actuality has been known and studied for a long time. (None of the texts or artefacts that were discussed recently were altogether new or unknown or, in fact,  inaccessible even to a general audience: they have been in the public domain a long time.)

It may also be an expression of the desire to find some historical meaning, precedence, and light relief to this generation’s own, busy times, reminding of the essentials of the human experience in a humorous fashion.

… or it may just be the beautifully childish desire to say something obscene, loudly and in public, and still not take responsibility for it – just because it feels like such an enormous (even physical) relief?

Solon (Ostia) -- Image source:

Solon (Ostia). — Image source:

In order to achieve relief, it is useful fully to digest – intellectually, of course – what one has taken in, as a famous inscribed painting from Ostia, Rome’s ancient harbour, appropriately points out. In a gnome of lasting philosophical value, it commemorates the wisdom of Solon, one of the legendary seven sages of ancient Greece:

Vt bene cacaret uentrem palpauit Solon.

‘In order to have a good shit, Solon rubbed his belly.’

Of course, there is nothing really surprising or particularly remarkable in the fact that the Ancient Greeks and Romans, too, enjoyed writing obscenity and defacing walls by means of graffiti, painted inscriptions, and satirical drawings. The detection of a more or less unbroken continuity of everyday human practice does not really bear any significance for its modern counterpart(s): it does not add any deeper meaning, it does not provide any justification, it does not add any measurable value to its continuation(s).

Yet, there appears to be something profoundly liberating and comforting about the (unsurprising, predictable, and minimal) insight that we are all human, sharing basic needs and desires, including the fatuous wish to be able to say something utterly frivolous and to get away with it. An even more comforting experience (to many) is the observation that this type of mischievous behaviour, too, is a human constant.

After all, everyone likes a fart joke!

Chilon (Ostia). — Image source:$Zarker_00018.jpg

What else could be the explanation for a second panel from the aforementioned inscribed painting from Ostia – this time a panel displaying the Greek sage Chilon – like Solon one of the proverbial seven sages! – sitting on a latrine, while the inscription spells out Chilon’s sagest advice yet:

Vissire tacite Chilon docuit subdolus.

‘Crafty Chilon taught how to fart silently.’

Does it not feel reassuring to be part of a community of practice that has been in existence from the beginning of time?

No, really, everyone likes a fart joke – preferably in conjunction with the demolition of an otherwise unreachable idol (an idea that has resulted in numerous pastiches on YouTube).

From the perspective of a Classical Scholar who has worked on this material for many years, it is nothing short of delightful to see not only how the products of high culture of the ancient Mediterranean continue to unfold their potential, but also how all those seemingly insignificant, everyday practices and utterings continue to fascinate and to inspire a wide audience.

At the same time, however, it makes one wonder where Classical Scholarship is going with the wealth of inscribed material that the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide.

Yes, some outstanding linguistic work on this material has been produced.

Yes, there is an ongoing effort to understand more about the spatial arrangements, about written multi-user communication, and about access to inscribable wall-space. Yes, an effort is being made to harvest the onomastic data and put it in perspective with what else we know about the inhabitants of the ancient settlements.

Will that be it? What will be the Classicists’ response to the unbroken fascination that emerges from the ever-recurring popular publications (and their sometimes rather deplorable quality, one should add)? Have we even begun to approach and conceptualise the psychology of writing in the public domain, on material that is less than ideal for use as stationery, for example? Have we even begun to appreciate the aesthetics of writing on walls, for example?

Thales (from Ostia). -- Image source:

Thales (Ostia). — Image source:

Perhaps we, as academics, can try a little harder, without (like popularising outputs) only ever repeating the same twenty-odd texts over and over again – those few handfuls of texts that get mentioned when one talks about the graffiti of the ancient world.

Or as Thales famously said:

Durum cacantes monuit ut nitant Thales.

‘Thales instructed those who have difficulties to shit to strive.’

Digesting Food for Thought

Delivering my paper 'Inscribing the Uninscribable'

Delivering my paper ‘Inscribing the Uninscribable’ at the ‘Manuscripts and Epigraphy’ conference (Hamburg, 15 November 2013).

Travel broadens the mind, they say. This may not always be the case, but it most definitely was my experience when I was fortunate enough to attend the conference ‘Manuscripts and Epigraphy’ in mid-November, impeccably organised by the Centre of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg. The variety of topics and papers at this conference was highly rewarding and truly inspirational.

Among the particularly remarkable discoveries for me at this conference was to learn of the existence of hundreds of thousands of (often fragmentary) lettered wooden tablets from Japan. These tablets, often fragmentary and never really intended to survive for a long time, are referred to as mokkan (木簡).

These documents from Japan contain a wide variety of texts and serve an equally wide range of communicative purposes. Unsurprisingly, they raise the same questions about literacy and handwritten communication as the graffiti and the letters that are preserved from the ancient Mediterranean, and, interestingly enough, due to the perishable nature of the material, they also raise the same questions about modes of preservation as the wooden tablets preserved from the ancient world.

A Mundane, Yet Primordial Need

Much to the entertainment of the audience (and to the bewilderment of the excellent speaker, I suspect), I was particularly struck by a set of texts discovered at the Former Imperial Audience Hall of the Nara Capital, a site that dates back to the eighth century A. D.: not only do they highlight the constants of the human experience, but they embody, in their beautiful simplicity and striking, humble straightforwardness, some of the very problems of current debate on ancient literacy.

The tablet that stood out to me from the presentation was this one:

Mokkan tablet. - Source:

Mokkan tablet. – Source:

The item advises: ‘do not urinate here’, and it is thought to have been directed at the workforce that helped building the site (again, raising some interesting questions over the recipients’ assumed low ability to decipher encrypted speech).

Signs of similar content are not unknown to our own cultural experience (note the faulty spelling of ‘deficating’, too!):

'No Pee Zone' sign. -- Source:

‘No Pee Zone’ sign. — Source:

Sacred Texts or Actual Communication?

Texts similar to the above are known from the ancient world as well, of course. Some of them, like this famous example from Solin/Salona are rather monumental and ornate:

CIL III 1966. -- (c) Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum. -- Source:

CIL III 1966. — (c) Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum. — Source:

The text inscribed underneath a sculpted relief representing the goddess Hecate reads: Quisq(ue) in eo uico stercus non posu|erit aut non cacauerit aut non m|iauerit habeat illas propitias | si neglexerit uiderit (‘Anyone who has not dumped any filth in this village nor shat nor peed, may enjoy the mercy of her [sc. of the Hecate Triformis]; if disregarded, beware!’).

Matters of public hygiene, combined with religiously motivated threats (especially whenever seen in conjunction with the potential desecration of loca religiosa) are not uncommon – and many a tomb inscription explicitly prohibits such activities.

This raises an interesting question, of course, namely: does the existence of such signs, in the Roman world, presuppose sufficient literacy levels for the general public to appreciate the content of the text? Is it telling that the sculpture in the above example is rather more central to the overall appearance than the text itself? (But if that is the case, and if literacy levels are low, why bother in the first place?)

Is the religious context and markedness of texts like the above one from Solin/Salona the main and symbolic point – overruling the need to understand the content of the inscription itself (as would be the case with spells and curses, for example)?

Classical Scholars tend to be overly (and unduly) pessimistic when it comes to literacy levels in the Roman Empire – surely there is a difference between those who could decipher a simple message (or compose one) and those who were able to appreciate the great authors of Latin literature. The same is true for the aforementioned mokkan from Japan – and this parallel becomes particularly interesting. The text from Japan is unambiguously non-religious: it is simple and straightforward, it addresses the workforce of the site, and it gives a straightforward message (which is more than what one can say for the convoluted text from Solin/Salona, for example).

A Pompeian Crapshoot

The Roman world, too, had such simple instructions to those who were potentially ready to foul the cityscape – and the walls of the Campanian settlement of Pompeii preserved multiple examples. Only very few of them are as complex as the one from Solin/Salona – such as the following jokey-obscene one, a poem, that, in rather remarkable Latin, purports to come from a tomb (but was actually discovered at a doorway of a house).

CIL IV 8899. - Source:$CIL_04_08899.jpg

CIL IV 8899. – Source:$CIL_04_08899.jpg

Hospes adhuc tumuli ni meias ossa prec[antur] | nam si uis (h)uic gratior esse caca | Vrticae monumenta uides discede cacator | non est hic tutum culu(m) aperire tibi (‘Stranger, my bones beg you not to pee at my tomb: if you want to do the deceased an even bigger favour: take a dump! You see the tomb of Urtica [= 'Stinging Nettle']: go away, shitter! It is not safe for you to open your buttocks here!’).

The same playfully obscene idea of rather intimate punishments for fouling exists in literary texts, e. g. in Martial and the Carmina Priapea.

Rather more straightforward, however, are those texts that merely say ‘Shitter, beware’ (cacator, caue malum or Caue malum, cacator), attested more than half a dozen times at Pompeii (cf. CIL IV 3782. 3832. 4586. 5438. 7714. 7715. 7716). These simple texts – painted or scratched – must have been crystal-clear to its intended readership.

What is interesting is that occasionally such texts (just like those against loiterers) were occasionally accompanied by visual representations of serpents and snakes (cf. CIL IV 6641 for an example to do with defecation near a street shrine). Persius, Satires 1.112-4, who mentions this practice,  seems to imply that the representation of snakes creates a sacred space – perfectly possible, but surely not the first thought and immediate association of those who behold the image (or the text and the threats they contain).


Even a simple sign – like one that says ‘do not urinate here’ – can become something complex, once it encounters the largely humour-free brain of a German philologist. It raises a number of questions, in fact, and the comparison of such signs, across languages and cultures, helps to address these to an extent:

  • Two texts stating the same do not necessarily communicate the same message. The somewhat long-winded Latin poem that pretends to come from a tomb suggests may be little less than a witty joke (punning on the name Urtica ~ ‘Stinging Nettle’), whereas the shorter ones in their straightforwardness and simplicity would appear to express a desire to be taken seriously.
  • Media matter. A complex stone inscription, with an ornate relief, conveys a different message (and may be more of a symbol than part of verbal communication) than inscriptions that focus on the verbal message alone (and potentially merely illustrate the threatening nature by means of an image). In that respect, the stone inscription from Solin/Salona may work in the opposite way from the illustrated wall inscription CIL IV 6641, where snakes are a powerful visual marker (similar to pictograms on modern signs?), but not the main focus of the overall scenario.
  • Simplicity of expression and a strict focus on the message appears to be the most obvious way to communicate a message that is meant to be taken seriously and adhered to by the public – this is just as true for the Pompeian inscriptions as it is true for the mokkan from Japan – the text that sparked it all.

These musings raise another issue: how do texts that address a general public and wish to express a directive, in no uncertain terms, phrase this matter? Are there general politeness rules that apply? Is linguistic politeness in these matters something useful or ultimately something counterproductive?

This, however, would be another blog post entirely.

Hope and Despair in Roman Britain

Originally published on the Classics-at-Reading blog:

The Yorkshire Museum in York houses a most impressive collection of Roman inscriptions from York and the immediate vicinity. On occasion of a trip to Yorkshire in August 2013, I was finally able to see for myself a particularly noteworthy item of their collection, an item that has fascinated me for quite some time: the tombstone of a girl named Corellia Optata.

Inscription of Corellia Optata

Inscription for Corellia Optata

The stone, arguably dating to the second half of the first century A. D., more plausibly somewhat later in date, is heavily damaged. At the top, a sculpture is lost altogether (as is a letter ‘D’ on the left-hand side, which would have corresponded with the letter ‘M’ on the right). In its present state, the lower part of a (presumably female) figure’s legs survives, standing in the middle, resting on the frame that contains the actual inscription.

The Latin text, full of abbreviations, ligatures, and spelling oddities, reads as follows:

[D(is)] M(anibus).
Corellia Optata an(norum) XIII.
Secreti Manes, qui regna
Acherusia Ditis incoli-
tis, quos parua petunt post
lumina uite exiguus cinis
et simulacrum, corpo<r>is um-
bra: insontis gnate geni-
tor spe captus iniqua
supremum hunc nate
miserandus defleo finem.
Core(llius) Fortis pat(er) f(aciendum) c(urauit).

(Carmina Latina Epigraphica 395)

 In translation:

To the divine Manes.
Corellia Optata, aged 13.
You reclusive Manes, who inhabit the Acherusian realm of Hades, whom the little pile of ashes and the spirit do seek after but a short span of life, the body’s shade: I, the begetter of an innocent daughter, trapped by wrongful hope, wretched, wail this, my daughter’s ultimate destiny.
Quintus Corellius Fortis, the father, had this made.

The central part of this inscription (lines 2–11 in the Latin) forms a poem comprising five dactylic hexametres:

Secreti Manes, qui regna Acherusia Ditis
incolitis, quos parua petunt post lumina uite
exiguus cinis et simulacrum, corpo<r>is umbra:
insontis gnate genitor spe captus iniqua
supremum hunc nate
miserandus defleo finem.            5

Inscribed poems, very common in other parts of the Roman world, appear to have been exceptionally rare in Roman Britain: a mere two dozen or so have survived to the present day. In that respect, a poem of five perfectly preserved lines is rather spectacular.

The poem, dedicated to the secreti Manes, those reclusive, hard-to-grasp spirits of the Roman underworld, seems topical at first: a girl dies young, and a parent expresses his grief, complaining about the injustice of the premature death. Yet this father, Q. Corellius Fortis, at least superficially familiar with the literary classics of his day and age, went beyond that: and the way in which he did this is precisely what makes this poem so remarkable.

Corellius was a brave man, certainly by name: Fortis is not only the father’s name, but also a Latin adjective denoting the quality of ‘brave’. Perhaps he earned this nickname in a military career? He and the (altogether nameless, absent) mother of the child clearly desired a child, for they gave the daughter the name Optata, ‘Desired’, ‘Hoped-For’.

The brave man was fooled, however, a soldier trapped (captus) by spes iniqua, a hope that brought undeserved disappointment: the verbal allusion of spes (‘hope’) to the name of the daughter, Optata, could hardly be more obvious. A similarly inspired word play can be seen in the placement of the word finis (‘destiny’, more literally: ‘end’) at what is indeed the very end of the poem.

Corellius may have been fortis, but he was not ashamed to express his sorrow, his lament, and, in fact, his bitter disappointment, and to record it for eternity. Following the expressive alliteration parua petunt post – the ‘spitting’ Ps barely conceal the author’s contempt –, Corellius stresses the daughter’s innocence, using the loaded term insons. This not only implies the absence of guilt, but also utter harmlessness. This increases the contrast between the innocent victim of premature death – the daughter – and those who now, undeservedly, get to enjoy the presence of Optata’s physical and immaterial remains: the Manes in their reclusive abode, the dark realm of Hades.

Yet, the poem also leaves little doubt over who is the real victim: Corellius Fortis, the genitor (‘begetter’), a wretch (miserandus) first trapped by deceitful hope, then robbed by the untimely demise.

Funerary inscriptions, whether prose or poetry, deal with commonplaces, necessitated by the events and the need to offer consolation for those left behind, and many a time they resort to truisms, banalities, and ideology. Corellius Fortis was forced to face the same fate as many parents in the ancient world, the loss of his child at a relatively early age. His poetic attempt to come to terms with this stands out not only because of the (relative) rarity of inscribed poems in the environment of Roman Britain: it stands out because of the amount of skill and thought that have gone into this highly individual, personal, and touching little poem, expressing hope, despair, and grief with a gripping immediacy.