Trick or Treat? Torture, Death, and a Chilling Poem

Jack-o'-losseum. - Image source:

Jack-o’-Losseum or the ultimate Apocolocyntosis? – Image source:

Halloween 2014 is near. As every year, people around the globe will celebrate this occasion. Children and grown-ups alike will indulge themselves in the pleasurable thrill that arises from this day’s spooky combination of the fantastic with the morbid.

Halloween derives its peculiar dynamics from this haunting combination, blurring and blending  otherwise absolutely certain and irrevocable distinctions between ‘our’ world and the other – a netherworld full of rot, decay, and frightening creatures.

Despite its Christian name Hallow e’en, denoting the eve of All Saints’ day, the roots of Halloween appear to go back to an earlier stage. It may well be related to pagan rites and one of the many festivals that existed (and continue to exist) everywhere, in every civilisation, and at all times, that invoke the presence of netherworldly spirits and imagine a contact with the dead.

Nowadays, Halloween is, or rather: can be, a day of fantastic story-telling (or even story-enacting). These stories bring about a haunted fantasy world, spooky and scary, of course, yet irresistably appealing, impossible to ignore – especially as there are sweets aplenty on offer as well (presumably in a sustained effort to extend the prevailing rot-and-decay theme to children’s teeth).

A haunted world provides entertainment and fascination only for as long as we can securely rely on the knowledge that all of this is, in fact, a game, a staged performance. We would like to , and we must, be reassured that there are not any actual monsters, zombies, and spectres around, walking about in our streets and inhabiting our neighbours’ houses.

But what if gory horror were to become part of the real world, the world that we encounter? What if such gruesomeness that we playfully invoke on occasion of Halloween were to be part of the world as we can experience it? (Not that this is, in fact, particularly hard to imagine in times in which the radical propagators of the Islamic State celebrate staged and choreographed public violence for propaganda purposes just as much as for the advancement of their cause.)

A deeply unsettling, chilling thought – stuff that nightmares are made of, and stuff that requires healing powers of coping mechanisms.

Flagellation of Santa Engratia. – Image source:

Flagellation of Santa Engratia. – Image source:

Such desire to dispel the spectres of a gory, gruesome other world  and to transform haunted spaces into a safe harbour appears to have been the underlying motivation for the creation (and use) of a most remarkable Latin poem, which has been incorporated in  the rich and diverse corpus of Latin verse inscriptions, the Carmina Latina Epigraphica – the collection of poems that is at the heart of my current British-Academy-funded research project ‘Poetry of the People’.

Conveniently for a blog post  on occasion of the celebrations of the eve of All Saints’ day, our poem also appears to relate to a Christian martyr and saint, viz. Saint Engratia.

The inscription in question appears to have read as follows (CLE 1448 = ICUR II 46; substantially emended by J. Gil, CFC 14, 1978, 113–9):

Hic inhumata pridem cadabera lapsa iacebant

tabidaq(ue) omentis, frustris et artris atris

huc cernebamus amplis cuneis fluitare catervas,

rorare caducum fuso Falerno limum:

stolida per eresi litabant vota favillis;     5

(i)staque femineo iam pars funesta stupro

mancipatur Avernis umbrisq(ue) truditur imis.

quo funus squalebat <at> ara sacra micat,

hanc tibi stirps edem parat, Engra(tia), Prisci

quam vulneris guttis abluas, alma, rubris.     10

Eusebius invexit huc te, beata, sacerdos,

aeterni martir currens ad arce poli.

culmine mira vota que quisquis prespicis intrans,

hec ope levite Mileti dedicat.

In translation:

Here used to lie, in times past, uninterred, corpses, fallen,
with their bowels putrid and body parts and limbs blackened.
Hither we used to see streaming crowds, in huge droves,
to soak the sliding mud with spilled Falernian wine:
on account of their foolish heresy, they consecrate their promises to the ashes;
and this place, netherworldly already due to feminine sin,
is transformed into an Underworld and shoved down to the deepest shades.
The place is filthy with death, but a holy altar stands out in splendour:
an offspring of Priscus made this temple for you, Engratia,
a temple which you cleansed with the red drops of your wound.
Eusebius, the priest, has moved you in here, blessed,
a martyr, on your way to the summit of the eternal heaven.
The amazing decoration (?) above that you see upon entering,
those are dedicated to you courtesy of Miletus, the deacon.

The (lost) inscribed monument, introduced by a chi-rho symbol an followed by the line amen. deo gratias  (‘Amen. Thank be to God’), appears to have been once created to commemorate the construction of the Basilica of Santa Engrácia in Zaragoza.

It survives reported in a Parisian manuscript of the 9th century, and, while it refers to proceedings of the early 4th century A. D., there are reasons to believe that it has been inscribed at some point in the 6th century or later.

Bodies, uninterred and festering, a place polluted by murder, putrefaction – stained even further by the way in which the masses derived their perverted pleasure from celebrating such acts: how can a place like this ever be cleansed?

The writer of the poem chooses a simple model: he (presumably a ‘he’ rather than a ‘she’, anyway) builds up a contrast between the hellish environment of a place ‘filthy with death’ and the clean, shiny shrine, and then reinterprets the previously disgusting fluids that resulted from a murder – the ‘red drops of your wound’ – into the pure, cleansing substance that gives the place its special (religious) meaning.

Most of all, however, this poem, too, is a great example of gruesome story-telling: it brings to life the author’s vision of an horrendous past, offering a vivid imagination of cruelties past, only to provide a soothing turn and to draw attention to the structure for which this poem was originally intended.

The poet demonstrates his control over the demons of the past and asserts his prerogative of (re-)interpretation, when he invites that haunted past to take centre stage at the beginning of his poem, only to subject it to his (narrative) rule, leaving behind a place that is not only cleansed, but – according to the poem’s final distich – even neatly adorned.

What the author chooses to suppress, however, is that, without the grim tale that preceded the foundation of the shrine, heavenly order was not only (relatively) meaningless, but impossible.

In that respect: spooky Halloween, everyone! (Just don’t forget to restore order afterwards…)

The Top 3 (+1) Latin Poems on STDs and Related Issues [NSFW]

SHAG week giveaways.

SHAG week giveaways.

This week is SHAG week at the University of St. Andrews, where I am spending a wonderful time at the moment working on my project on the Latin verse inscriptions.

One aspect that makes the subject of my research so exciting is its versatility, brought about by the wide range of issues covered in these remarkable texts, from the mundane to the highly philosophical.

This week’s examples will be on the mundane side – and decidedly so.

Unlike the  name suggests, SHAG week is not an invitation to a week of widespread, uninhibited consensual sexual pleasures (we are in Britain after all!).

Much rather, it is a week dedicated to Sexual Health Awareness and Guidance, with numerous activities and workshops offering quintessential advice on sexual health and hygiene as well as on the DOs and DON’Ts of consensual sex – important lessons to learn early on.

So, as a contribution to St. Andrews’ 2014 SHAG week, here are my personal Top 3 Latin inscribed poems on symptoms that may hint towards venereal diseases or sexually transmitted diseases (existence, spread, and extent of ancient medical awareness of which are matter of ongoing academic debate), or at least loosely related issues to do with less-than-desirable side-effects of love-making – just to make sure everyone knows exactly what to avoid (or to expect).

Out of pure generosity, a poem of the rather NSFW collection of the Carmina Priapea has also been thrown in, for your reading pleasures (?).

A word of warning: if you are easily offended by explicit sexual content – do stop reading here!

1. CIL IV 1516 = CLE 955 (Pompeii)

Hic ego nu[nc f]utue formosa(m) fo[r]ma puella(m)
laudata(m) a multis, set lutus intus eerat.

Here I have now shagged a girl, beautiful of appearance,
praised by many, but inside she was pure slime.

A famous epigram, here in a version from Pompeii, that has, with some variations, become known from a number of places across the Roman Empire. It is not known, of course, what exactly this writer was referring to when suggesting that she was lutus inside. A nearby inscription of the same type (CIL IV 1517) opens virtually identically, but then refers to a disease (morbus) that affected the girl’s face.

Lutus as a reference to a (clearly undesirable) vaginal discharge is also used in Carmina Priapea 83.37 (transl. Sir Richard Burton):

Quid hoc novi est? Quid ira nuntiat deum?
Silente nocte candidus mihi puer
tepente cum iaceret abditus sinu,
venus fuit quieta, nec viriliter
iners senile penis extulit caput.     5
Placet, Priape, qui sub arboris coma
soles, sacrum revincte pampino caput,
ruber sedere cum rubente fascino?
At, o Triphalle, saepe floribus novis
tuas sine arte deligavimus comas,     10
abegimusque voce saepe, cum tibi
senexve corvus impigerve graculus
sacrum feriret ore corneo caput.
Vale nefande destitutor inguinum,
vale Priape: debeo tibi nihil.     15
Iacebis inter arva pallidus situ,
canisque saeva susque ligneo tibi
lutosus affricabit oblitum latus.
At o sceleste penis, o meum malum,
gravi piaque lege noxiam lues.     20
Licet querare, nec tibi tener puer
patebit ullus, imminente qui toro
iuvante verset arte mobilem natem,
puella nec iocosa te levi manu
fovebit apprimetve lucidum femur.     25
Bidens amica Romluli senis memor
paratur, inter atra cuius inguina
latet iacente pantice abditus specus,
vagaque pelle tectus annuo gelu
araneosus obsidet forem situs.     30
Tibi haec paratur, ut tuum ter aut quater
voret profunda fossa lubricum caput.
Licebit aeger angue lentior cubes,
tereris usque, donec (a miser! miser!)
triplexque quadruplexque compleas specum.     35
Superbia ista proderit nihil, simul
vagum sonante merseris caput luto.
Quid est, iners? Pigetne lentitudinis?
Licebit hoc inultus auferas semel,
sed ille cum redibit aureus puer,     40
simul sonante senseris iter pede,
rigente nervos excubet libidine,
et inquietus inguina arrigat tumor,
neque incitare cesset usque dum mihi
venus iocosa molle ruperit latus.     45

What news is this? What does the anger of the gods announce? When in the silent night a lovely boy lay with me hidden in my warm bosom, my desire was quiescent, nor did the sluggish penis courageously raise its senile head. Does it please thee, Priapus? who under the foliage of a tree art wont, thy sacred head circled with the leaves and tendrils of the vine, ruddy to sit with rubicund fascinum. But, O Triphallus, oft fresh flowers with loving care have I wreathed in thy locks; and oft driven off with my shouts an aged raven or an active jackdaw when it would have pecked thy sacred head with its horny bill. Fare thee well, Priapus, I owe thee naught. Farewell, impious forsaker of the privities, thou shalt he in the glebe mouldy with neglect; a savage dog shall continually piss upon thee, or a wild boar rub against thee his side befouled with mire. O cursed father of the penis, to whom my calamity [is due], thou shalt expiate this injury with a severe and pious atonement. Thou canst complain: no tender lad shall yield to thee who on the groaning bed with aiding art shall writhe his mobile buttocks. Nor shall a sportive girl caress thee with her gentle hand, or press against thee her lubricious thigh. A mistress with two teeth is prepared for thee, who can call to mind the time of Romulus; and amid her gloomy loins and loose-stretched hide, covered with frost and full of mould and cobwebs, thy privity shall blockade the entrance. This is the one prepared for thee, that thrice and four times her bottomless ditch may swallow up thy lubricious head. Notwithstanding weak and languid thou liest, thou shalt shag her again and again until, O miserable wretch, thrice and fourfold thou fillest her cavity. And now thy pride shall avail thee naught when thou plungest thy reeling head into the splashing mire. Why is [my yard] inert? doth not its sluggishness displease thee? This once thou mayst deprive it of vigour with impunity. But when that golden boy shall return, at the same time that thou hearest the patter of his foot upon the path, on a sudden let a restless swelling excite my nerves with lust and raise my privy part; nor let it cease to incite more and more until sportive Venus shall have spent my feeble strength.

2. CIL IV 1882 (cf. p. 465) = CLE 47 (Pompeii)

Accensum qui pedicat urit mentulam

He who buggers an inflamed, burns his prick.

This one-liner derives its jocular force from the ambiguity of the term accensus (‘inflamed’), denoting either someone suffering from some kind of inflamation – or, as a technical term, the holder of a low-level office.

3. CIL IV 1820 (cf. p. 704) = CLE 50c (Pompeii)

Chie, opto tibi ut refricent se ficus tuae
ut peius ustulentur quam ustulatae sunt

Chius, I hope your piles will become irritated again,
so that they may get inflamed worse than they were inflamed before.

In antiquity, piles were taken to be a side-effect of anal penetration, as e. g. Edward Courtney pointed out – thus this short epigram is to be included among the others here, as a double threat against Chius: the writer wishes him to be at the (according to ancient thought: less desirable) receiving end of anal intercourse, and he hopes that it will result in additional pains as well.

Chius may not be the name of any specific person, but merely a pun, as the best figs (ficus) were said to come from the island of Chios. Except that ficus is also the Latin term for ‘piles’…

Tracy Jordan, in the US comedy programme 30 Rock, advises Kenneth, the page, to live every week like it’s Shark Week.

Looking at the sound advice provided in leaflets and other materials, one should add: live every week like it’s SHAG week, too!

Read more about sexual diseases and the ancient world (to give but a small selection, from the entertaining to the technical):

Less is more

Today is National Poetry Day, and this year’s theme is ‘Remember’. Could there be a better occasion for me to throw in a gratuitous Latin poem from the Carmina Latina Epigraphica?

No, I didn’t think so, either.

Nardus inscription. – Image source:

Inscription for Nardus, the poet. – Image source:

So here it comes (CIL X 1284 = CLE 962 = ILS 7785):


In translation:

the poet,
is covered
by this

The inscription, of uncertain origin and date (presumably of the first century B. C., however), now kept in Nola, commemorates an otherwise unknown poet called Nardus.

At first glance, the text does not appear to be much of a poem: six meagre words, spread out over six lines.

Yet, it is a poem – and even as such it is an unusual one, as reductionist as everything else about this stone: it is a monostich, a poem of but a single line, and it is made up of a line that does not normally feature individually in Latin poetry, namely a dactylic pentameter: this rhythm hardly ever occurs without a preceding hexameter line. There is little imagery (except, of course, for the notion of a tomb ‘covering’ the deceased like clothing or a blanket), and there is little play with sound (but note the double use of alliterations in poeta pudens and tegitur tumulo).

The infuriating brevity of this poem has inspired scholars for a long time now: who was this Nardus?

Should one interpret pudens (‘bashful, shame-faced, modest’) as another part of the poet’s name, and could he then be a Pudens that is already known from other sources?

One scholar was even desperate enough to think of a compound noun nardu-poeta, supposedly meaning ‘soap maker’ (nardus is a Graeco-Roman term denoting lavender).

In Latin epitaphs, pudens is a quality that praises restraint, moderation, and temperance in moral terms. In a number of cases one finds it accompanied by references to (sexual) chastity (as a female virtue), sometimes accompanied by references to a deeper understanding of the role of temperance and simplicity in life (such as frugi, gender neutral).

It might just be the case, then, that Nardus, the poeta pudens, (or his relatives, of course) gave us a poetic example by which he wanted to be remembered, illustrating his being pudens in the single-most reductionist way possible – linguistically, metrically, poetically.

And yet, we can remember him and his poem today.

Poetry Morbid and Vivid

My research on the Latin verse inscriptions is progressing nicely. Over the last week or so, I have collected and analysed the evidence for the ways in which the Romans themselves engaged with their inscribed poetry – essentially asking a very simple question: assuming having poetry engraved on stone was not an end in itself, who would actually read it – and how and why? I had planned to blog about some of the remarkable statements that I encountered as I went along in my research, but then something unexpected happened.

As I went to Dundee last weekend, I used the opportunity to explore this city a little further. Most tourist guides that I consulted had suggested that Dundee is worth an excursion, but not a long one. I cannot claim myself that I found Dundee anywhere near as depressing as I had been led to believe – in fact, I was rather struck by the place.

On occasion of this visit, I managed to explore Dundee’s historic graveyard called ‘the Howff‘. Originally, the Howff was the orchard of a Franciscan monastery; subsequently, following Maria Stuart’s grant of the land to the burgh, it was converted into a graveyard.

What struck me was the number of stones that displayed little poems for the deceased – poems written in English (no Latin ones, sadly – or at least not in the area that I covered on this occasion!), but not altogether different in content, tone, and world of thought from those Latin inscriptions that are at the heart of my own research. My business is graveyard science, after all.

Here are three of the little gems that I encountered:

1. The _____ Wife


She was, but words are wanting
to say what;

Think what a wife should be,
she was that.

2. A Safe Harbour


Through Stormy Seas of trouble past,
I’ve found a peaceful Shore:
From tempests Safe I’m moor’d at last,
And leave my port no more.

3. No Escape for Anyone – Especially Not for You, M’Dear…

weep not

Weep not for me, my HUSBAND dear,
I am not dead but sleeping here.
My end you know, my grave you see,
Prepare yourself to Follow ME.

In many ways these poems raise the same questions and pose the same difficulties as their ancient Latin counterparts: who wrote them? and for whom to read? What is the story behind the first poem, which is attested more than once, and bears striking similarities to poems that have appeared in print? Would one fill in the blanks of the first poem in the same way that the (ostensibly) grieving husband did? What did the writer of the second poem allude to with the off-hand mention of ‘trouble past’?

Who seems to be talking through these poems (or, in the case of the third poem: who is pretending to be talking through a poem) – and to whom? What do these poems tell us about the intellectual world of the individuals that they represent?

Are these poems designed to be read in silence? Or will one, almost automatically, start reading them out loud, to indulge in their words and in their rhymes? Inscribed headstones seem to provide us with an interface to the past – they allow us to read of the thoughts, and – especially when read out aloud – to hear voices of times long gone. The art historian Peter Sager wrote that ‘on its graveyard ‘The Howff’ the old city on the river Tay is more alive than anywhere else’ – yet another snide remark to malign Dundee, to be sure, yet so deceptively convincing.

Why deceptively?

Deceptively, because – at least to the Classicist’s mind – the same rules do not seem to apply to epigrams that are written on stone as opposed to those that are of a literary nature.

But how can a change of medium and a change of environment possibly suspend the artifice of poetry? And why would it? The poems on these Dundonian headstones, like all other poems, are imaginations of the world, of life and afterlife – they are fantastic coping mechanisms and expressions of desires, first of all.

Whether it is the beautiful device of letting a reader fill in the blanks as regarding the nature of the ideal wife (as if there were significantly fewer responses than people who ever lived!), or the image of the grave as a tranquil harbour, or the imagination that a pre-deceased wife addresses her husband with a veritable threat (‘you, too, will die!’) – all of these are the imaginations of those left behind, pieces that invite us to join a perspective on this world (and the next), and bring this perspective of a by-gone era back to life with our very own voice.

This perhaps rather unsettling thought has been expressed strikingly at the opening of a Latin verse inscription that I recently had the pleasure to re-read (CLE 513.1–4):

Carpis si qui [uia]s, paulum huc depone la[borem].
Cur tantum proper(as)? non est mora dum leg(is), audi
lingua tua uiuum mitique tua uoce loquentem.
Oro libens libe[n]s releg(as), ne taedio duc(as), amice

If you there seize these ways, let go of the stress for a short while: why such a rush? There is no time wasted while you read: listen to a living person who talks in your tongue and with your gentle voice. I ask you to read this favourably, favourably, so that you will not derive dislike, my friend.

Monuments thus do not only preserve memories, good or bad.

Monuments allow future generations to re-enact the past and to bring it back to life – by means of breathing our own life-breath into it, by means of lending it our own voice, as a service and as a favour to generations past.

Remember Lucius M-whatsisface?

I am a lucky person. The British Academy recently awarded me a Mid-Career Fellowship for 2014-5, allowing me to work on a project on my long-standing research interest, Latin inscriptions in verse or, as they are more commonly called among us ‘carminatores’, the Carmina Latina Epigraphica (or, shorter still, the CLE).

Certainly, in the vast stream of Latin inscriptions that survived antiquity, the CLE are but a small island: approximately 0.5–1% of all Latin inscriptions were composed in verse.

In the context of Latin poetry, however, their importance must not be underestimated: they add several thousands of epigrams – complete or fragmentary, from a wide range of diverse authors, across time and space in the Roman empire – to the body of literary poetic texts that underwent a manuscript transmission and that more commonly catch the attention of Classical scholars.

Over the next year or so, I will present examples of this genre and related discoveries on my blog, to share my enthusiasm with a wider audience and to promote this remarkable collection of texts.

CIL XIII 11885 (from Mainz/Moguntiacum), similar to that imagined by Ausonius. – Image source:$OS_CIL_13_11885.jpg

CIL XIII 11885 (from Mainz/Moguntiacum), similar to that imagined by Ausonius. – Image source:$OS_CIL_13_11885.jpg

To commence this series, I would like to present a little-known poem by the 4th century Gallic poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius.

Ausonius, in his collection of Epitaphia Heroum, wrote a short poem called De nomine cuiusdam Lucii sculpto in marmore (‘On the name of some Lucius, carved in marble’, c. 32). Sesto Prete, in his Teubner edition of Ausonius’ poems, presented the text as follows:

Vna quidem, geminis fulget set dissita punctis

littera, praenomen sic <.L.> nota sola facit.

post .M. incisum est, puto sic: <.^\.> non tota uidetur:

dissiluit saxi fragmine laesus apex.

nec quisquam, Marius seu Marcius anne Metellus

hic iaceat, certis nouerit indiciis.

truncatis conuulsa iacent elementa figuris,

omnia confusis interiere notis.

miremus periisse homines? monumenta fatiscunt;

mors etiam saxis nominibusque uenit.

The text translates, roughly, as follows:

One letter, indeed, yet it shines embedded in between two points: thus makes a single sign, •L•, a first name. After that an •M• has been carved, as follows, •^\•, I think, one cannot see it in full: the top is mutilated and came off due to a fracture of the stone. Consequently, no one will be able to know from unambiguous evidence whether it is a Marius or Marcius or Metellus who lies here. Distorted lie the letters, with truncated shapes, everything died as a result of the mangled signs. Should we be surprised that people die? Monuments languish, and death even comes to stones and names.

It is rather amusing to see that Otto Hirschfeld, the editor of the first volume of CIL XIII, decided to take Ausonius’ little piece literally, as evidence for an actual inscription from Bordeaux (Ausonius’ home town), ut videtur (‘as it would appear’):



Hirschfeld even added a D(is) M(anibus) (‘To the Manes‘) as an (arguably) lost initial part of the inscription – no doubt in an attempt to account for the dots that, according to Ausonius, surrounded the abbreviated first name (instead of just one dot following it, as one would expect if L(ucius) were indeed the first word of such an inscription).

Whether or not one would like to see Ausonius’ poem as evidence for an actual inscription (or as a mere literary imagination), the text manages to combine two essential aspect of Latin epigraphy.

It is testament to an unbroken desire to make sense of fragmented texts (in that regard, Ausonius’ description, albeit poetic in nature, does not actually diverge much from the technical prose of the volumes of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum).

In addition to that, the text–  all too quickly dismissed as ‘trite in its conclusion of the decay of stone as metaphor for the ephemerality of man’ by Nigel M. Kay in his otherwise immensely useful and thorough commentary on Ausonius (p. 153) – invites study of the world of popular thought of the Roman Empire: a world in which the fear of being forgotten after death has been expressed many a time.

An illustrative example of that, randomly chosen from a wide range of texts, is the funerary inscription for Ennia Fructuosa from Lambaesis in the Roman province of Numidia (now Tazoult-Lambese, Algeria).

Its text, presumably dating to the third century A. D., reads as follows (CIL VIII 2756 = CLE 1604):

Quae fuerunt praeteritae
vitae testimonia nunc decla-
rantur hac scribtura. postre-
ma haec sunt enim mortis
solacia ubi continetur nom[i]-
nis vel generis aeterna memo-
ria. Ennia hic sita est Fructu-
osa karissima coniunx cer-
tae pudicitiae bonoque obse-
quio laudanda matrona.
XV anno mariti (!) nomen acce-
pit, in quo amplius quam XIII
vivere non potuit, quae non
ut meruit ita mortis sortem
retulit. carminibus defi-
xa iacuit per tempora mu-
ta ut eius spiritus vi
extorqueretur quam
naturae redderetur.
cuius admissi vel Ma-
nes vel di Caelestes e-
runt sceleris vindices.
Aelius haec posuit Procu-
linus ipse maritus legio-
nis tantae III Augustae

In translation:

This writing now declares what testifies to the life that has passed. For that is what is the ultimate solace in death, where eternal memory of the name and the family is preserved. Ennia Fructuosa lies here, dearest wife, of unique modesty and good towardliness, a praiseworthy matron. In the fifteenth year, she accepted the appellation of a married person, with which she was not allowed to live for more than thirteen years – she, who was not granted a fate of death that she deserved. Spellbound by magic charms she lied there for a long time, mute, so that her life breath wound its way out by force rather than to be restored to nature. The Manes or the heavenly gods will avenge the crime that has been allowed happened. Aelius Proculinus himself erected this monument, tribune of the great legio III Augusta.

This text, written in a form that blends Latin prose with less-than-perfect hexameters and senarii, purportedly written by a military tribune named Aelius Proculinus, is not only an expression of heartfelt love of a man who lost his wife too soon (and who gives an idea of his values and his views on life and death in general): it gives an idea of the concerns of Roman(ised) people in second and third century North Africa, their fear of death in a world that partly can only be explained in terms of magic and ritual – and their fear to be forgotten, unless their names and lives are recorded in lasting monuments.

To me, and for my new research project, however, the text is also an expression of something else. It is an example of what I would like to call ‘poetry of the people’: a text (allegedly) not written by a poet, but by a member of a society that, in certain contexts, valued poetic and poeticising works of art and put those on display; a text that tells a highly personal story, to commit it, along with its views and values, to an uncertain afterlife; a text that obfuscates any clear-cut lines between high art and pedestrian craftsmanship; a text that is hard to classify as either prose or verse.

And yet, a text that, quite undeniably, deserves to be listened to, with the side-effect that the death that ‘even comes to stones and names’, as Ausonius had put it, will be stalled for a little bit longer.

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.