Hic Finis Fandi

As of 21 November 2014, I will no longer update the Reading Latin – Latin Reading blog, and it may be shut down at any time.

All content has been moved to http://thepetrifiedmuse.wordpress.com/, where I will continue to blog in a private capacity.

Many thanks for all your support, comments, and encouragement – I would be delighted to see you back on my new blog site in due course.

Peter Kruschwitz

Fixing a Cracked Record

Silenus as a musician. – Image source: http://www.theoi.com/image/T50.1Seilenos.jpg.

Silenus as a musician. – Image source: http://www.theoi.com/image/T50.1Seilenos.jpg.

Vergil, Rome’s most celebrated poet, in his sixth eclogue (an altogether intriguing piece!), imagines a fantastic story.

Silenus lies in a cave, sleeping off his state of inebriation, when two young men, Chromis and Mnasyllos, catch sight of him.

Driven by their feeling defrauded of many a song by Silenus, and supported by the Naiad Aegle, they bind Silenus with his own garlands.

Eventually, Silenus wakes up.

He addresses his assailants as follows (Verg. ecl. 6.23–26):

ille dolum ridens ‘quo uincula nectitis?’ inquit.
me, pueri: satis est potuisse uideri.
carmina quae uoltis cognoscite: carmina uobis,     25
huic aliud mercedis erit.’ (…)

Laughing at the trick, he said: ‘Why entwist those fetters?
Release me, boys: it suffices to be perceived as powerful.
Hear those songs that you desire: there will be songs for you,
and some other reward for her!’

Satis est potuisse uideriit suffices to be perceived as powerful: an apt summary of most nations’ foreign policy, to be sure, but also (and more importantly) an important turning point in the eclogue itself. It provides the point at which Silenus finally appears ready to live up to his promises, and to sing, overcome by the ‘appearance of power’ (and his remaining intoxication), his resounding song of cosmogony, the power of love, the Muses and poetic initiation, and mythical sin and suffering.

It was this famous passage of power, cosmogony, love, and song (and songs in songs), that I was reminded of, when I went to Italy last week, looking for a number of Latin verse inscriptions for my current research project.

How come?

AE 1972.39. – Photo (c) PK, 2014.

AE 1972.39. – Photo (c) PK, 2014.

One of the inscriptions that I managed to see on an extended walking tour down the Via Appia, was a marble plaque preserved in the context of the catacombs of S. Sebastiano, affixed to a wall by a door in the gift-shop area of the San Sebastiano complex.

The plaque, dating to the second half of the second century A. D., is inscribed as follows (AE 1972.39)

– – – – – –
[- – -]t iam potuisse uideri

[- – – sicut a]ues et garrula cantus
[- – -]ue suas dat voce querellas
[- – – a]ddit postaea dolores
[- – – pr]imae dant littere nomen     5
[- – -]ti, udis athanatos.

In translation (as far as possible, considering the fragmentary state of the inscription):

… already to be perceived as powerful …
… like birds and a garrulous song …

… utters their laments with their voice …
… subsequently adds pains …
… the first letters indicate the name …
… [- – -]t(i)us: no one is immortal.

The plaque is broken into (adjoining) pieces, and it has been resected on the left and on the top (possibly at the bottom as well, but this is less certain). As the text (in typical epigraphical self-referentiality) points out, what has been lost on the left-hand side, in addition to the actual words that opened the surviving lines, is an acrostic, spelling out the name of the deceased.

It is quite possible (but not necessarily cogent) that the deceased was a male, and that his name ended in -t(i)us, as preserved in the final line, preceding the reminder udis athanatos (a translitteration of the Greek phrase οὐδεῖς άθάνατος): similar texts that have the phrase udis athanatos, show personal names, addressed by the inscription, in front of it, and the surviving letters -ti perfectly well fit the morphological requirements for a vocative in this position.

Whatever the name of the deceased, the broken record of his (or her – let’s not rule this out prematurely!) funerary inscription makes numerous references to songs – whether one would like to see the phrase potuisse uideri in line 1 as a reference to Vergil’s aforementioned sixth eclogue or not. (The allusion is too short, and the inscription too fragmented, to be absolutely certain of that, of course.)

Before mentioning  any laments (querellae) and pains (dolores), the inscription specifically refers to ‘birds’ (aues) and ‘garrulous song’ (garrula cantus). Garrula cantus, of course, is a feature that is easily associated with birds themselves (see, for example, CIL VI 34421 and EChrAfr III 176, to mention but two inscriptions).

Garrulus, however, is also a word often associated with the behaviour of young children – and one may wonder if this is not a clue that helps to unlock the entire text, in spite of its high level of fragmentation.

Does it seem unreasonable to assume that a child – boy or girl – managed to cast his spell over his parents: potuisse uideri, even though he (or she) never managed to grow up and show his (or her) actual power? He (or she) acquired the gift of speech and song, birdlike: [- – – sicut a]ues et garrula cantus. Yet, there was reason for querellae, laments, to be voiced (for the deceased himself/herself, or for someone else?) – and eventually, the child even added dolores, pains: undoubtedly a reference to the child’s untimely demise.

Is there anything else one can gauge from the text about the (presumed) child?

Well, one more thing, perhaps.

Udis athanatos, no one is immortal: why does this phrase appear in translitterated Greek? The manfredclauss.com database currently holds five entries for this phrase: four from Rome (this one as well as CIL VI 10889. 20453. 21617), and one from nearby Ostia (CIL XIV 603). All the four other examples in addition to the present case here show Greek personal names – suggesting that the present example of AE 1972.39 belongs into the sphere of Greek migrants in Rome.

Did this young Greek, garrulus (or garrula) and all, too, manage to overpower his/her parents, like Chromis and Mnasyllos did with Silenus in Vergil’s eclogue?

We cannot know.

But it is a lovely thought.

To Be All Ears

Today, I have had the immense pleasure to visit the University of Pisa. I was invited to talk about an aspect of my recent linguistic research, carried out in 2013 in collaboration with my brilliant undergraduate research assistant Abi Cousins, regarding the discourse about communication disorders in the ancient world.


Did I give this talk in shameful disregard of my obligations to the British Academy, who stipulated that I must work on nothing but the Carmina Latina Epigraphica during my 2014-5 mid-career fellowship, you ask?

Well, I’d never! My frame of mind and my sense of duty are way too Prussian as to even consider such appalling behaviour!

So where do these two topics meet?

Potentially, or so it would appear, they meet in Epidaurus, on the Peloponnese, of all places – not a particularly likely place to find Latin inscriptions to begin with, but that is a different matter altogether.

Discovered in Epidaurus, by the famous temple of Asclepius, there is a votive inscription that exhibits the iconic shape of a tabula ansata (‘winged tablet’) cut into the stone.

The only thing that is displayed on the tabula ansata, however, is not text, but a pair of ears:

Underneath that tabula, however, there is an elegiac distich, which reads as follows (CIL III 7266 = CLE 866):

Cutius has auris Gallus tibi uouerat olim,
Phoebigena, et posuit sanus ab auriculis.

Cutius Gallus had, once upon a time, promised you these ears,
Offspring of Phoebus, and he put them up, healed, ear-wise.

Unlike my spell checker suggested, Cutius Gallus’ problem was not a name-related ‘cute gall’ or any such bilious issues: according to the above inscription, it was an unknown disease that affected his ears – and it is for this reason that the (votive) ears take centre stage on the tablet (rather than the inscription itself): they are the actual gift to the healer, and the poem is a mere ornament.

Temporary as it would appear to have been, Cutius Gallus’ infliction must have been relatively large-scale (either in terms of the pain that was caused or in terms of the effect it had on his hearing), as one would not normally make such a costly vow for what is but a minor ailment.

Once he was healed, Cutius Gallus appears to have (re-)discovered his good humour, though: note how he refers to the monumental ears as aures, whereas his own, by contrast, are just little auriculae.

So, what’s the connection to communication disorders then, you ask?

My question is this: if Cutius Gallus had a problem with his hearing, a problem so significant that this votive was in order, one must wonder, of course: how did he manage to communicate with his immediate environment – with his family, doctors, and religious personnel?

Did he write? Did he use gestures? (Yes, sign languages are attested for the ancient world, in case you were wondering…)

Communication disorders – including, but not restricted to, stutters, stammers, or mute/deafness – seem easily noticeable in everyday scenarios through obvious disruptions to speech production. Yet, they are in fact rather complex phenomena, caused by a wide and diverse range of issues.

Very obviously, hearing issues are one of many potential causes, as insufficient hearing, if not treated or counterbalanced by supporting aids, does not only make everyday communication difficult or impossible: it also, especially at a young age, may have an effect on one’s ability to speak, resulting in delayed or incomplete forms of language learning – an issue perfectly well known in ancient literature.

An interesting example can be found in sources as early as Herodotus, who presents King Croesus talking with little regard about one of his two sons – to the other! The son who is the subject of the following statement was, according to this version of the story, deaf/mute (Herodotus 1.38.2):

εἷς γάρ μοι μοῦνος τυγχάνεις ἐὼν παῖς· τὸν γὰρ δὴ ἕτερον διεφθαρμένον τὴν ἀκοὴν οὐκ εἶναί μοι λογίζομαι.

You happen to be my one and only child: the disabled one, as far as his hearing is concerned, I do not regard him as existing to me.

A bit harsh?

Well, yes.

In fact, I’d see your ‘harsh’, and raise you a ‘despicable’ … if this attitude had been displayed in our own times and in our own society. (Parallels do exist, sadly.)

But this example is not a modern one. And as usual, it is salutary not just to jump to conclusions and pull the discrimation card for the sake of it, when other societies, remote in time and space, are concerned: a closer look often reveals rather more complex scenarios.

Without going into great detail about attitudes towards disabilities and disfigurement in the ancient world, it seems fair to say that, despite significant changes in attitude since then, one thing has not changed at all: the high value assigned to an unimpaired ability to communicate.

It is easy to feel superior and say ‘we no longer discriminate against those who are affected by communication disorders’. Except, we do, inasmuch we aim to level the playing field, wherever possible, so that the disorder does not cause as much of a disadvantage as it would otherwise. (More extreme and shocking attitudes continue to exist as well, however.)

Our progress, admirable and desirable, is largely the result of technical and medical advancements, not of a deep and fundamental change in attitude – based on our society’s ability and willingness to afford it – and, generally speaking, our (alleged) changes in attitude coincide with those technical advancements, rather than precede them.

It is hard to overestimate the importance and the role that the human voice played in ancient civilisations such as Greece and Rome –societies that were fundamentally oral, reliant on power of the spoken word, to such a degree that rhetorical education became the cornerstone to upper-class education.

Pliny the Elder, for example, in his Naturalis Historia writes that an individual’s voice constitutes a ‘large part’ of a human being’s external features (uox in homine magnam uoltus habet partem), as it is usually recognisable before any visual feature (Plin. nat. 11.271). This, in turn, would imply a notion of significant incompleteness in a person, when this key feature is damaged or absent altogether.

These factors are of even higher significance, of course, for those who, like Croesus, aim to continue their rule through their offspring – after all, members of the ruling class with communication disorders have been subject to immense ridicule since ancient times.

Whether delivered from pain, disorientation, or an actual inability to hear: Cutius Gallus must have been immensely relieved to have been cured, for it allowed him to participate actively again in a society in which unimpaired hearing and speaking, resulting in unimpaired communication, were of pivotal importance to anyone who hoped to make a difference.

[Postscriptum – I wrote large chunks of this post on a train from Rome to Pisa. Opposite me, there was a lady – a property lawyer on her way up north – who for almost two hours yelled into her mobile phone as if it was one of those tin phones that children use. Every other sentence – I’m not even exaggerating – was introduced by the phrase ascoltami, ‘listen to me!’. That is the importance of hearing in (technically) disrupted communication right there for you, I thought.]

A Latin Poem for the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

25 years ago today – it was a Thursday –, I came home from school, in that idyllic world that was Hamburg-Harburg (Heimfeld), I chucked my school bag into a corner, and I started watching Knight Rider (’cause, as I am sure you know, all Germans back then were bizarrely obsessed with everything David Hasselhoff – or not…).

My viewing pleasures got crudely interrupted by the most bizarre press conference that I have ever seen.

One day later, after school on Friday and after a long drive, I was back in my home town of Berlin, celebrating, with my father and my grandmothers, the truly unbelievable and unimaginable things that had just started to happen – crossing a border repeatedly which previously I could only pass at gunpoint.

I had great hopes back then – hopes of a better, more peaceful world, a world that would finally come to its senses.

Having a look at the world today – well, let us just say: there is significant room for improvement…

To commemorate the quarter of a century that has since passed, and in the best tradition of the eclectic creativity that, in its reliance on other poetic sources, has spawned many a poem in the collection of the Carmina Latina Epigraphica, here is a little poem, versified especially for today – inscribed on a wall and everything:

Carmen Epigraphicum Berolinense (a P. K. fictum).

Carmen Epigraphicum Berolinense (a P. K. fictum).

Admiror paries te non populos docuisse

uitandas faciles ad fera bella manus.

I am amazed, wall, that you have not taught the people

that one must eschew those hands

that are easily given to fighting savage wars.

The Other 99%, Or: Much Ado about Nothus

Entertainment for elites: Vergil reading the Aeneid to Augustus. – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/Virgil_Reading_the_Aeneid.jpg

Entertainment for elites: Vergil reading the Aeneid to Augustus. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/Virgil_Reading_the_Aeneid.jpg

Ancient literary Latin poetry – with a few exceptions such as scripts for theatrical performances, for example – is commonly regarded as an upper-class elite phenomenon, and, on average, perhaps rightly so.

This observation was one of the many reasons that, for quite some time now, drew my own research interest to ‘the other 99%‘ of Latin poems – the ‘poetry of the people’, as I have called it for my British Academy-funded project on the Carmina Latina Epigraphica.

Currently, I am carrying out research into the social types that get commemorated in verse inscriptions.

One group that is of particular interest to me is the the group of members of the writing profession.

There is something beautifully ‘meta’ about poems for poets, writers, scribes, and the literati in general, and something sad and sobering about poems for those members of the writing profession who did not make it into our canon and whose outputs did not make it even into the corpora of documentary texts, as they were lost a long time ago.

The following case appears to be one such example.

The tomb of the Statilii in the city of Rome, instituted by Marcus Statilius Taurus (consul A. D. 44)  for the slaves and freedmen of his family, is a fascinating structure.

Designed as a columbarium, the monument provided loculi, little burial niches – niches that, following the deposit of the ashes of the deceased, could be closed with inscribed funerary plaques.

Dating to the first half of the first century A. D., one of the numerous remarkable findings that came from this burial site is the inscribed plaque (40 x 32 cm) for a man named Nothus (CIL VI 6314 cf. p 3419 = CLE 1014):

Nothi librari a manu. ||

Non optata tibi coniunx monimenta locauit,

ultima in aeternis sedibus ut maneant,

spe frustra gauisa Nothi, quem prima ferentem

aetatis Pluton inuidus eripuit.     5

hunc etiam fleuit quaequalis turba et honorem

supremum digne funeris inposuit.

In translation:

(Burial) of Nothus,  librarius a manu.

Not as you desired, your wife has placed your monument here, so that your remains may rest in their eternal settings: in vain I entertained hopes in you, Nothus, whom jealous Pluto took away at the youngest age. A coeval crowd wept for him too, and, in a dignified manner, paid him the last respect of a funeral.

The plaque, resembling a building, with an arched opening, is neatly produced and well laid out. The name of the deceased, in addition to his occupation, is written in a separate field at the top, whereas the poem, in rather smaller, less clear-cut letters, has been inscribed in a dedicated area at the bottom.

The author of these verses – elegiacs – remains unknown, as does the name of Nothus’ wife: the fact that the poem purports to speak in her name does not allow us to infer that she composed the text. All we (seem to) know about the deceased himself is known from this inscription: his name was Nothus (a Greek name, with a latinised ending, meaning ‘illegitimate’), he was a librarius a manu, and he died young – or so the inscription implies.

What exactly is a librarius a manu then?

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae gives a wide range of potential meanings for the word librarius. It may denote (i) someone who writes books in a book hand, a copyist, a scribe (is qui describit sive ipse legens exemplar sive dictata audiens (sc. servus, libertus, artifex, miles, sim.), (ii) a bookseller (is qui libros vendit), (iii) a teacher of writing (is qui docet artem scribendi), or (iv) a book or record keeper (i. q. tabellarius publicus). (Note, however, that a librarius is not usually a term used to denote a ‘librarian’!)

The addition of a manu (‘from the hand’) would appear to suggest someone who was capable of taking dictations, which, in conjunction with the spectrum of meanings proposed for librarius leads to the assumption that Nothus must have been a private secretary and record or book keeper for his master.

The poem in honour of Nothus (whose name should be added to Heikki Solin‘s Die griechischen Personennamen, 2nd ed., vol. II p. 1070) contains a number of features as well that deserve a brief comment – features that reveal both the desire to commemorate Nothus in a dignified manner and the struggle that it was to achieve this. Minor infelicities aside, one must note that –

  • The opening phrase non optata tibi (‘not as you desired’), in Latin, can go with either coniunx (‘wife’) or monimenta (‘monument’). One would hope for both Nothus and his nameless wife that this ambiguity was an accident rather than intentional.
  • While ultimus is a term that can be found in the context of references to death (‘the utmost’), the use of ultima (line 3) as an expression for ‘(mortal) remains’ is highly unusual.
  • The spelling of Pluton (line 5) with a final -n does not only help to avoid a hiatus, but it also results in a transcription of the Greek spelling of this deity, which would have been called Pluto in Latin.
  • The word quaequalis (line 6), written as a single unit in this inscription does not actually exist in Latin. Regardless of the absence of word-dividing punctuation, as found otherwise in this inscription, Franz Bücheler, the editor of the Carmina Latina Epigraphica proposed to read quae qualis, as a Grecism for τίς ποῖος (‘some such’). A more convincing solution has been suggested by the editors of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, who proposed to read it as a spelling variant of coaequalis, ‘coeval’ (ThLL s. v. coaequalis, 1372.18-9).

The expression of the final distich, honorem | supremum digne funeris inposuit (‘in a dignified manner, paid him the last respect of a funeral’) is odd as well – honorem imponere, literally ‘to impose an honour’ is not a common way of expressing the bestowing of an honour.

Imponere, however, is a term that particularly frequently features in the context of servile language – it can be found in a wide range of contexts, from ‘imposing a command’ to ‘imposing punishment’ to ‘bestowing freedom’.

Was it from their everyday experience that the writer of this poem for Nothus, freedman (or so it would appear, as a wife is mentioned) of the Statilii, drew this expression?

Whatever the case may be, it is easy (and cheap) to be irked by infelicities in expression and metrical design – belittling the efforts of those who, for whatever reason, did not employ a literary artist for their personal glory – as if any such criticism rendered the text and its underlying motivation less sincere and less valuable.

To me, this text teaches an important lesson: very much like the 1%, the other 99%, too, had a desire not to be forgotten, to find dignity and respect at least in death – the use of honorem and digne in the final distich is a clear, unambiguous expression of this.

Listening to their poetry and its imperfections (as well as its many gems) reveals many a story – and it tells of hopes and disappointment (note the use of spe frustra gauisa, line 4: ‘in vain I entertained hopes’) of those people who do not commonly get mentioned by the elite and their writers.

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

Jack-o'-losseum. - Image source: http://sirpasalenius.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/pumpkincolosseum.jpg

Jack-o’-Losseum or the ultimate Apocolocyntosis? – Image source: http://sirpasalenius.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/pumpkincolosseum.jpg

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: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d8/Flagelaci%C3%B3n_de_Santa_Engracia.jpg/320px-Flagelaci%C3%B3n_de_Santa_Engracia.jpg.

Flagellation of Santa Engratia. – Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d8/Flagelaci%C3%B3n_de_Santa_Engracia.jpg/320px-Flagelaci%C3%B3n_de_Santa_Engracia.jpg.

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):

Operation Mos Maiorum, Or: Ve Hav Vays … (Of Our Ancestors, That Is)

On Monday, 13 October, an EU-wide joint police operation will commence. It will last for two weeks, and its purpose is to target undocumented immigrants to the EU, to investigate their routes into the EU, and to crack down on human trafficking. The operation will be lead by the Italian ministry of the interior (with Italy currently holding the EU presidency), in conjunction with Frontex, Europol, and police forces of the EU member states.

Operations like this have somewhat of a tradition.

The most recent one came under the operational code name of Perkunas (autumn 2013, under the Lithuanian presidency). Earlier instalments of the same exercise were named Hermes, Mitras, Demeter, Balder, and Aphrodite – names that sound like a somewhat unimaginative job-creation measure for Classicists (including Nordic Studies).

Was it this tradition that led the Italian authorities to name the new operation ‘Mos Maiorum’, ‘Ways of the Ancestors‘?

Whatever the case may be, the most recent code name, Mos Maiorum, reminded me of one of the earliest instances of the phrase mos maiorum in Latin literature, preserved in the Trinummus, a comedy written by the 3rd/2nd century B. C. Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus.

At the beginning of the second scene of the second act, Philto – a father figure who sees the world in a constant state of decline – laments (Plaut. Trin. 280–300):

Feceris par tuis ceteris factis,
patrem tuom si percoles per pietatem.
nolo ego cum improbis te viris, gnate mi,
neque in via, neque in foro necullum sermonem exsequi
novi ego hoc saeculum moribus quibus siet:
malus bonum malum esse volt, ut sit sui similis;
turbant, miscent mores mali: rapax avarus invidus
sacrum profanum, publicum privatum habent, hiulca gens.
haec ego doleo, haec sunt quae me excruciant, haec dies
noctesque tibi canto ut caveas.
quod manu non queunt tangere tantum fas habent quo manus abstineant,
cetera: rape trahe, fuge lete – lacrumas
haec muhi quom video eliciunt,
quia ego ad hoc genus hominum duravi.
quin pruus me ad plures penetravi?
nam hi mores maiorum laudant, eosdem lutitant quos conlaudant.
hisce ego de artibus gratiam facio, ne colas neve imbuas ingenium.
meo modo et moribus vivito antiquis,
quae ego tibi praecipio, ea facito.
nihil ego istos moror faeceos mores, turbidos, quibus boni dedecorant se.
haec tibi si mea imperia capesses, multa bona in pectore consident.

In the translation of H. T. Riley:

You will be doing what is consonant to the rest of your conduct if you reverence your father. By your duty to me, my son, I wish you, for my sake, not to hold any converse with profligate men, either in the street or in the Forum. I know this age – what its manners are. The bad man wishes the good man to be bad, that he may be like himself. The wicked, the rapacious, the covetous, and the envious, disorder and confound the morals of the age: a crew gaping for gain, they hold the sacred thing as profane – the public advantage as the private emolument. At these things do I grieve, these are the matters that torment me. These things am I constantly repeating both day and night, that you may use due precaution against them. They only deem it right to keep their hands off that which they cannot touch with their hands; as to the rest, seize it, carry it off, keep it, be off and go hide, that is the word with them. These things, when I behold them, draw tears from me, because I have survived to see such a race of men. Why have I not rather descended to the dead ere this? For these men praise the manners of our ancestors, and defile those same persons whom they commend. With regard, then, to these pursuits, I enjoin you not to taint your disposition with them. Live after my fashion, and according to the ancient manners; what I am prescribing to you, the same do you remember and practise. I have no patience with these fashionable manners, upsetting preconceived notions, with which good men are now disgracing themselves. If you follow these my injunctions to you, many a good maxim will take root in your breast.

I cannot help but feel that the concept of the mos maiorum has been appropriated for the police operation in the same way that Philto criticises here. Yet the term mos maiorum seems so comforting, suggesting reliability and trustworthiness – just as it seems to come across in Plautus’ Trinummus, when it is used for the second time in this play (a play that has been described as particularly challenging to Roman morality) – now by a slave, Stasimus, overheard by Charmides (Plaut. Trin. 1028–1033):

Stas. Vtinam veteres homin<um mor>es, veteres parsimoniae
potius <in> maiore honore hic essent quam mores mali.

Charm. Di immortales, basilica hic quidem facinora inceptat loqui.
vetera quaerit, vetera amare hunc more maiorum scias.

Stas. Nam nunc mores nihili faciunt quod licet, nisi quod lubet:
ambitio iam more sanctast, liberast a legibus.

I wish that the old-fashioned ways of old-fashioned days, and the old-fashioned thriftiness, were in greater esteem here, rather than these bad ways.

CHARMIDES (behind).
Immortal Gods! this man really is beginning to talk of noble doings! He longs for the old-fashioned ways; know that he loves the old-fashioned ways, after the fashion of our forefathers.

For, now-a-days, men’s manners reckon of no value what is proper, except what is agreable. Ambition now is sanctioned by usage, and is free from the laws.

What is left to say?

Well, Plautus uses the phrase mos maiorum one more time.

It features at the very end of his play Cistellaria, in an address of the audience delivered by the theatre troupe (Plaut. Cist. 782–787):

Ne exspectetis, spectatores, dum illi huc ad vos exeant:
nemo exibit, omnes intus conficient negotium.
ubi id erit factum, ornamenta ponent; postidea loci
qui deliquit vapulabit, qui non deliquit bibet.
nunc quod ad vos, spectatores, relicuom relinquitur,
more maiorum date plausum postrema in comoedia.

Don’t you wait, Spectators, till they come out to you; no one will come out; they’ll all finish the business indoors; when that shall be done, they’ll lay aside their dress; then, after that, he that has done amiss will get a beating; he that has not done amiss will get some drink. Now as to what’s left, Spectators, for you to do, after the manner of your ancestors, give your applause at the conclusion of the Play.

There has been hardly any coverage of Operation Mos Maiorum in British news media at all – other countries have been slightly more interested in this issue. Searches for media reports on the outcomes of earlier operations are rather … disappointing, too.

Previous operations do not seem to have achieved much at all in terms of cracking down on human trafficking and related crimes: they resulted in the arrests of illegal immigrants – and little else.

Like an invocation of the mos maiorum in ancient times, they seem to have been largely therapeutic and designed to inspire self-confidence as well as a sense of security.

So are we just to applaud this play then, in the (alleged and surprisingly flexible) manner of the ancestors, believing that all business will be finished indoors to our satisfaction, by people playing their roles (more or less) properly…?

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: http://rm.univr.it/biblioteca/volumi/ebanista/2.1.Ricci.pdf

Inscription for Nardus, the poet. – Image source: http://rm.univr.it/biblioteca/volumi/ebanista/2.1.Ricci.pdf

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.