Friday, 27 July 2012

Some Roman Epitaphs. Memento mori!

Whenever I see an old church, I walk around the graveyard, reading the inscriptions on the graves, provided they have not faded away through age. Often these inscriptions only contain names, dates and a quotation from the Bible. Sometimes they give a bit more information, but hardly anything interesting or personal. The Romans however were more informative on their tombs. When you walk over the Via Appia, many tombs are still standing there alongside the road, but in ancient times hundreds of not thousands must have stood there. But not only there, everywhere alongside public roads monuments were erected and not necessarely only for the rich.
The following epitaph was not found alongside the Via Appia, but  near the Tiber. For reasons unknown to me it has since long been lost, but fortunately during the Renaissance, Italian hunanists which their antiquarian interest copied every bit of Latin they could lay hands on and so this text has fortunately been preserved. It is one of the earliest specimens of writen Latin and for that reason it has served in many handbooks and courses Latin.  It is a poem and  metre is the iambic senarius, meaning that each line has 6 iambes, but if you read this metrically, you will see that  in the first line no iambe will be found.. Scansion of  Greek and Latin poetry and analyzing the metres has never been my favorite hobby…
B 52
Hospes, quod deico paullum est, asta ac pellege.
Heic est sepulcrum hau pulcrum pulcrai feminae.
Nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam.
Suom mareitum corde deilexit souo.
Gnatos duos creauit. Horunc alterum
in terra linquit, alium sub terra locat.
Sermone lepido, tum autem incessu commodo.
Domum servavit. Lanam fecit. Dixi. Abei.
If this looks a bit weird to you, you are right. This epitaph is from about 140 B and  the Latin  was written, or rather engraved, as it was spoken. From a linguistic point of view such inscriptions are very helpful in reconstructing the spoken language: deicoheic and other words with ei in stead of i, show that these i’s were pronounced long. Paullum with double l,  probably the double l was pronounced like bella in modern Italian. Assimilation in asta and pellege and soum shows us why dominus is an o class declension. And if you are wondering what hau means, well, the d has been dropped before a consonant!  But enough philology for the moment!  What does it say? It starts with hospes `stranger’. As these monuments were erected at public ways, many strangers must have passed by.
quod deico paullum est, asta ac pellege. What I have to say is but little, stand still and read. As very often, the deceased speaks directly to the reader.
Heic est sepulcrum hau pulcrum pulcrai feminae. Here is the not at all beautiful grave of a beautiful woman.
Note that pulchrum was written pulcrum, so it had at that time not yet the aspirated ch and also note the inconsequent spelling of pulcrai feminae. There is a pun with the word pulcer: sepulcrum was in folketymology thought to mean `without beauty’, like securus `without care’ hence `secure’. Actually it is derived from sepelio `to bury’, which on its turn is from a root sep `venerate, care for’
Nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam. My parents gave me the name Claudia.
Nomen nominarunt ( = nominaverunt) a figura etymologica.
Suom mareitum corde deilexit souo. She loved her husband with her heart.
Note the shift from the first person to the third. souo  is the ancient spelling suo. When a u had the accent, is was written ou.
Gnatos duos creauit. She bore two sons.
Horunc alterum in terra linquit, alium sub terra locat. Of those she left one behind on earth, the other she burried under the earth.
Sermone lepido, tum autem incessu commodo. She was a lady of charming talk and besides of graceful movement.
Domum servavit. Lanam fecit. Dixi. Abei. She served her household, she made wool. I have said. go
And with the last word the reader is admonished to continue his or her way.

When reading such a text, I want to know more about Claudia: How old was she? - probably still young, maybe not even 20. How did she look like? We will never know, but the words of the epitaph tell us that she was higly valued  and loved by her husband - likely the person who had the tomb built for Claudia.

Epitaphs are also very revealing about the way the Romans perceived death. The Romans were never  creative in religious matters and they had a gloomy outlook on death and afterlife.
On many epitaphs there is an almosat modern mood of resignation:

B 465, ll. 20-21
Re]s hominum sic sunt ut [cit]rea poma:
aut matur]a cadunt, aut [immatura] leguntur.

Human live is like lemons: either they fall when ripe or are picked unripe.
I am not a botanist, but apparently lemons must be picked before they are ripe
B 507
Tempera iam genitor lacrimis tuque, optima mater,
desine iam flere. poenam non sentio mortis;
poena fuit vita, requies mihi morte parata est.

Refrain from tears, father and you, beloved mother, stop crying. I do not feel the punishment of death, life was a punishment, in death rest is prepared for me.
I wonder what is meant by  `life was a punishment’. Is it the epitaph of  shortlived and always sick child? A handicapped child?
Another admonition to a mother:
B 823
Desine iam mater lacrimis renovare querellas,
namque dolor talis non tibi contigit uni.

Stop mother to renew your laments with tears, as you are not the only one  to whom such  grief befalls.
CIL 11.6243
Viator, viator!
Quod tu es, ego fui; quod nunc sum, et tu eris

Traveller, traveller, what you are, I have been, what I am now, you will be
It is tempting to continue translating such epitaph when going through
Well, a final one, which I would like to have on my grave:
CIL 6.15258
Balnea vina Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra,
set vitam faciunt b(alnea) v(ina) V(enus).

Bathhouses, wine and Love ruin our bodies,
but bathhouses, wine and Love make life!

And with this last epitaph we will leave the deceased to their rest for the time being.

Appian Way: remains of Roman tombs
A tomb alongside the Via Appia.
For some background on Roman burial custums:


  1. What an interesting approach to Latin!! Tremendously enjoyed reading through the site, and excitedly waiting for new posts :))

  2. It's a pity that you haven't included the epitaph of a certailn lady by the name of Allia Potestas.Would be interesting to see a full version of this long poetic epitaph written by one of her two lovers [in a menage a trois].Maybe too risque?

  3. No, of course not! But thanks for the tip! I will publish a post about this epitaph!

  4. But mine (Scansion of Latin poetry, as well as in some measure Greek).

    It works out, I did not know I was so good at reading verse (though Martial a bit earlier I am less sure what metre it was).