We all know people boasting on their wealth, I mean not knowing personally, but from newspapers and television. Some even want to become president. An excess of wealth often goes closely with a complete lack of taste, not only now, but also in Antiquity. Hence criticizing the nouveaux riches has a solid basis in Roman literature. Ausonius (c. 310 – c. 395) wrote an epigram on such a person, though he doesn’t mention him by name. This wealthy man invented his ancestry back to Mars, Romulus and Remus and had their names displayed on silk, silver, door-posts (ianuarum limina) and at the halls of his houses (atrium). Ausonius has his own idea about such people. Being himself from well-established ancestry, one could suspect some contempt for those who just got their wealth and tried to be accepted by the upper-class, but I think Ausonius was too much a man of letters not to pass an occasion for writing on this topos. May be he had not some particular man in mind, but was just commenting on what he saw around him.
The epigram is not without its philological and exegetical problems, but the end is funny: as we all know Romulus and Remus were brought up by a she-wolf, a lupa in Latin. Ausonius tells us that the reason why this man was so found of inventing an ancestry was that probably his father was unknown. Why? Because his mother was a lupa, like the foster mother of Romulus and Remus, but this word is also used for a prostitute…
Ausonius, epigram 26 (Green and Kay editions, number 45 in the Peiper and Evelyn-White editions)
Meter: iambic trimeters and iambic dimeters
Quidam superbus opibus et fastu tumens
tantumque verbis nobilis
spernit vigentis clara saecli nomina,
antiqua captans stemmata,
Martem Remumque et conditorem Romulum
privos parentes nuncupans.
hos ille Serum veste contexi iubet:
hos caelat argento gravi,
ceris inurens ianuarum limina
et atriorum pegmata.
credo, quod illi nec pater certus fuit
et mater est vere lupa.
fastus –us (m.): pride, arrogance
tumeo: be swollen, puffed up
sperno sprevi spretum: to despise
vigentis saecli: of a blooming age, probably Ausonius refers to a his own time and its recent past.
stemma (n.): pedigree
conditor –oris (m.): founder
privus: one’s own, particular
nuncupo: to call by name, proclaim
Serum veste contexi iubet: orders to be woven on a garment (made) of silk (serum gen. pl. m.: of seres `chinese’ and hence `silk’).
caelo: to engrave
ceris inurens: burning with wax (cera). Coloured wax was put on wood and then burned into it with hot iron.
pegmata: it is not quite clear what is meant, but N.M. Kay in his 2001 edition of the epigrams points out that it is likely to mean the case or shelves on which the images of ancestors were exhibited, and not ceilings, as Evelyn-White translates.
More information on the display of the heads of ancestors:
Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1921)
A fellow, purse-proud and swollen-headed, high
born in words alone, scorns the illustrious names of
the current age, hankering after an ancient pedigree
and claiming Mars, Remus, and Romulus our
founder as his own special forebears. Their figures
he bids be woven in his silken robes, theirs he chases
on his massy plate, or paints in encaustic on his
threshold and on the ceiling of his halls. True for
him ! For his father was not known and his mother
surely is a bitch.