The Common People of Rome




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THE POETRY OF THE COMMON PEOPLE OF ROME: THEIR METRICAL EPITAPHS


The old village churchyard on a summer afternoon is a favorite spot with many of us. The absence of movement, contrasted with the life just outside its walls, the drowsy humming of the bees in the flowers which grow at will, the restful gray of the stones and the green of the moss give one a feeling of peace and quiet, while the ancient dates and quaint lettering in the inscriptions carry us far from the hurry and bustle and trivial interests of present-day life. No sense of sadness touches us. The stories which the stones tell are so far removed from us in point of time that even those who grieved at the loss of the departed have long since followed their friends, and when we read the bits of life history on the crumbling monuments, we feel only that pleasurable emotion which, as Cicero says in one of his letters, comes from our reading in history of the little tragedies of men of the past. But the epitaph deals with the common people, whom history is apt to forget, and gives us a glimpse of their character, their doings, their beliefs, and their views of life and death. They furnish us a simple and direct record of the life and the aspirations of the average man, the record of a life not interpreted for us by the biographer, historian, or novelist, but set down in all its simplicity by one of the common people themselves.

These facts lend to the ancient Roman epitaphs their peculiar interest and charm. They give us a glimpse into the every-day life of the people which a Cicero, or a Virgil, or even a Horace cannot offer us. They must have exerted an influence, too, on Roman character, which we with our changed conditions can scarcely appreciate. We shall understand this fact if we call to mind the differences between the ancient practices in the matter of burial and our own. The village churchyard is with us a thing of the past. Whether on sanitary grounds, or for the sake of quiet and seclusion, in the interest of economy, or not to obtrude the thought of death upon us, the modern cemetery is put outside of our towns, and the memorials in it are rarely read by any of us. Our fathers did otherwise. The churchyard of old England and of New England was in the middle of the village, and "short cuts" from one part of the village to another led through its enclosure. Perhaps it was this fact which tempted our ancestors to set forth their life histories more fully than we do, who know that few, if any, will come to read them. Or is the world getting more reserved and sophisticated? Are we coming to put a greater restraint upon the expression of our emotions? Do we hesitate more than our fathers did to talk about ourselves? The ancient Romans were like our fathers in their willingness or desire to tell us of themselves. Perhaps the differences in their burial practices, which were mentioned above, tempted them to be communicative, and sometimes even garrulous. They put their tombstones in a spot still more frequented than the churchyard. They placed them by the side of the highways, just outside the city walls, where people were coming or going constantly. Along the Street of Tombs, as one goes out of Pompeii, or along the great Appian Way, which runs from Rome to Capua, Southern Italy and Brundisium, the port of departure for Greece and the Orient, they stand on both sides of the roadway and make their mute appeals for our attention. We know their like in the enclosure about old Trinity in New York, in the burial ground in New Haven, or in the churchyards across the water. They tell us not merely the date of birth and death of the deceased, but they let us know enough of his life to invest it with a certain individuality, and to give it a flavor of its own.

Some 40,000 of them have come down to us, and nearly 2,000 of the inscriptions upon them are metrical. This particular group is of special interest to us, because the use of verse seems to tempt the engraver to go beyond a bare statement of facts and to philosophize a bit about the present and the future. Those who lie beneath the stones still claim some recognition from the living, for they often call upon the passer-by to halt and read their epitaphs, and as the Roman walked along the Appian Way two thousand years ago, or as we stroll along the same highway to-day, it is in silent converse with the dead. Sometimes the stone itself addresses us, as does that of Olus Granius:[22] "This mute stone begs thee to stop, stranger, until it has disclosed its mission and told thee whose shade it covers. Here lie the bones of a man, modest, honest, and trusty--the crier, Olus Granius. That is all. It wanted thee not to be unaware of this. Fare thee well." This craving for the attention of the passer-by leads the composer of one epitaph to use somewhat the same device which our advertisers employ in the street-cars when they say: "Do not look at this spot," for he writes: "Turn not your eyes this way and wish not to learn our fate," but two lines later, relenting, he adds: "Now stop, traveller...within this narrow resting-place,"[23] and then we get the whole story. Sometimes a dramatic, lifelike touch is given by putting the inscription into the form of a dialogue between the dead and those who are left behind. Upon a stone found near Rome runs the inscription:[24] "Hail, name dear to us, Stephanus,...thy Moschis and thy Diodorus salute thee." To which the dead man replies: "Hail chaste wife, hail Diodorus, my friend, my brother." The dead man often begs for a pleasant word from the passer-by. The Romans, for instance, who left Ostia by the highway, read upon a stone the sentiment:[25] "May it go well with you who lie within and, as for you who go your way and read these lines, 'the earth rest lightly on thee' say." This pious salutation loses some of the flavor of spontaneity in our eyes when we find that it had become so much of a convention as to be indicated by the initial letters of the several words: S(it) t(ibi) t(erra) l(evis). The traveller and the departed exchange good wishes on a stone found near Velitræ:[26]

"May it go well with you who read and you who pass this way, The like to mine and me who on this spot my tomb have built."

One class of passers-by was dreaded by the dweller beneath the stone--the man with a paint-brush who was looking for a conspicuous spot on which to paint the name of his favorite political candidate. To such an one the hope is expressed "that his ambition may be realized, provided he instructs his slave not to paint this stone."[27]

These wayside epitaphs must have left an impress on the mind and character of the Roman which we can scarcely appreciate. The peasant read them as he trudged homeward on market days, the gentleman, as he drove to his villa on the countryside, and the traveller who came from the South, the East, or the North. In them the history of his country was set forth in the achievements of her great men, her prætors and consuls, her generals who had conquered and her governors who had ruled Gaul, Spain, Africa, and Asia. In them the public services, and the deeds of charity of the rich and powerful were recorded and the homely virtues and self-sacrifices of the humbler man and woman found expression there. Check by jowl with the tomb of some great leader upon whom the people or the emperor had showered all the titles and honors in their power might stand the stone of the poor physician, Dionysius,[28] of whom it is said "to all the sick who came to him he gave his services free of charge; he set forth in his deeds what he taught in his precepts."

But perhaps more of the inscriptions in verse, and with them we are here concerned, are in praise of women than of men. They make clear to us the place which women held in Roman life, the state of society, and the feminine qualities which were held in most esteem. The world which they portray is quite another from that of Ovid and Juvenal. The common people still hold to the old standards of morality and duty. The degeneracy of smart society has made little progress here. The marriage tie is held sacred; the wife and husband, the parent and child are held close to each other in bonds of affection. The virtues of women are those which Martinianus records on the stone of his wife Sofroniola:[29]

"Purity, loyalty, affection, a sense of duty, a yielding nature, and whatever qualities God has implanted in women."


(Castitas fides earitas pietas obsequium Et quaecumque deus faemenis inesse praecepit.)

Upon a stone near Turin,[30] Valerius wrote in memory of his wife the simple line:

"Pure in heart, modest, of seemly bearing, discreet, noble-minded, and held in high esteem."


(Casta pudica decens sapiens Generosa probata.)

Only one discordant note is struck in this chorus of praise. This fierce invective stands upon an altar at Rome:[31] "Here for all time has been set down in writing the shameful record of the freedwoman Acte, of poisoned mind, and treacherous, cunning, and hard-hearted. Oh! for a nail, and a hempen rope to choke her, and flaming pitch to burn up her wicked heart."

A double tribute is paid to a certain Statilia in this naïve inscription:[32] "Thou who wert beautiful beyond measure and true to thy husbands, didst twice enter the bonds of wedlock...and he who came first, had he been able to withstand the fates, would have set up this stone to thee, while I, alas! who have been blessed by thy pure heart and love for thee for sixteen years, lo! now I have lost thee." Still greater sticklers for the truth at the expense of convention are two fond husbands who borrowed a pretty couplet composed in memory of some woman "of tender age," and then substituted upon the monuments of their wives the more truthful phrase "of middle age,"[33] and another man warns women, from the fate of his wife, to shun the excessive use of jewels.[34]

It was only natural that when men came to the end of life they should ask themselves its meaning, should speculate upon the state after death, and should turn their thoughts to the powers which controlled their destiny. We have been accustomed to form our conceptions of the religion of the Romans from what their philosophers and moralists and poets have written about it. But a great chasm lies between the teachings of these men and the beliefs of the common people. Only from a study of the epitaphs do we know what the average Roman thought and felt on this subject. A few years ago Professor Harkness, in an admirable article on "The Scepticism and Fatalism of the Common People of Rome," showed that "the common people placed no faith in the gods who occupy so prominent a place in Roman literature, and that their nearest approach to belief in a divinity was their recognition of fate," which "seldom appears as a fixed law of nature...but rather as a blind necessity, depending on chance and not on law." The gods are mentioned by name in the poetic epitaphs only, and for poetic purposes, and even here only one in fifty of the metrical inscriptions contains a direct reference to any supernatural power. For none of these deities, save for Mother Earth, does the writer of an epitaph show any affection. This feeling one may see in the couplet which reads:[35] "Mother Earth, to thee have we committed the bones of Fortunata, to thee who dost come near to thy children as a mother," and Professor Harkness thoughtfully remarks in this connection that "the love of nature and appreciation of its beauties, which form a distinguishing characteristic of Roman literature in contrast to all the other literatures of antiquity, are the outgrowth of this feeling of kinship which the Italians entertained for mother earth."

It is a little surprising, to us on first thought, that the Roman did not interpose some concrete personalities between himself and this vague conception of fate, some personal agencies, at least, to carry out the decrees of destiny. But it will not seem so strange after all when we recall the fact that the deities of the early Italians were without form or substance. The anthropomorphic teachings of Greek literature, art, and religion found an echo in the Jupiter and Juno, the Hercules and Pan of Virgil and Horace, but made no impress on the faith of the common people, who, with that regard for tradition which characterized the Romans, followed the fathers in their way of thinking.

A disbelief in personal gods hardly accords with faith in a life after death, but most of the Romans believed in an existence of some sort in the world beyond. A Dutch scholar has lately established this fact beyond reasonable doubt, by a careful study of the epitaphs in verse.[36] One tombstone reads:[37]


"Into nothing from nothing how quickly we go,"

and another:[38]


"Once we were not, now we are as we were,"

and the sentiment, "I was not, I was, I am not, I care not" (non fui, fui, non sum, non euro) was so freely used that it is indicated now and then merely by the initial letters N.f.f.n.s.n.c., but compared with the great number of inscriptions in which belief in a life after death finds expression such utterances are few. But how and where that life was to be passed the Romans were in doubt. We have noticed above how little the common people accepted the belief of the poets in Jupiter and Pluto and the other gods, or rather how little their theology had been influenced by Greek art and literature. In their conception of the place of abode after death, it is otherwise. Many of them believe with Virgil that it lies below the earth. As one of them says in his epitaph:[39]

"No sorrow to the world below I bring."

Or with other poets the departed are thought of as dwelling in the Elysian fields or the Isles of the Blessed. As one stone cries out to the passer-by:[40] "May you live who shall have said. 'She lives in Elysium,'" and of a little girl it is said:[41] "May thy shade flower in fields Elysian." Sometimes the soul goes to the sky or the stars: "Here lies the body of the bard Laberius, for his spirit has gone to the place from which it came;"[42] "The tomb holds my limbs, my soul shall pass to the stars of heaven."[43] But more frequently the departed dwell in the tomb. As one of them expresses it: "This is my eternal home; here have I been placed; here shall I be for aye." This belief that the shade hovers about the tomb accounts for the salutations addressed to it which we have noticed above, and for the food and flowers which are brought to satisfy its appetites and tastes. These tributes to the dead do not seem to accord with the current Roman belief that the body was dissolved to dust, and that the soul was clothed with some incorporeal form, but the Romans were no more consistent in their eschatology than many of us are.

Perhaps it was this vague conception of the state after death which deprived the Roman of that exultant joy in anticipation of the world beyond which the devout Christian, a hundred years or more ago, expressed in his epitaphs, with the Golden City so clearly pictured to his eye, and by way of compensation the Roman was saved from the dread of death, for no judgment-seat confronted him in the other world. The end of life was awaited with reasonable composure. Sometimes death was welcomed because it brought rest. As a citizen of Lambsesis expresses it:[44] "Here is my home forever; here is a rest from toil;" and upon a woman's stone we read:[45]

"Whither hast thou gone, dear soul, seeking rest from troubles, For what else than trouble hast thou had throughout thy life?"

But this pessimistic view of life rarely appears on the monuments. Not infrequently the departed expresses a certain satisfaction with his life's record, as does a citizen of Beneventum, who remarks:[46] "No man have I wronged, to many have I rendered services," or he tells us of the pleasure which he has found in the good things of life, and advises us to enjoy them. A Spanish epitaph reads:[47] "Eat, drink, enjoy thyself, follow me" (es bibe lude veni). In a lighter or more garrulous vein another says:[48] "Come, friends, let us enjoy the happy time of life; let us dine merrily, while short life lasts, mellow with wine, in jocund intercourse. All these about us did the same while they were living. They gave, received, and enjoyed good things while they lived. And let us imitate the practices of the fathers. Live while you live, and begrudge nothing to the dear soul which Heaven has given you." This philosophy of life is expressed very succinctly in: "What I have eaten and drunk I have with me; what I have foregone I have lost,"[49] and still more concretely in:

"Wine and amours and baths weaken our bodily health, Yet life is made up of wine and amours and baths."[50]

Under the statue of a man reclining and holding a cup in his hand, Flavius Agricola writes:[51] "Tibur was my native place; I was called Agricola, Flavius too.... I who lie here as you see me. And in the world above in the years which the fates granted, I cherished my dear soul, nor did the god of wine e'er fail me.... Ye friends who read this, I bid you mix your wine, and before death comes, crown your temples with flowers, and drink.... All the rest the earth and fire consume after death." Probably we should be wrong in tracing to the teachings of Epicurus, even in their vulgarized popular form, the theory that the value of life is to be estimated by the material pleasure it has to offer. A man's theory of life is largely a matter of temperament or constitution. He may find support for it in the teachings of philosophy, but he is apt to choose a philosophy which suits his way of thinking rather than to let his views of life be determined by abstract philosophic teachings. The men whose epitaphs we have just read would probably have been hedonists if Epicurus had never lived. It is interesting to note in passing that holding this conception of life naturally presupposes the acceptance of one of the notions of death which we considered above--that it ends all.

In another connection, a year or two ago, I had occasion to speak of the literary merit of some of these metrical epitaphs,[52] of their interest for us as specimens of the literary compositions of the common people, and of their value in indicating the æsthetic taste of the average Roman. It may not be without interest here to speak of the literary form of some of them a little more at length than was possible in that connection. Latin has always been, and continues to be among modern peoples, a favored language for epitaphs and dedications. The reasons why it holds its favored position are not far to seek. It is vigorous and concise. Then again in English and in most modern languages the order which words may take in a given sentence is in most cases inexorably fixed by grammatical necessity. It was not so with Latin. Its highly inflected character made it possible, as we know, to arrange the words which convey an idea in various orders, and these different groupings of the same words gave different shades of meaning to the sentence, and different emotional effects are secured by changing the sequence in which the minor conceptions are presented. By putting contrasted words side by side, or at corresponding points in the sentence, the impression is heightened. When a composition takes the form of verse the possibilities in the way of contrast are largely increased. The high degree of perfection to which Horace brought the balancing and interlocking of ideas in some of his Odes, illustrates the great advantage which the Latin poet had over the English writer because of the flexibility of the medium of expression which he used. This advantage was the Roman's birthright, and lends a certain distinction even to the verses of the people, which we are discussing here. Certain other stylistic qualities of these metrical epitaphs, which are intended to produce somewhat the same effects, will not seem to us so admirable. I mean alliteration, play upon words, the acrostic arrangement, and epigrammatic effects. These literary tricks find little place in our serious verse, and the finer Latin poets rarely indulge in them. They seem to be especially out of place in an epitaph, which should avoid studied effects and meretricious devices. But writers in the early stages of a literature and common people of all periods find a pleasure in them. Alliteration, onomatopoeia, the pun, and the play on words are to be found in all the early Latin poets, and they are especially frequent with literary men like Plautus and Terence, Pacuvius and Accius, who wrote for the stage, and therefore for the common people. One or two illustrations of the use of these literary devices may be sufficient. A little girl at Rome, who died when five years old, bore the strange name of Mater, or Mother, and on her tombstone stands the sentiment:[53] "Mater I was by name, mater I shall not be by law." "Sepulcrum hau pulcrum pulcrai feminae" of the famous Claudia inscription,[54] Professor Lane cleverly rendered "Site not sightly of a sightly dame." Quite beyond my power of translating into English, so as to reproduce its complicated play on words, is the appropriate epitaph of the rhetorician, Romanius lovinus:[55]


"Docta loqui doctus quique loqui docuit."

A great variety of verses is used in the epitaphs, but the dactylic hexameter and the elegiac are the favorites. The stately character of the hexameter makes it a suitable medium in which to express a serious sentiment, while the sudden break in the second verse of the elegiac couplet suggests the emotion of the writer. The verses are constructed with considerable regard for technique. Now and then there is a false quantity, an unpleasant sequence, or a heavy effect, but such blemishes are comparatively infrequent. There is much that is trivial, commonplace, and prosaic in these productions of the common people, but now and then one comes upon a phrase, a verse, or a whole poem which shows strength or grace or pathos. An orator of the late period, not without vigor, writes upon his tombstone:[56] "I have lived blessed by the gods, by friends, by letters."

(Vixi beatus dis, amicis, literis.)

A rather pretty, though not unusual, sentiment occurs in an elegiac couplet to a young girl,[57] in which the word amoena is the adjective, meaning "pleasant to see," in the first, while in the second verse it is the girl's name: "As a rose is amoena when it blooms in the early spring time, so was I Amoena to those who saw me."

(Ut rosa amoena homini est quom primo tempore floret. Quei me viderunt, seic Amoena fui.)

There is a touch of pathos in the inscription which a mother put on the stone of her son:[58] "A sorrowing mother has set up this monument to a son who has never caused her any sorrow, except that he is no more," and in this tribute of a husband:[59] "Out of my slender means now that the end has come, my wife, all that I could do, this gift, a small small one for thy deserts, have I made." The epitaph of a little girl, named Felicia, or Kitty, has this sentiment in graceful verse:[60] "Rest lightly upon thee the earth, and over thy grave the fragrant balsam grow, and roses sweet entwine thy buried bones." Upon the stone of a little girl who bore the name of Xanthippe, and the nickname Iaia, is an inscription with one of two pretty conceits and phrases. With it we may properly bring to an end our brief survey of these verses of the common people of Rome. In a somewhat free rendering it reads in part:[61] "Whether the thought of death distress thee or of life, read to the end. Xanthippe by name, yclept also Iaia by way of jest, escapes from sorrow since her soul from the body flies. She rests here in the soft cradle of the earth,... comely, charming, keen of mind, gay in discourse. If there be aught of compassion in the gods above, bear her to the sun and light."



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the common people of rome
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