Epigram of the month: Roses are red, violets are blue…

We like talking about death,
what about you?

Nowadays, February is commonly associated with Valentine’s day. Slowly but surely, little reminders start popping up around us coming the end of January or even before. Whether it be in the form of chocolates, cards, flowers, or heart-shaped everything: February is often called the month of love.

Was that the case in Ancient Rome?

Of course not.

In addition to the Lupercalia (February 13th–15th), an ancient festival related to the purification of the city and the aversion of bad numina (you know, good vibes only), the other major festivity of the month were the Parentalia (February 13th-21st), devoted to honouring the family dead. We have already made a brief mention to them and their May counterpart, the Lemuria, over here.

During the Parentalia, families gathered around their relatives’ funerary monuments and made offerings to their eternal rest, a moment that has been compared to a yearly renewal of the burial ceremony. Ovid spoke poetically about what kind of gifts could the manes, the spirits of the deceased, expect during their big days (just paraphrasing here, but something along the lines of ‘just get me something small’ and ‘it’s the thought that counts’):

Parua petunt manes: pietas pro diuite grata est
munere; non auidos Styx habet ima deos.
tegula porrectis satis est uelata coronis
et sparsae fruges parcaque mica salis,
inque mero mollita Ceres uiolaeque solutae.

Small things are what the manes ask for; devotion pleases them, rather than a costly gift. Styx in its depths has no greedy gods. A tile covered with a spread of garlands is enough, and a sprinkling of corn and a meagre grain of salt, and Ceres softened in wine and a scattering of violets.

(Fasti 2.535-539; transl. A. and P. Wiseman)

I mean, who doesn’t like flowers?

As in today’s society, also in ancient Rome flowers were an important part of funerary practices. They often appear in verse inscriptions, and, as you will be able to see, roses and violets are among the favourites.

My Epigram of the Month is a funerary poem (CIL VI 9118 (cf. p. 3469, 3895) = CLE 467) set by one Hermes to his late wife Nice, who died at the age of 24, as we learn from the prose praescriptum. Originating from Rome, the poem is a beautiful piece written in dactylic hexameters, full of emotion, but also full of colourful imagery:

Aeternam tibi sedem Hermes aramq(ue) dicaui,
Nice, optassemque utinam tua fata superstes
ut mihi tu faceres, sed iniqua sorte maligna
rapta iaces annis iam uiduata tuis.
ia tibi Cybeles sint et rosa grata Diones
et flores grati Nymphis et lilia serta,
si[n]tque precor meritis qui nostra parent tibi dona
annua, et Manes placida tibi nocte quiescant,
et super in nido Marathonis cantet aedon.

I, Hermes, have consecrated to you, Nice, an eternal abode and an altar, and would that I had prayed for your lot, so that you might have survived and done the same for me; however, because of unfair malign destiny you lie at rest, robbed of your years. May you have the violets of Cybele and the rose of Venus and the flowers that please the Nymphs and entwined lilies, and, I pray, may there be those who will produce for you my annual tribute because of your merits, and may your Manes rest in undisturbed night, and above you may the nightingale of Marathon sing in its nest.

(Trans. E. Courtney, Musa Lapidaria 177, modified)

At the beginning of the poem Hermes expresses his grief over the untimely death of his wife, and, as we often see in funerary poetry, wishes it had rather been him who died. He then goes on to express his desire that in the future the monument will remain surrounded by violets, roses and lilies, among others.

The idea expressed on the tombstone for Nice – to remain being surrounded by different kinds of flowers, always in bloom and each linked to a goddess or divinity – is very striking: we only know of Nice through the lens of his husband, of course, so in a way, his idolised vision becomes also ours.

Towards the end he prays that there always be someone who can pay her this yearly offering – which could very well happen in the context of the Parentalia. Most remarkably, Hermes links that to Nice’s eternal rest and to her Manes in particular. If this tribute is met, her Manes will be able to ‘rest in undisturbed night’.

This image brings us back to Ovid and his vision of the Parentalia. He mentions that, in the past, there was a time in which the offerings were overlooked, and he recounts what consequences this mistake had:

uix equidem credo: bustis exisse feruntur
et tacitae questi tempore noctis aui,
perque uias Urbis latosque ululasse per agros
deformes animas, uolgus inane, ferunt.

For my part, I hardly believe it. Forefathers are said to have come out of their graves and complained in the silent night-time, and through the streets of the city and the broad fields they say misshapen spirits howled, a phantom crowd.

(Fasti 2.551-554; transl. A. and P. Wiseman)

Yes, this is just a tale (we hope…!), but could Hermes have had this reference in mind when he wished rest and a placida nox for Nice?

In any case, for him flowers were not only a part of the yearly tribute to his beloved, but also a symbol of the way in which she remained in his (and therefore our) memory: full of youth and beauty, in full bloom (so to speak), and not a ‘misshapen spirit’.

Naturally, flowers serve many different purposes in Latin funerary poetry. They are present in poems dedicated to individual of different times, places, ages, and social settings, each of them with diverse and meaning-laden uses.

Let’s have a look at a couple of them, so as to get a fuller picture still.

In some cases, flowers are not directly linked to youth, only to the eternal rest of the deceased.

This is the case in CIL III 4185 (CLE 578 = ILCV 296 = RIU I 80 = CLEPann 25 = HD001731 = Ubi Erat Lupa 3319 = EPSG 501), for example, an inscription coming from Savaria, in Pannonia Superior (modern-day Szombathely, Hungary), also written in dactylic hexameters and dating from the 3rd or 4th century:

Fl(auius) Dalmatius u(ir) p(erfectissimus) ex pro[tect(oribus)]
qui uixit an(nos) XL et Aur(elia) Iulia conp(ar) dulc(issima)
qui uixit an(nos) XXXV ideoque hunc titulum
scripserunt. quisquis {h}e(ris) post me d(o)m(inus) Laris huius
et (h)orti, uicinas mihi carpe rosas mihi lilia pone
[ca]ndeda{s} q(uae) uiridis dabit (h)ortulus: ista beat(or)um.
[- – -] Volussius et Sabatia lib(erti) posuerunt.  

Flavius Dalmatius, uir perfectissimus and former guard, who lived 40 years, and Aurelia Iulia, his sweetest wife, who lived 35 years, wrote this inscription for this reason. Owner of this house and of this garden after me, whoever you are, pick for me the roses that grow nearby, put on my monument the white lilies that this green orchard gives. This is what the blessed deceased deserve. [—] Their freedmen Volussius and Sabatia set up the monument.  

(Transl. C. Cenati)

Flavius Dalmatius and his wife, Aurelia Iulia, left this text to their freedmen so it would be engraved after their death.

It is likely that they were not buried in this location, but that this inscription served as a reminder of the time they enjoyed living there as well as of their love for the house and its garden, very much like today’s inscriptions on park benches and the like.

They ask for there to be lilies and roses around their monument, justifying this request with a succinct ‘ista beatorum’: ‘this (being surrounded by flowers in bloom) is what the blessed (deceased) deserve’. Being remembered by someone is the highest fortune.

However, the connection between flowers and youth does not have to be always present.

That is the case of the epitaph for Lollia Procla (CIL V 6693 (= CLE 610 = ILVercel 31 = EDR116274)), beautifully presented on a sarcophagus and dedicated to her by her parents. Originating from Vercellae (modern-day Vercelli, in Piemonte), she died towards the end of the first century or sometime during the second.

We might expect to find deep sadness linked to an untimely death and, especially, of parents having to bury their daughter. But instead, her young age is not addressed. They present Lollia to us as a timeless role model:

D(is) aeoni chaere M(anibus)
Lolliae Proclae
Aionii salue. doleas ne fata suprema,
sic fortuna tibi dederat transcurrere uitam.
omnes mortales eadem nam sorte tenemur.
gratia{e} si uitae, famae si nomen honestum,
si charites aliquae, laudi[s si gloria summ]a
omnia sunt tecum. quis [enim dum uita] manebat
non sibi pro uoto uoluit cognos[- – -]
te lyra, te cithara mira cum uoce [- – -]irunt.
te iuuenes cuncti patriae fleuere dolentes
quis lacrimae numquam poterunt sedare dolorem.
purpurei flores m[utati? – – -]ni pulchro
[- – -]nt tumulum titu[lo] quem littera fulgens
declarat niueo lapidis distincta metallo.

To the spirits of the departed of Lollia Procla. Hail, forever. Forever, farewell. Do not lament your ultimate destiny: thus the Fortune had granted you to pass through life, as all of us mortals are held to the same fate. If there is pleasure in life, if any respectable name in fame, any charm, if the highest glory is possible in a praise, everything can be found in you. Indeed, who, while you were alive, did not wish to get to know you? For you the lyre, for you the cithara [cry?] with marvellous sound. All the youth of the country, in pain, wept for you, but the tears won’t be able to sooth the sorrow. Purple flowers, [transformed?] into beautiful [- – – will colour?] your tombstone, and the shinning lettering in the inscription, distinct to the white gleam of the stone, declares her (name). Her parents (had the monument made).  

(Transl. V. González Berdús)

The end of the poem is quite damaged, but a brief mention to purpurei flores remains preserved.

Here, perhaps more than ever before, we get to see how flowers could also be perceived as an aesthetic, decorative element of the funerary monument.

The whiteness and coldness of the marble, the shining of the lettering, the colours (and also the perfume) of the flowers – everything adds up to create a sensorial experience. What is more, on the sides of the sarcophagus, there are two wreaths adorned with ribbons, which would blend in with real blossoms. If one accepts the restitution of m[utati], one could even see this expressed in the text, as a reference to this sensation.

We will bring this brief walk to an end with an exploration of another, rather frequent idea in the carmina that mention flowers. For not only do flowers serve the purpose of honouring the deceased and their burials: sometimes the dedicants would find solace in the thought that the body of their beloved ones would eventually be transformed into a flower.

According to the praescriptum of our next and final piece, Quintus Caecilius Optatus died at the age of two years and six months. Quintus’ father, a sevir Augustalis called Quintus Caecilius Hermes, his mother, Licinia Repentina, and his brother, Quintus Caecilius Paelinus, had this monument (now sadly lost, CIL IX 3184 (cf. p. 1415) = CLE 01313 = CLERegio IV 31 = EDR177380) made for him in Corfinium (modern day Corfino, in L’Aquila), around the 1st century A.D.:

(…) hic iacet Optatus, pietatis nobilis infa(n)s,
cui precor ut cineres sint ia sintq(ue) rosae
terraq(ue) quae mater nunc est sibi sit leuis oro
namque grauis nulli uita fuit pueri.
ergo quod miseri possunt praestare parentes,
hunc titulum nato constituere suo.

Here lies Optatus, an infant known to all for his affection; I pray that his ashes be violets and roses, and that the earth, which is now his mother, be light on him, for the boy’s life was oppressive to none. Therefore his wretched parents have set up this epitaph to their son, all that they can do.  

(Trans. E. Courtney, Musa Lapidaria 178)

In this brief poem written in elegiac couplets, the family of Optatus expresses the topical wish that the earth will not be heavy upon their loved one’s remains. But they go far beyond the common place. The image of his ashes transforming into violets and roses would appear genuinely to offer them some solace in their darkest hour: in a way, that would make him escape the heaviness of the burial and come back up to the air, returning to the living, but also keep living forever through this metamorphosis.

As the poem says, Earth is his mother now, so he will keep transforming into a new element of nature for eternity.

We hope that our Epigram of the Month and this selection of carmina epigraphica (by no means an extensive report!) opened up a dimension of this world for you in which you get to see at least a glimpse of beauty and life, of pure vitality, amidst all the death and the loss that surround us (and about which we enjoy talking so much in our daily work at the MAPPOLA project).

If they also made you want to run and buy some flowers (for yourself or for someone else), all the better!

Happy St. Valentine’s (or Galentine’s)!

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