I’ve been looking on my hard drive for a photograph I took of a certain inscription and I keep coming up with others I took decades ago and said, “I’ll return to this one day.”

Well, here I am. As is the case with my recent essay on the epitaph of Caelius and Camidia, these inscriptions have all been published, but I am thinking through them on my own as a divertissement. It beats another game of sudoku! At the end I’ll perform a reality check and see if my thoughts stack up against my predecessors’. My assumption is that I’ll get a lot wrong, not least because there is no substitute for working directly from a stone, and online resources will only get you so far.

Figure 1. Epitaph of Pomponia Eleusis. Museo di Sannio, Benevento. Photo: author.

The text:


Tidied up (and all numbered references to the text hereafter are to verse number in my reconstructed poem unless explicitly stated otherwise):

     Hic est illa sita felix Pomponia Eleusis,
     quae eximia virtute animi peperit sibi laudem.
     Sex sibi praemisit simili virtu(te) et amore
     cum gemitu sui Rufi nomine ut est Helenus.
5   Ne mirere, hospes, quis eam sic laudibus laudet
     ut meruit, parque est patronus qui manumisit.

As usual, Imma try to leave out the epigraphical and philological Donnerblitzen except to say that there are a couple of spots where I am speculating on what the inscriptions says, because I have a hard time reading it. I also note that the cutter has an inconsistent control of long and short syllables, even before we come to consider poetic meter. ‘sibi‘ (2), even in later republican prosody, has two shorts, but the cutter has SIBEI, which is an iamb. Yet in (3) we have SIBI.

Here’s my reconstruction of the meter. I use a forward slash (/) for elision and a pipe (|) for foot divisions. The final syllable of each verse is always anceps, i.e., indifferently short or long.

     Hīc ēst | īllă sĭt | ā fē | līx Pōm | pōnĭ/ Ĕ | leūsĭs,
     qu/ ēxĭmĭ | ā vīr | tūt/ ănĭ | mī pĕpĕ | rīt sĭbĭ | laūdĕm.
     Sēx sĭbĭ | praēmī | sīt sĭmĭ | lī vīr | tū(t/) ĕt ă | mōrĕ
     cūm gĕmĭ | tū sŭĭ | Rūfī | nōmĭn/ ŭt | ēst Hĕlĕ | nŭs.
5   Nē mī | rēr/, hōs | pēs, quĭs ĕ | ām sīc | laūdĭbŭs | laūdĕt
     ūt mĕrŭ | īt: pār | quē /st pāt | rōnūs | quī mănŭ | mīsĭt.

Lector benevolens: here be arguments—beware! Jump down one paragraph if you don’t like getting into the weeds.

The prosody here is about as good as demotic epigrams get, and really, quite OK. The irregularities are few, the greatest being verse 4, half a hexameter mated to the latter half of a pentameter. This is pretty thin gruel for anyone looking for metrical sins—and transparently explained by the need to insert the tribrach name Helenus. sitā (1), suĭ (4), and manŭmisit (6) are all easily explained by where in a foot the anomalous quantity falls. The hiatus in the inscribed text virtu et is clearly a cutter’s error at the point of the elision of the original virtute et as the cutter confounded the printed text with the aural one in his head (or which he spoke out loud) as he cut. So, virtute et sounds like virtut et, which gets sloppily cut as virtu et. The optional rule that a mute plosive (c, p, t) followed by a liquid (l, r) can be treated as a single consonant and thus not close the preceding syllable is just that: optional and not followed in pātronus (6). sibi (2), a pair of short syllables, is correct Latin and corresponds to meter here; the cutter must be to blame for the iambic sibei.

OK, so we have a pretty good performance in a Latin verse inscription in Beneventum, then as now a bit out in the sticks, even if on a major road.

In English translation:

“Here lies the fortunate and renowned Pomponia Eleusis, who gave birth to praise for herself by her outstandingly excellent attitude. She sent ahead of her to the grave six [children] with excellence and love like hers, with the groaning of her Rufius, as Helenus is [known] by name. Stranger, don’t wonder who praises her with such praises as she deserved: equally deserving is the patron who manumitted her.”

If that seems clunky, it’s certainly in part my fault, but also comes from some opacity in the Latin.

Pomponia Eleusis was a freedwoman, an ex-slave. Her master’s nomen will have been Pomponius, and her slave name Eleusis. We learn at the poem’s end that her patronus (i.e., former master) had manumitted her. We do not learn her age.

If I understand the poem correctly (and I may not), she had a domestic partner who was likewise an ex-slave; his slave name was Helenus, and in a manumission not mentioned in the poem he appears to have acquired his former master’s Roman family nomen Rufius. He is referred to as ‘her Rufius’, which I think casts a deliberate veil over the fact that they were not married under Roman law. When libertines married, they tended to use terms for ‘spouse’ (coniunx, uxor) that assert their manumission and citizenship status.

She sent “six” ahead of her, and on a tombstone this must mean “to the grave,” and only really makes sense as “children”—the groans of Helenus also point in this direction. We are not told what number, if any, of her children might have survived her. I think the simplest reading is that all of her children died before her. Despite the adjective ‘felix‘ (‘fortunate’) for her, she seems to have been demographically the worse off than her average neighbor (maybe a little under 50% of children survived to adulthood in Roman times).

Might her children have been at least in part by Pomponius? Roman slaves were notoriously sexual outlets for their male owners, and connections of greater or lesser permanence and intimacy formed often enough that Roman law had a number of provisions governing the marriage of a patronus to his freedwoman. In our case, Helenus would appear to be Pomponia’s chosen domestic partner, but the realities of Roman life were that the relationship might have been triangular, at least when she was still a slave.

When, like here, a former master is praised on a libertine tombstone, I’m always suspicious that the patronus erected the monument and wrote any epitaph. We tend to discount self-serving expressions of even genuine emotion: these people did not necessarily think as we do. In any event, it is not hard to find patrons who claim to have erected a funerary monument for some one of their freedpeople (or slaves), and there is always implicit self-praise.

Roman poets, even demotic ones, tried to imbue their work with clever conceits. Sometimes these easter eggs were just puns or other word play. In our poem, I think we have a deliberate play upon two different types of ‘bearing’. Pomponia lost six children, yet she luckily (felix) gave birth to praise for herself (peperit > pario, ‘to bear children’, i.a.). As I see it, the contrast is meant to be a consolation for her loss, inasmuch as her praiseworthily excellent attitude (virtus animi) had evidently earned her manumission. The praise she bore might also be commemorated by the poet as a sort of compensation for her losses, hence the title of this essay.

Appendix I. Some technical matters.

(Beware! What follows can make your hair fall out in clumps.)

The first scholarly publication appears to be by P. Cavuoto in Epigraphica 30 (1968) 126-155. I have no access to this, but P. Cugusi summarizes the article and prints a text in Année épigraphique 1968 (published in 1970) inscription number 142, on page 54. This can be had online.

The text as first published (pipes (|) mark line breaks):

Heic est illa sita felix Po|mponia Eleusis,
quae eximia | virtute animi peperit sibei laudem |
et sibi praemisit simili vir|tute et amore
cum gemitu Rufi | Rufi nomine ut est Helenus. |
Nei misere hospes quis eam | seic laudibus laudet
ut meruit: parque est patronus | qui manumeisit.

It is a strange fact comprehensible perhaps only to Schrödinger’s cat, that different eyes observing the same inscription either in person or in good photographs can read different letters. There’s an evergreen joke about the “special glasses” some epigraphers wear that let them make out things no one else can see.

The following is the text (slightly streamlined by me) published on the 2004 Auxilia epigraphica site, a sort of concordance to the major collection of Latin inscriptions in which ours appears. It offers the text of inscription 3197 published as part of the second edition of the first volume of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, CIL. Volumes, such as the one containing our 1968 inscription are still in copyright, so I have no access to them and I’m happy to use the Auxilia epigraphica site text as a proxy.

heic est illa sita felix Po-
mponia Eleusis quae eximia
virtute animi peperit sibei
[se]x sibi praemeisit simili vir-
tu<te> et amore qum gemitu [[{Rufi}]]
Rufi nomine ut est Helenus 
nei mirere hospes quis eam
seic laudibus laudet ut me-
ruit parque est patronus 
qui manumeisit

The CIL 3197 text shows improvements made possible by revisiting the stone: now, for example, we recognize that that’s an ‘X’ at the beginning of line 5. One imagines the stone had been cleaned in the mean time.

We then jump to 2007, and Matteo Massaro’s discussion of the inscription in his chapter “Metri e ritmi nella epigrafia latina di età repubblicana,” in Die metrischen Inschriften der römischen Republik (2007, edited by Peter Kruschwitz) 121-167. Massaro and I are mostly in agreement in substantial matters, but we split decisively at the colometry of verse 4, a division that goes back as far as Cugusi, and maybe to Cavuoto. To them, Cavuoto’s first RVFI is a mistake that was intentionally erased (instead of just damaged by time), and as a result they read the verse as a regular pentameter: qūm gĕmĭtū Rūfī, || nōmĭn/ ŭt ēst Hĕlĕnŭs.

I see different letters with my special glasses: for RVFI RVFI I see SVEI RVFI, and therefore a longer hybrid verse, a half-hexameter mated to the latter half of a pentameter. The ‘F’ of the undisputed RVFI has a small horizontal bar at the bottom of the vertical stroke, giving some appearance of an ‘E’; yet the letter in the analogous position at the end of line 6 has a full-width horizontal bar in the lowest position (figure 2). Everyone is forgiving when names had to be inserted into verse, and I don’t think the hybrid verse I posit is any “worse” than a stichic pentameter. One often sees such expedients in demotic verse. As to why, “her Rufius”, see my argument about domestic partnership above.

Figure 2. CIL I2 3197, detail of end of line 6. Photo author.

This brings us to the 2015 thesis of Aurelio Núñez Pimienta, Selección de inscripciones recogidas por Paolo Cugusi: traducción y commentario, pp. 22-24: Pimienta offers the same text and colometry as Massaro.

Finally we reach 2019 and Alfredo Mario Morelli, a fine scholar, who brushed up against our inscription in his recently published chapter, “The Beginnings of Roman Epigram and Its Relationship with Hellenistic Poetry,” in Blackwell’s Companion to Ancient Epigram (2019, edited by Christer Henriksén). He offers the same Latin text that we’ve seen since 2004:

Heic est illa sita felix Pomponia Eleusis,
quae eximia virtute animi peperit sibei laudem.
[Se]x sibi praemeisit simili virtu(te) et amore
     qum gemitu [[Rufi]] Rufi, nomine ut est Helenus.
Nei mirere, hospes, quis eam seic laudibus laudet,
ut meruit parque est patronus qui manumeisit.

You see that he sees a pentameter in verse 4 and indents accordingly. I’ve said everything I want to say about this above.

What about his English translation?

“Here lies the renowned, blessed Pomponia Eleusis, who by her outstanding virtue procured herself praise. Six children preceded her, similar in virtue and devotion, accompanied by Rufus’ mourning, whose name is Helenus. Do not be astonished, passer‐by, reading that she is so praised with praises, because she did deserve them, and her patron did too, who freed her.”

He sees ‘virtue’ (virtute) as the source of her praise, where I see the excellence of her animus as the source. Animus can stand for the person, but it can also refer to her attitude and mindset.

Morelli gives “procured herself praise” for peperit sibi laudem. I think this is right, but I think it takes the surface and does not see the logic under the use of the loaded verb pario read against the six dead children in this epitaph. (Pimienta translates, “se ganó la gloria por la eximia virtud de su ánimo.”)

Worse, Morelli’s translation “six children preceded her” might lead the unwary to envision that the children were alive when she died and just walked in front of her body to the pyre. But the verb is praemisit, active and transitive, with her as the subject and the number sex as the only possible direct object. She sent six ahead, as forerunners, to the grave, this accompanied by Rufius’ groaning. Pimienta’s translation doesn’t help here: it hews to a literality that obscures meaning as much as the Latin does.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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