Monday, May 28, 2012


Christine Hamdoune (ed.), Vie, mort et poésie dans l'Afrique romaine: d'après un choix de Carmina Latina Epigraphica. Collection Latomus, 330. Bruxelles: Éditions Latomus, 2011. Pp. 395; xxviii p. of plates. ISBN 9782870312711. €80.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan, University of Kansas (

Version at BMCR home site

This edited volume brings together contributions addressing a corpus of 174 African verse inscriptions, assembled for the occasion by a team of experts in Montpellier. The aim was to discuss linguistic and historical aspects of the poems along the lines forged by the laudable example of the 1993 publication on a single verse inscription from Cillium.1 In the brief introduction the editor accounts for the selection mainly on the basis of omissions (material already published, texts too fragmentary), and as a reflection of the specific interests of individuals in the team (Latinists and historians). The main cities represented are Carthage and Caesarea, as well as smaller urban centers such as Haidra (Ammaedara), Auzia, Mactar and Madaura. The majority of the "pagan" texts belong to the third century CE; the Christians (or Christianized) texts range from the fourth to the seventh centuries.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the corpus itself. The poems are arranged along the lines of CIL VIII. Each poem is equipped with apparatus criticus, an analysis of its meter, translation, and commentary. Where known, a description of the monument where it had been inscribed is added. The result is a readable and accessible body of poems that reveal both banality and astonishing ingenuity, as well as remarkable continuity. The influence of the classics is evident as are clumsy constructions and grammatical errors.

Among noteworthy features of the inscriptions is the representation of two populations, women and children, that are ordinarily less conspicuous in comparable collections. It would have been useful to include a summarizing table showing the age at death of the children, where known, the cause, the type of tribute, its date, and the party recording the dead. Was there a reason why the Romans of Africa recorded their grief over the demise of children in poems, and in greater abundance than grieving relatives in other provinces?2 It would also have been useful to inform readers what ties the selected poems together besides the research interests of the contributing scholars. Take, for example, the three poems from Hippo (nos. 104-6). One is an epitaph, possibly composed by Augustine, of a deacon named Nabor who is represented dying a martyr's death at the hands of the Donatists. This Nabor had been a Donatist himself, and a later convert to orthodoxy. It seems that Augustine was not the only African to experience a change of heart, albeit the best known one. What does this poem have to do with the two other Hippo poems that commemorate the passing of children, a boy (4th-5th century) and a girl (6th-7th century)? The latter is lamented precisely because she died at the age of twelve, an age that instead of heralding her puberty and marriage, brought the tragedy of death. In a way all three are 'converts', death being their final conversion. This said, the articles make a notable effort to lend coherence to the corpus by complementing analysis.

Maria José Pena analyzes the language of two inscriptions from Caesarea (CLE 1243 and 479= nos. 162 and 170 in the assembled corpus), both commemorating transplanted Spaniards. The inscriptions include several remarkable features. The poem composed in memory of M. Furius Herennius contains a phrase alluding to his native land (Baetica me genuit tellus) in terms made familiar by the much later pseudo-epitaph of Virgil. That the Herennius poem is a pioneer in linking man and native soil in such a manner is curious and striking, suggesting that epigraphy did not invariably follow literature even when using literary conventions. The Herennius reference is closely followed by a Narbonese inscription that depicts the dead protagonist as a man hailing from a barbara tellus (CLE 1276). Pena also distinguishes two dates for the inscription, an early (mid first century) for its prose praescriptium, and a fourth century one for the poem. The latter was apparently reused in the same cemetery, perhaps to commemorate another Spaniard who lusted after Libya (cupidus Libuae cognoscere). This is an intriguing suggestion that should be examined in other contexts.

Étienne Wolff deals with two poems from the Anthologia Latina, both ascribed to Luxurius (nos. 49 and 50 in the corpus= Ant. Lat. 345 and 354), both dating to the "Vandal period" (in the corpus). A close analysis proposes a date after 530 for the poem commemorating Damira, the infantula filia of Oageis, member of the Vandal royal clan. Luxurius employs "pagan" and "Christian" allusions to highlight the extent of the loss. Similarly, in a poem honoring Olympius, a young slave or freedman, Luxurius favors the hunter's staged feats in the Carthaginian amphitheater with expressions alluding to Rome's victory over Carthage! Wolff further notes the close affinity between literary and lapidary poetic epitaphs, the former perhaps no more than literary exercises. Commonalities are based on references, direct and indirect, to classical literature, a habit whose incongruity was clearly not apparent in the heart of the Vandal capital.

Jean Meyers addresses the question of the employment of specific phrases borrowed from a host of classical sources and conveniently tabulated on pages 319-322. One wonders whether the Africans engaged in composing versified epitaphs used 'model books' containing relevant lines from a variety of authors, or whether the allusions imply first hand familiarity with the authors cited of composers and readers alike.

Jean-Marie Lassère analyzes biographical elements in the poems, ranging from matters of health, domestic virtues, moral qualities, to careers, professions and good deeds. The African poems do not appear to present startling innovations although some merit attention. One such is an epitaph of a priestess of Cirta who died at the extraordinary age of 115 (no. 127; CLE 1613; 2nd-3rd century). She probably also had tough soles since for eighty years she served the divinity (Ceres?) with bare feet. A life of seclusion and piety rewarded with exceptional longevity? Not surprisingly, those who lived their life as public figures are accorded detailed epitaphs bursting with biographical information. Such details stand in curious contrast with the dateless state of so many of the poems, as though the verse itself should suffice to lend concreteness to the dead.

In a similar vein Anne Fraïsse examines the typology of the information provided about the defunct, such as name, age, location, profession, magistracies, type of death, designation of the tomb, its type, etc. As she notes, the tomb itself is a place of dialogue between the dead person and her/his live relatives, whether children, parents, spouse, or a passerby. In brief, a testimony that death is a passage from life on earth to a mode marked by absence of continued communication.

What indeed the dead do say to the living is the subject of Laure Échalier, who notes that in no fewer than 49 out of the 174 selected poems the dead are given an opportunity to address the living, while only 32 poems allow the living to address the dead. For the rest (109 poems), the dead are talked about in the third person. In general, the dead console or advise the living. Do they also prepare the address in advance? Or rather did the deceased edit the text to be engraved upon death on the tombstone? It seems that the choice of the addressee also determined the words imparted by the dead to the living, possibly dictated by a desire to exert lingering influence over familial matters. To use fashionable terms, the dead continue to perform from the grave, aiming to fashion the lives of those left behind.

Jean-Noël Michaud dwells on readers, or addressees, as central figures of the poems, whether those related to the dead or persons wholly unrelated. Here a distinction is made between those with whom the dead had been in conversation during their lifetime, and potential readers united with the dead only through the temporary act of reading in a cemetery. Michaud focuses on four poems (nos. 70, 38, 136, and 108) that had been commissioned in life by the dead to be inscribed on their tombs. The "messages" differ as do the speakers.

In sum, this collection constitutes a worthwhile attempt to create a conversation around a definitive body of texts united by diction, theme (death) and location (African provinces) yet disparate in time (from mid first to sixth century CE) and exceptionally diverse in content. Can other commonalities be forged? The present collection takes an important step in collective analysis of common themes. One hopes that such conversation will continue.

There are indexes of names and of first lines, but not a general index. There are several good photographs but no map showing the places discussed.

Table of Contents

Avant-Propos, p. 5
Première Partie: Recueil de Poèmes Commentés, p. 13
Deuxième Partie: Études et Commentaires, p. 283
Maria-José Pena, "Deux carmina de Caesarea (Cherchel) et la Péninsule ibérique (n°170 et n° 162)", p. 285
Étienne Wolf, "Deux épitaphes de Luxorius (Anth. Lat. 345 et 354 R = 340 et 349 ShB) N° 49 et N°50", p. 299
Jean Meyers, "L'influence de la poésie classique dans les Carmina epigraphica funéraires d'Afrique du Nord", p. 306.
Jean-Marie Lassère, "Éléments de biographie dans les Carmina Latina Epigraphica", p. 323.
Anne Fraïsse, "Typologie des renseignements fournis sur le défunt dans les carmina", p. 336.
Laure Échalier, "Ce que les morts disent aux vivants", p. 349.
Jean-Noël Michaud, "Un instant dans l'éternité, l'éternité dans un instant", p. 364.
Bibliographie, p. 377
Index Nominum, p. 389
Incipit, p. 393
Table des Illustrations, p. 396
Table des Matières, p. 397


1.   Les Flavii de Cillium (Rome 1993)
2.   On the manner of lamenting and burying infants, H. Sivan, Galla Placidia (New York and Oxford 2011), passim.

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