Poetry in ancient Rome

The Poetry of the Common People of Rome

I. 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 Gra nius: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 real ized, 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 de crees 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, onomatopœia, 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."

II. Their Dedicatory and Ephemeral Verses

In the last paper we took up for consideration some of the Roman metrical epitaphs. These compositions, however, do not include all the productions in verse of the common people of Rome. On temples, altars, bridges, statues, and house walls, now and then, we find bits of verse. Most of the extant dedicatory lines are in honor of Hercules, Silvanus, Priapus, and the Cæsars. Whether the two famous inscriptions to Hercules by the sons of Vertuleius and by Mummius belong here or not it is hard to say. At all events, they were probably composed by amateurs, and have a peculiar interest for us because they belong to the second century B.C., and therefore stand near the beginning of Latin letters; they show us the language before it had been perfected and adapted to literary purposes by an Ennius, a Virgil, and a Horace, and they are written in the old native Saturnian verse, into which Livius Andronicus, "the Father of Latin literature," translated the Odyssey. Consequently they show us the language before it had gained in polish and lost in vigor under the influence of the Greeks. The second of these two little poems is a finger-post, in fact, at the parting of the ways for Roman civilization. It was upon a tablet let into the wall of the temple of Hercules, and commemorates the triumphant return to Rome of Mummius, the conqueror of Corinth. It points back to the good old days of Roman contempt for Greek art, and ignorance of it, for Mummius, in his stupid indifference to the beautiful monuments of Corinth, made himself the typical Philistine for all time. It points forward to the new Greco-Roman civilization of Italy, because the works of art which Mummius is said to have brought back with him, and the Greeks who probably followed in his train, augmented that stream of Greek influence which in the next century or two swept through the peninsula.

In the same primitive metre as these dedications is the Song of the Arval Brothers, which was found engraved on a stone in the grove of the goddess Dea Dia, a few miles outside of Rome. This hymn the priests sang at the May festival of the goddess, when the farmers brought them the first fruits of the earth. It has no intrinsic literary merit, but it carries us back beyond the great wars with Carthage for supremacy in the western Mediterranean, beyond the contest with Pyrrhus for overlordship in Southern Italy, beyond the struggle for life with the Samnites in Central Italy, beyond even the founding of the city on the Tiber, to a people who lived by tilling the soil and tending their flocks and herds.

But we have turned away from the dedicatory verses. On the bridges which span our streams we sometimes record the names of the commissioners or the engineers, or the bridge builders responsible for the structure. Perhaps we are wise in thinking these prosaic inscriptions suitable for our ugly iron bridges. Their more picturesque stone structures tempted the Romans now and then to drop into verse, and to go beyond a bare statement of the facts of construction. Over the Anio in Italy, on a bridge which Narses, the great general of Justinian, restored, the Roman, as he passed, read in graceful verse:62  "We go on our way with the swift-moving waters of the torrent beneath our feet, and we delight on hearing the roar of the angry water. Go then joyfully at your ease, Quirites, and let the echoing murmur of the stream sing ever of Narses. He who could subdue the unyielding spirit of the Goths has taught the rivers to bear a stern yoke."

It is an interesting thing to find that the prettiest of the dedicatory poems are in honor of the forest-god Silvanus. One of these poems, Titus Pomponius Victor, the agent of the Cæsars, left inscribed upon a tablet 63  high up in the Grecian Alps. It reads: "Silvanus, half-enclosed in the sacred ash-tree, guardian mighty art thou of this pleasaunce in the heights. To thee we consecrate in verse these thanks, because across the fields and Alpine tops, and through thy guests in sweetly smelling groves, while justice I dispense and the concerns of Cæsar serve, with thy protecting care thou guidest us. Bring me and mine to Rome once more, and grant that we may till Italian fields with thee as guardian. In guerdon therefor will I give a thousand mighty trees." It is a pretty picture. This deputy of Cæsar has finished his long and perilous journeys through the wilds of the North in the performance of his duties. His face is now turned toward Italy, and his thoughts are fixed on Rome. In this "little garden spot," as he calls it, in the mountains he pours out his gratitude to the forest-god, who has carried him safely through dangers and brought him thus far on his homeward way, and he vows a thousand trees to his protector. It is too bad that we do not know how the vow was to be paid—not by cutting down the trees, we feel sure. One line of Victor's little poem is worth quoting in the original. He thanks Silvanus for conducting him in safety "through the mountain heights, and through Tuique luci suave olentis hospites." Who are the hospites ? The wild beasts of the forests, we suppose. Now hospites  may, of course, mean either "guests" or "hosts," and it is a pretty conceit of Victor's to think of the wolves and bears as the guests of the forest-god, as we have ventured to render the phrase in the translation given above. Or, are they Victor's hosts, whose characters have been so changed by Silvanus that Victor has had friendly help rather than fierce attacks from them?

A very modern practice is revealed by a stone found near the famous temple of Æsculapius, the god of healing, at Epidaurus in Argolis, upon which two ears are shown in relief, and below them the Latin couplet:64  "Long ago Cutius Gallus had vowed these ears to thee, scion of Phœbus, and now he has put them here, for thou hast healed his ears." It is an ancient ex-voto, and calls to mind on the one hand the cult of Æsculapius, which Walter Pater has so charmingly portrayed in Marius the Epicurean, and on the other hand it shows us that the practice of setting up ex-votos, of which one sees so many at shrines and in churches across the water to-day, has been borrowed from the pagans. A pretty bit of sentiment is suggested by an inscription 65  found near the ancient village of Ucetia in Southern France: "This shrine to the Nymphs have I built, because many times and oft have I used this spring when an old man as well as a youth."

All of the verses which we have been considering up to this point have come down to us more or less carefully engraved upon stone, in honor of some god, to record some achievement of importance, or in memory of a departed friend. But besides these formal records of the past, we find a great many hastily scratched or painted sentiments or notices, which have a peculiar interest for us because they are the careless effusions or unstudied productions of the moment, and give us the atmosphere of antiquity as nothing else can do. The stuccoed walls of the houses, and the sharp-pointed stylus which was used in writing on wax tablets offered too strong a temptation for the lounger or passer-by to resist. To people of this class, and to merchants advertising their wares, we owe the three thousand or more graffiti found at Pompeii. The ephemeral inscriptions which were intended for practical purposes, such as the election notices, the announcements of gladiatorial contests, of houses to rent, of articles lost and for sale, are in prose, but the lovelorn lounger inscribed his sentiments frequently in verse, and these verses deserve a passing notice here. One man of this class in his erotic ecstasy writes on the wall of a Pompeian basilica:66  "May I perish if I'd wish to be a god without thee." That hope sprang eternal in the breast of the Pompeian lover is illustrated by the last two lines of this tragic declaration:67

"If you can and won't,
Give me hope no more.
Hope you foster and you ever
Bid me come again to-morrow.
Force me then to die
Whom you force to live
A life apart from you.
Death will be a boon,
Not to be tormented.
Yet what hope has snatched away
To the lover hope gives back."

This effusion has led another passer-by to write beneath it the Delphic sentiment: "May the man who shall read this never read anything else." The symptoms of the ailment in its most acute form are described by some Roman lover in the verses which he has left us on the wall of Caligula's palace, on the Palatine:68

"No courage in my heart,
No sleep to close my eyes,
A tide of surging love
Throughout the day and night."

This seems to come from one who looks upon the lover with a sympathetic eye, but who is himself fancy free:

"Whoever loves, good health to him,
And perish he who knows not how,
But doubly ruined may he be
Who will not yield to love's appeal."69

The first verse of this little poem,

"Quisquis amat valeat, pereat qui nescit amare,"

represented by the first couplet of the English rendering, calls to mind the swinging refrain which we find a century or two later in the Pervigilium Veneris, that last lyrical outburst of the pagan world, written for the eve of the spring festival of Venus:

"Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit eras amet."
(To-morrow he shall love who ne'er has loved
And who has loved, to-morrow he shall love.)

An interesting study might be made of the favorite types of feminine beauty in the Roman poets. Horace sings of the "golden-haired" Pyrrhas, and Phyllises, and Chloes, and seems to have had an admiration for blondes, but a poet of the common people, who has recorded his opinion on this subject in the atrium of a Pompeian house, shows a more catholic taste, although his freedom of judgment is held in some constraint:

"My fair girl has taught me to hate
Brunettes with their tresses of black.
I will hate if I can, but if not,
'Gainst my will I must love them also."70

On the other hand, one Pompeian had such an inborn dread of brunettes that, whenever he met one, he found it necessary to take an appropriate antidote, or prophylactic:

"Whoever loves a maiden dark
By charcoal dark is he consumed.
When maiden dark I light upon
I eat the saving blackberry."71

These amateur poets do not rely entirely upon their own Muse, but borrow from Ovid, Propertius, or Virgil, when they recall sentiments in those writers which express their feelings. Sometimes it is a tag, or a line, or a couplet which is taken, but the borrowings are woven into the context with some skill. The poet above who is under compulsion from his blonde sweetheart, has taken the second half of his production verbatim from Ovid, and for the first half of it has modified a line of Propertius. Other writers have set down their sentiments in verse on more prosaic subjects. A traveller on his way to the capital has scribbled these lines on the wall, perhaps of a wine-shop where he stopped for refreshment:72

"Hither have we come in safety.
Now I hasten on my way,
That once more it may be mine
To behold our Lares, Rome."

At one point in a Pompeian street, the eye of a straggler would catch this notice in doggerel verse:73

"Here's no place for loafers.
Lounger, move along!"

On the wall of a wine-shop a barmaid has thus advertised her wares:74

"Here for a cent is a drink,
Two cents brings something still better.
Four cents in all, if you pay,
Wine of Falernum is yours."

It must have been a lineal descendant of one of the parasites of Plautus who wrote:75

"A barbarian he is to me
At whose house I'm not asked to dine."

Here is a sentiment which sounds very modern:

"The common opinion is this:
That property should be divided."76

This touch of modernity reminds one of another group of verses which brings antiquity into the closest possible touch with some present-day practices. The Romans, like ourselves, were great travellers and sightseers, and the marvels of Egypt in particular appealed to them, as they do to us, with irresistible force. Above all, the great statue of Memnon, which gave forth a strange sound when it was struck by the first rays of the rising sun, drew travellers from far and near. Those of us who know the Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, the Garden of the Gods, or some other of our natural wonders, will recall how fond a certain class of visitors are of immortalizing themselves by scratching their names or a sentiment on the walls or the rocks which form these marvels. Such inscriptions We find on the temple walls in Egypt—three of them appear on the statue of Memnon, recording in verse the fact that the writers had visited the statue and heard the voice of the god at sunrise. One of these Egyptian travellers, a certain Roman lady journeying up the Nile, has scratched these verses on a wall of the temple at Memphis:77

"The pyramids without thee have I seen,
My brother sweet, and yet, as tribute sad,
The bitter tears have poured adown my cheek,
And sadly mindful of thy absence now
I chisel here this melancholy note."

Then follow the name and titles of the absent brother, who is better known to posterity from these scribbled lines of a Cook's tourist than from any official records which have come down to us. All of these pieces of popular poetry which we have been discussing thus far were engraved on stone, bronze, stucco, or on some other durable material. A very few bits of this kind of verse, from one to a half dozen lines in length, have come down to us in literature. They have the unique distinction, too, of being specimens of Roman folk poetry, and some of them are found in the most unlikely places. Two of them are preserved by a learned commentator on the Epistles of Horace. They carry us back to our school-boy days. When we read

"The plague take him who's last to reach me,"78

we can see the Roman urchin standing in the market-place, chanting the magic formula, and opposite him the row of youngsters on tiptoe, each one waiting for the signal to run across the intervening space and be the first to touch their comrade. What visions of early days come back to us—days when we clasped hands in a circle and danced about one or two children placed in the centre of the ring, and chanted in unison some refrain, upon reading in the same commentator to Horace a ditty which runs:79

"King shall you be
If you do well.
If you do ill
You shall not be."

The other bits of Roman folk poetry which we have are most of them preserved by Suetonius, the gossipy biographer of the Cæsars. They recall very different scenes. Cæsar has returned in triumph to Rome, bringing in his train the trousered Gauls, to mingle on the street with the toga-clad Romans. He has even had the audacity to enroll some of these strange peoples in the Roman senate, that ancient body of dignity and convention, and the people chant in the streets the ditty:80

"Cæsar leads the Gauls in triumph,
In the senate too he puts them.
Now they've donned the broad-striped toga
And have laid aside their breeches."

Such acts as these on Cæsar's part led some political versifier to write on Cæsar's statue a couplet which contrasted his conduct with that of the first great republican, Lucius Brutus:

"Brutus drove the kings from Rome,
And first consul thus became.
This man drove the consuls out,
And at last became the king."81

We may fancy that these verses played no small part in spurring on Marcus Brutus to emulate his ancestor and join the conspiracy against the tyrant. With one more bit of folk poetry, quoted by Suetonius, we may bring our sketch to an end. Germanicus Cæsar, the flower of the imperial family, the brilliant general and idol of the people, is suddenly stricken with a mortal illness. The crowds throng the streets to hear the latest news from the sick-chamber of their hero. Suddenly the rumor flies through the streets that the crisis is past, that Germanicus will live, and the crowds surge through the public squares chanting:

"Saved now is Rome,
Saved too the land,
Saved our Germanicus."82

22. Bücheler, Carmina Latina epigraphica, No. 53. The originals of all the bits of verse which are translated in this paper may be found in the collection whose title is given here. Hereafter reference to this work will be by number only.

23. No. 443.

24. No. 92.

25. No. 128.

26. No. 127.

27. No. 876.

28. No. 1414.

29. No. 765.

30. No. 843.

31. No. 95.

32. No. 1578.

33. Nos. 1192 and 1472.

34. No. 1037.

35. No. 1039.

36. G. W. Van Bleek, Quae de hominum post mortem eondicione doceant carmina sepulcralia Latina.

37. No. 1495.

38. No. 1496.

39. No. 86.

40. No. 1465.

41. No. 1143.

42. No. 1559.

43. No. 1433.

44. No. 225.

45. No. 143.

46. No. 83.

47. No. 1500.

48. No. 190.

49. No. 244.

50. No. 1499.

51. No. 856.

52. Society and Politics in Ancient Rome, p. 183.

53. No. 562.

54. No. 52.

55. No. 1251.

56. No. 106.

57. No. 967.

58. No. 152.

59. No. 1042.

60. No. 1064.

61. No. 98.

62. Bücheler, Carmina Latino epigraphica, No. 899.

63. No. 19.

64. No. 866.

65. No. 863.

66. No. 937.

67. No. 949.

68. No. 943.

69. No. 945.

70. No. 354.

71. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, IV, 6892.

72. Bücheler, No. 928.

73. No. 333.

74. No. 931.

75. No. 933.

76. No. 38.

77. No. 270.

78. Habeat scabiem quisquis ad me venerit novissimus.

79. Rex erit qui recte faciet, qui non faciet non erit.


Gallos Cæsar in triumphum ducit, idem in curiam;
Galli bracas deposuerunt, latum clavom sumpserunt.


Brutus quia reges eiecit, consul primus factus est;
Hic quia consoles eiecit, rex postremo factus est.

82. Salva Roma, salva patria, salvus est Germanicus.