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WYSIWYG Classics, Or: Making Roman diversity visible, audible, and accessible for 21st century audiences

image credit:  Fabien Dany – 

Peter Kruschwitz

What do we want to see (and do we have a choice)?

WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – is an acronym with a long history. It was especially important during the infant days of the computing age: programmes that allowed you to view and edit content in a way that it already resembled the finished product (rather than some code that then required processing and rendering) were a big breakthrough.

“What you see is what you get” captures with precision the way in which the curriculum in schools and universities, as well as in popular science magazines and programmes, shapes our attitude and approach to the ancient world: we get what we see, oftentimes blissfully unaware of just how much more complex, rich, and diverse things really were.

Would you like an example?

How may Roman poets can you think of, from the top of your head? 12? 24? (C’mon – let’s add some late-antique/Christian ones: do I hear 30? And what about those Greek authors of the imperial age?)

However many you just managed to think of, let us be honest: the number isn’t exactly impressive, is it, considering that the Roman empire was a complex system-in-motion whose ‘life’ spanned some 1,500 years and stretched from Southern Scotland to the Persian Gulf and from Morocco to the Black Sea.

And it is even less impressive, considering that poetry is the cheapest art form of all: all you need are words, and they come for free, ready for use and re-use, with new ones to be added, for anyone.

And poetry was created everywhere in the Roman empire, all the time. The evidence is there – hidden in dusty volumes and mostly rather unspectacular museum displays. Because verbal art is not exactly as eye-catching as yet another polychrome pot or fancy sculpture.

But that is not the only problem.

Based on the canons of Roman times, teaching us what constitutes “good poetry”, the texts that survived through manuscript transmission were further regulated through the (partly state-mandated, partly privately created) curricula of all those various places of learning – and higher learning, with its trickle-down pedagogy from university to schools.

But poetry, just like music, was a shared practice of all the many ethnicities and peoples (and languages, cultures, social groups, etc) of the Roman world and those spaces (and times) that surrounded it.

We just never really get to see much, if any, of this.


What we don’t see, we don’t get.

So – question: would you like to see just three examples of how incredibly diverse Roman poetry can be?

Then read on! (If not: thank you for your time, but, I promise, you WILL be missing out…!)

Damostrateia: a confident single mother in Rome’s migrant community

Let us go straight to the city of Rome.

No, not to well-trodden Augustan Rome, but to that rather less well-explored Rome of the later third century A. D.

Let us hear what a woman Damostrateia has to say about her deceased husband Rufinus, who was also known as Asterios (IG XIV 1976 = IGUR III 1321 = EDR126766, where you can find the Greek text; transl. G. H. R. Horsley):

This is the tomb of Rufinus, whom once they used to call Asterios. He left the land of Rome and went to the city of the Nile; and shining out in the progress he made, he provided many things for many people, causing distress to no one, but considered what was just. Yet he did not escape the thread of the triple Fates, but died and gave his soul back to the sky, his body to the earth. But even among the dead he had the judgement of piety; and once more he saw the light of day, although he was a corpse, and sailed the sea and came back to his own land. And he lies with his children, whose mortal end he did not witness; for he predeceased them. And the mother of twin children, a fine woman who loved her husband, sailed across the ocean and brought his body over the deep, and endured difficulties and continued in her grieving and laid him down in this tomb and bequeathed him to eternity. This monument is (testimony to) the wifely devotion of Damostrateia.

The individuals mentioned here are otherwise unknown. From the text it would appear as though Rufinus (a. k. a. Asterios) was a lawyer who was sent from Rome to (presumably) Alexandria, to serve as a legal expert in some administrative capacity or other.

So far, so unspectacular, some might say.

But is it really that simple?

The memorial was taken care of by a woman, or so the text itself claims. Which might well mean that the text itself was also the composition of a female poet – Damostrateia.

Damostrateia’s name, as well as her choice of language (Greek!), suggests that this woman belonged to the big, ever evolving community of migrants that inhabited the city of Rome: it is unclear whether she was born in Rome or not, but it would seem as though Greek was the language of her community still. Interestingly enough, the same is true for her deceased husband, Rufinus, known by his – again: Greek! – nickname (?) Asterios.

And Damostrateia is not only presented as a family person, as a matron. She confidently takes care of the memorial, she takes decisive action when she learnt that her husband died overseas: in fact, she travelled to Egypt to ensure that the mortal remains of her husband would actually be retrieved and buried back home, in the city of Rome. Oh, and she also raised two children (who appear to have died comparatively young, but outlived their father) …

One might, as some have done, see this as a piece that records a promising lawyer’s career cut short.

Or one could take this as a fascinating document that preserves the words of a confident woman, who took care of her children first while her husband was deployed overseas, and then alone as a single mother after her husband’s premature death.

It depends on what (and whom) we would like to see – and to make visible.

Damostrateia travelled, she took business decisions, she organised the return of her husband’s mortal remains.  And she proudly presents all this in a text that speaks from – and to – the Greek-speaking community of the city of Rome: a role model that is very different from the roles that we typically consider when we speak about the Roman Empire.

Olympia: a young female migrant stuck between her lover and her brother

A (presumably) second century epitaph for a young woman called Olympia draws us even deeper into the migrant community of the city of Rome (IG XIV 1890 = IGUR III 1287 = EDR125198, where you can find the Greek text; an image of the stone can be found here and here):

To the Spirits of the Departed.

Here I lie, Olympia, aged 25. Of Greek heritage, my fatherland has been Apamea, and I hurt no-one, neither in their soul at a young age, nor in their heart when older.

This stele, which I erected on this ground under warm tears, I, Sotas, have made for Olympias, whom I took (possession of? care of? under my tutelage?) when she was a young girl.

For the great love of the two persisted just like when the sweet light persists shining forth in its gleaming, and just like the sweetness of sweet honey (still dangling?) from the mouth.

Sotas, who loved you, made this stele. Share fresh water with your thirsty soul.

Her brother inscribed this.

A document of love and care, if taken at face value, this piece reveals a remarkable fate: Olympia (whose voice is allowed to speak of her origins), who was Greek by origin, specifically from Apamea. There are a number of places of that name, all of them in the middle East, and there is a good chance that here the place name refers to Apameia in Syria.

The Greek of this piece is far from standard Greek – in fact, it contains several elements that are closer to Modern Greek than to the standard Attic and Ionian taught in schools and universities today. In fact, in some parts, the text’s grammar is rather obscure, though its meaning is not.

Apameia, Syria, is situated by the river Orontes.

The Orontes is mentioned by Juvenal, the satirist, in his third Satire (Iuv. 3.58–65, transl. S. M. Braund):

The race that’s now most popular with wealthy Romans—the people I want especially to get away from—I’ll name them right away, without any embarrassment. My fellow-citizens, I cannot stand a Greekified Rome. Yet how few of our dregs are Achaeans? The Syrian Orontes has for a long time now been polluting the Tiber, bringing with it its language and customs, its slanting strings along with pipers, its native tom-toms too, and the girls who are told to offer themselves for sale at the Circus.

Juvenal’s interlocutor is so unhappy about Rome’s migrant community (who don’t even speak the nice Greek that he might grudgingly be willing to accept), that – oh the irony! – he moves away (thus becoming a migrant, of course!).

With Olympia and her commemorators we get to meet someone who in the estimation of this man was even below the “dregs” that were the Achaeans (the Latin term, faex, is rather bolder still).

And we get a deep insight into the realities of these communities.

We do not know how or why Olympia, sweet Olympia, came to Rome. Her identity, however, and her attachment to her native lands and culture are apparent. What we get to see is one possessive Sotas, who ‘took’ her – and took care of the funerary monument. Unforgotten – like sunlight still radiating after sunset, like honey dragging on endlessly long after the spoon has been placed into one’s mouth.

But there’s also some obscure, nameless brother, taking care of the inscription, hinting at chain migration and family ties in ways that are not altogether dissimilar to communities of our own day and age.

With Damostrateia, mentioned in the previous inscription, we had met someone of apparent independence.

With Olympia we see someone whose life in Rome’s migrant community was deeply governed by other males. A reality, too, for many, in that melting pot that was the city of Rome.

The sweet sunlight’s shade turns spooky. The sweet honey leaves a bitter aftertaste. All the sugary sweetness leaves us afraid of diabetes.

And what the two gentlemen want to be an interminable celebration of Olympia may well be a document of ceaseless dependence, concealed in a language that speaks to a Greek-speaking community of the city of Rome that Olympia did not manage to escape (even if she were to have so desired).

Tineia Hygeia: born into slavery

Olympia may have come to Rome through a form of chain migration. But it would be misleading, of course, to think of Rome’s migrant communities as communities solely made up of first-generation foreigners. Individuals were born into migrant communities, and this is often concealed behind terms such as ‘home-born slave’ (verna, in Latin).

Being a home-born slave, i. e. being the offspring of enslaved parents in a household in the city of Rome, may have the fate of Tineia Hygeia, who died at the age of five, maybe in the second century A. D. (though the author of the relevant entry of the Epigraphic Database Rome thought that this piece ought to be datable to a later date).

Her inscription reads as follows  (IG XIV 2040 = IGUR III 1344 = EDR127714, where you can find the Greek text; transl.: A. Wypustek):

Immorally you abducted to the underworld, Lord Pluto,

a five-year-old girl who was praised by all;

as if a sweet smelling rose that in the springtime blooms

you had cut from the root before her time was due. But, Alexandra and Philtatos,

shed no more tears of grief over your lovely daughter,

for she was full of charm, and so was her attractive face,

and that is why she now resides in the timeless home of Ether.

Believe therefore the ancient tale: this noble child

has been abducted by Naiads for joy, not [sc. by] death.

To Tineia Hygeia, our most beloved ward, in memoriam.

The poem is certainly no less moving than that of Olympia. But, just like in Olympia’s case, the devil is in the detail.

In the prosaic ending of the text, Tineia Hygeia is described as a threptē.

Threptē is a Greek term that served a couple of purposes, most notably that of being the Greek equivalent of verna, ‘home-born slave’; but might also mean ‘ward’ (such as e. g. a foundling) as translated by Andrzej Wypustek, above. (Translations that, at least in the present case, see this term as a mere term to express ‘daughter’, however, would seem to miss the point.)

In the present inscription, however, the girl’s parents are clearly addressed directly. Their names were Alexandra and Philtatos. Names that suggest both servile status and an Eastern origin.

Did they address themselves in the third person? In an otherwise so very heartfelt composition?

Or was it, arguably rather more plausibly, someone who more rightfully than the parents would call Olympia a threptē? A slave-owner, into whose care Alexandra’s and Philtatos’ girl had fallen?

Was Olympia, the cut-flower rose, a precious, short-lived flower from a stem that was stuck, decoratively, in a garden where it originally did not belong, with a lot of unsavoury stuff piled onto its roots, to generate this short-lived delight, claimed by those who create artifice and call it nature?

Final thoughts

All three poems mentioned here give us a highly emotional, anecdotal glimpse into a reality that we, more often than not, choose not to see. They tell us of displaced individuals, speaking and communicating in a language that we do not even commonly associate much with the city of Rome herself. We are looking into what almost feels like a parallel universe of ancient Rome. And we find poetic beauty as well as narratives of real lives – lives that existed back then just as much as they exist now.

Much thought is currently going into the expansion and transformation of our curricula, to make them more inclusive, to decolonise them. All that is vitally important, not for reasons of political convenience, but because it is our duty, to ourselves, as human beings, and to our subject.

An important step towards achieving this has to be to acknowledge that our discipline itself covers substantial grounds beyond pre-defined literary canons, perpetuated bodies of evidence, and narratives of pure perfection and eternal glory.

Not all of these stories are pretty or easy. But neither is life, then as little as now. That does not mean, however, that one should turn a blind eye to these stories of diversity and hardship, then as little as now.

There is so much more to discover that would help us to make Classics a more diverse, more inclusive discipline.

If only we take a look beyond what we have always been forced to see by those who write our curricula.

Because, as I’ve said at the beginning, WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get.

Free online resources for further information

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