Anonymous, epitaph from Hippo Regius (AE 1931, 0112)
Anyone who’s been on the internet for a while will know of Cake Wrecks, a blog which documents the most egregious examples of atrocious cake decoration. Among the most hilarious/embarrassing mistakes are the ones where a message which was clearly not the intended one ends up getting iced on the top.
This appears even to have happened with a gravestone as well. There’s a fantastic parallel for this from a Roman inscription, which I came across in the newly-published and very diverting book A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities by J.C. McKeown (highly suitable, I should say, for stocking-filling purposes). I think what I’m about to type is original scholarship, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows of an earlier discussion of the points I raise! Here’s the opening of the inscription, the part which McKeown quotes:
HIC IACET CORPUS PUERI NOMINANDI.
HERE LIES THE BODY OF BOY-TO-BE-NAMED.
‘Boy to be named’ sounds like a Latin version of ‘Fill in name here’. But is this the whole story? Let’s look at the rest of the inscription:
O BENEDICTE PUER, PAUCIS TE TERRA DIEBUS
INFANTEM TENUIT CAELIQUE IN REGNA REMISIT. (The stone reads CELIQUAE!)
PROPTEREA ET NATUS UT CAPERES TANTA RENATUS.
O BLESSED BOY, WITHIN A FEW DAYS HAS THE EARTH TAKEN HOLD OF YOU – AN INFANT – AND SENT YOU BACK INTO THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN; AND FOR THIS REASON WERE YOU BORN, THAT YOU MIGHT BE REBORN AND GRASP SUCH GREAT THINGS (i.e. the Kingdom of Heaven).
These are three competently written hexameter lines. So what are we to make of the first line, which, on first sight at least, is not metrical, so is presumably not meant as part of the poem? Is this, as McKeown says, a stonecutter’s mistake – or was the child still ‘to be named’ simply because he had died before his parents had had time to name him?
Let’s look more closely at that first sentence, which could be prose but certainly bears a tolerably close resemblance to a hexameter. If the first syllable of iacet is taken as long (wrongly, but perhaps possible by considering the two letters ia as ‘a long vowel’), then we have what could easily become a hexameter (complete with a caesura in the correct place after corpus) – if the unmetrical stopgap-word nōmĭnāndī were to be replaced with a name that would fit:
hīc iā|cēt cōr|pūs ¦ pŭĕr|ī [and then ˇˇ| ˉˇˇ| ˉx or ˉ| ˉˇˇ |ˉx or ˉ| ˉˉ |ˉx ]
But if we’re being very ingenious and speculative, is that dodgy first line deliberately put there precisely to point out that the boy lacks a name and thereby to add extra pathos to the poem? I leave you to decide!
[By the by, I wonder whether ET in line 4 isn’t a mistake; would ES NATUS be better? Possibly the following UT has prematurely got into the stonecutter’s head, a phenomenon our typing fingers are all too familiar with.]