The inscriptions on Roman gravestones give us an arresting insight into the psyche of the empire’s citizens. What words did they use to sum up their allotted time on this mortal coil? What information can we draw out concerning their hopes fears and aspirations?
Well – according to ‘A cabinet of Roman Curiosities : Strange tales and surprising facts form the World’s greatest empire’ by the classicist J. C McKeown - a common thread running through the dedications on the tombs is the fear of having the grave’s sanctity disturbed; or as one inscription rather more bluntly puts it:
‘Anyone who pisses or shits here, may the Gods above and the Gods below be angry with him’ (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions 6.13740)
In much the same vein another inscription reads:
‘Stranger, my bones beg you not to piss at my grave. If you want to be nicer, have a shit. This is the grave of Urtica (“Nettle”). Go away, shitter! It’s not safe to expose your arse here’ (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, 4.8899)
McKeown also points out that the warning ‘cacator, cave malum’ (“Shitter, watch out!”) occurs several times among graves in Pompeii. Why did this concern exist among the Roman populace; perhaps the practice of grave desecration was common as an act of revenge against the deceased. Another inscription reads :
I’ll see to it in my will that no one does me wrong. For I’m going to have one of my freedmen guard my tomb, to prevent people from rushing to shit there (Trimalchio at Petronius Satyricon 71).
Nor was scatological vengeance confirmed to humanity. This particular chapter of J. C. McKeown’s book ends with divine justice administered against the heretic Arius for opposing the Trinitarian Christology:
The heretic Arius suffered a stomach upset and went into a public toilet in Alexandria. When he did not come back out, those who were with him went in to look for him and found him dead. The seat on which he died was never used again, in recognition of his having thus been punished there for his impiety (Sozomenus History of the Church 2.29–30).
The 'take home message' from this ? Beware dabbling too much into theology - lest you suffer the same fate as Elvis.
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