Where are the biographies and autobiographies of everyday Romans? Must we only deduce the Roman experience from a handful of bog postcards and the tales of the rich and famous? Put down your Res Gestae for a moment and take a stroll with me through the life stories of the common and curious. Tomb inscriptions provide one of the most valuable, accessible, and oft ignored primary sources from the ancient world. Just like many ancient Romans, we will become downright cozy with the long deceased and investigate the symbols, abbreviations, and formulas of burial inscriptions for signs of real lives. Along the way, we will meet the parade of the Roman street: butchers, bakers, purple dye makers, unusual wives, avenging angels, generous patronesses, business men and women, young children, doting parents, adorable dogs, enslaved and freed people, lousy politicians, whole families, lost loves, soldiers from the edges of the empire who met an inglorious fate a world away. We will learn to read the details before us literally, clearly, authentically, then deduce clues based on the scholarship regarding how Romans conceived of identity and memory.
In addition to becoming familiar with the formulas of identification in reading inscriptions around the ancient Roman tradition, we will touch in passing on burial art and architecture. What did the different practices and structures of burial mean among the Romans? What were the common themes and designs on tombs and how do we understand them currently? Why did Augustus and Hadrian build mausolea for themselves, but Caesar received a temple and the Antinous an entire city in Egypt? What are the differences between a cenotaph, a sarcophagus, and an ossuary? Did you know some Romans practiced mummification? Who received a more fitting epitaph, the deified mother of an emperor or the young slave of a vicious poet? These questions are only the beginning of our journey.
The land of Hades stretches vast, but it need not remain dark. In fact, our project may shed light on the less discussed elements of the Roman social behaviors, related practices around the world, and the ways we commemorate, memorialize, and mourn. I look forward to sharing my unusual passion for reading such inscriptions and to hearing your translations, interpretations, and discussions. Join me as we emphasize the "dead" in dead language!
This blog will document the MMXIX session of the Virginia Governor's Latin Academy. After elections are held, the aediles will be responsible for its upkeep.
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