You are here

Split tunnel: Nonius Datus celebrating and mourning construction

Nolan Epstein

Stanford University

Construction is ephemeral in its end and process. We may consider construction as the performative instant of finishing production (Taylor 2016) or as a performed sequence of creative moments (Pearson 2010). Reflecting on construction’s ephemerality, this paper reads the surviving portions of a second-century inscription by the Roman engineer Nonius Datus—our only extant account of a major construction project from antiquity. I argue that Datus’ inscription-cum-tombstone (Grewe 2009) blends material and human time by displacing the moment of creation while re-enacting the anxiety of the process. Throughout, I compare epinician poetry to relate Datus to a tradition of artfully derailing celebration of monumentality. Some, like Cuomo (2011, infra), read Datus as glorifying his aqueduct’s completion. Lassère and Griffe (1997) are gloomier: “we have here a human testimony of the first order…on the suffering and amour propre of those who have constructed monuments.” There has been little discussion of how Datus’ positive and negative takes on construction interact. Grewe points to the praise-blame dialectic evoked by Datus’ citations, offering insight into his mixed motivations. But, beyond simply pronouncing slander, Datus’ words balance his celebration of the creative moment against the arduous process of construction, blending monumental time with ephemeral, human emotions.

I start with Datus’ stressful opening, which frames the making of the tunnel as a victory, but an ambivalent and fleeting one. After quoting an official’s letter asking the aged engineer to finish incomplete work (5-7), Datus reports the assault he suffered en route at the hands of latrones (8). “Naked, injured” (9), he is reduced to tears (flebant, 12) over a crooked dig (errabant, 17-18). Datus, like epinician victors, suffered to succeed. He wants to show that process. Digs and sport also have their triumphant moments. Datus makes dig sport (certamen…operis dedi, 25-26), using the image of teams meeting from the tunnel’s ends to represent the creative instant. He freezes this moment by splitting the word “co-excav/ation” across columns with a portrait of Spes, ephemerality personified (Cuomo): “so they converged at the mountain’s compertusi/Spes/onem” (26-27). By framing the creative instant through the work of the diggers, Datus displaces himself as its maker. Accordingly, he proceeds in boast (Ergo ego, qui, 27f.) to catalogue steps of the building process in subordinate clauses, but fails to provide a main verb referring to his completion of the construction. Suddenly work is done, water flows (Opus effectum, aqua missa, 31), and somebody else (the procurator) performs the dedication. By not completing his own tunnel, Datus refuses to capture the creative instant.

The inscription once ended with modios V (32), measuring flow. In this conclusion, eternally ephemeral water runs actually and metaphorically, memorializing Datus’ achievement in the manner of Pindar’s “song streams” for victors (Nemean 7.61-63). But he inscribed another letter, muddling the water’s neat packaging of diachronic and synchronic timeframes. In this way, Datus returns to the incomplete state of his monument to re-enact the anxiety of construction. The letter reports a hectic official (39-40) who saw the incomplete aqueduct. He notes its quality as well as the need for Datus to fix issues (41-44)—should he stay healthy (45). This final extant line recalls the material’s sepulchral function, re-framing the earlier tears into lament not for the tunnel but for its mortal maker.

Datus carefully keeps his tunnel incomplete. He subsumes monumental time within the passing emotions he felt while creating and that were later felt by his mourners. The inscription thus challenges the idea that ancient monuments offered an eternal parallel to human time. Datus does not present the instant of completing construction as transcending the chain of moments in the creative process. In contrast to modern paradigms of monumentality, Datus inserts readers into a material process where the joy of completion and the angst of construction co-exist in the string of ephemeral moments that constitutes the work of engineering.

Session/Panel Title

Aesthetics and Ephemerality

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy