You are here

57.5.Trout

In the year 382, late in the episcopate of Damasus, Theodora Afrodite was interred at the cemetery of S. Agnese on Rome's Via Nomentana. She was twenty-one years old and her elaborate verse epitaph celebrated her soul's ascent to the stars (ICUR 8.20799). Composed or commissioned by her husband Evagrius, Theodora's ten classicizing hexameters catalog her Christian piety while proclaiming her family's affinity for the poetry of Vergil. At the time of her burial, both Theodora's age at death and the medium in which she was memorialized were typical. At S. Agnese women, primarily daughters and young wives, outnumber men two to one as the subjects of metrical epitaphs. The ratio is not an anomaly elsewhere in Rome's suburban cemeteries, where (young) wives are frequently the subject of epigraphic commemoration in poems that deftly manipulate the classical legacy. The phenomenon demands explanation. Metrical epitaphs like Theodora's may be considerably more forthcoming about the lives they memorialize than are the thousands of brief and formulaic inscriptions that otherwise fill Rome's catacombs. Nevertheless, such epitaphs frequently reveal more about contemporary ideals of feminine deportment, broadly shared schemes of the Christian (after)life, and the social strategies of commemorators than about the characters and personalities of the women they honored. Yet, within the limits imposed by these considerations, the metrical epitaphs of women, both in aggregate and individually, do have much to tell about religion and society as well as poetry and commemoration in late ancient Rome. Moreover, the epitaph of Theodora—like those of Bassa in the Catacomb of Praetextatus (ICUR 5.14076) or Acilia Baebiana on the Via Flaminia (ICUR 10.27296)—preserves the social and poetic gestures of a literate but sub-elite segment of late Roman society. This paper, then, singles out for consideration several exemplary texts while also situating them within their social and epigraphic background. It argues that a number of factors lie behind the disparity between husband-to-wife and wife-to-husband commemoration in many of Rome's late antique cemeteries. It may be, for example, that differential rates of mortality, especially those related to childbearing, are reflected in these figures. It must also be the case, however, that the disproportionate number and the nature of metrical epitaphs composed for young wives reflect the social and ideological functions of memorialization. Through such commemorative practices male commemorators displayed the moral and social integrity of the households they administered. Praise of feminine piety and assurances of earthly merit and heavenly reward, therefore, underwrote not only a family's claims to religious legitimacy but also a husband's social authority. In an age of shifting cultural and religious boundaries such claims required re-statement. Similarly, recourse to classicizing verse allowed a family to trumpet the literary expertise that might seem to be merely the special preserve of more aristocratic households. Analysis of the metrical epitaphs of late ancient Rome, therefore, must effectively balance consideration of the ideological and affective qualities that make these epigrams a unique source of ancient cultural praxis.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy