Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Visits the Great Pyramid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Memory of Her Deceased Brother

The phrase “his­to­ry is writ­ten by the vic­tors” is a cliché, which means that it is at least half true; offi­cial his­to­ries are, to a sig­nif­i­cant degree “writ­ten,” or dic­tat­ed, by rul­ing elites. But as far as the actu­al writ­ing down, and exca­vat­ing, nar­rat­ing, argu­ing about, and revis­ing of his­to­ry goes… well, that is the work of his­to­ri­ans, who may work for pow­er­ful insti­tu­tions but who are not themselves—with sev­er­al notable excep­tions, of course—politicians, gen­er­als, or cap­tains of indus­try.

This is all to the good. His­to­ri­ans, and Twit­ter­sto­ri­ans, can tell sto­ries and present evi­dence that the vic­tors might rather see dis­ap­pear. And they can tell sto­ries we nev­er knew that we were miss­ing, but which human­ize the past by restor­ing the lives of ordi­nary peo­ple with ordi­nary con­cerns. Sto­ries of every­day ancient Romans and Egyp­tians, for exam­ple, or of ancient Romans in Egypt, vis­it­ing and van­dal­iz­ing the pyra­mids.

In one such poignant sto­ry, cir­cu­lat­ing on Twit­ter, a Roman woman named Ter­en­tia carved into the lime­stone fac­ing of the Great Pyra­mid some­time around 120 AD a touch­ing poem for her broth­er, who had just recent­ly died. As told by medieval­ist, lin­guist, and Senior Edi­tor at His­to­ry Today Dr. Kate Wiles, the poem might have been lost to the ages had it not been dis­cov­ered by Ger­man pil­grim Wil­helm von Bold­ense­le in 1335.

Know­ing Latin, Von Bold­ense­le read the poem, found it mov­ing, and copied it down. (See his man­u­script at the top.) Wiles quotes a part of the prose Eng­lish trans­la­tion:

I saw the pyra­mids with­out you, my dear­est broth­er, and here I sad­ly shed tears for you, which is all I could do. And I inscribe this lament in mem­o­ry of our grief. May thus be clear­ly vis­i­ble on the high pyra­mid the name of Dec­imus Gen­tianus….

We can sur­mise that Ter­en­tia must have had some means to trav­el, but in Wiles’ abridged Twit­ter ver­sion of the sto­ry, we also might assume she could be any­one at all, griev­ing the loss of a close rel­a­tive. Terentia’s grief is no less mov­ing or real when we learn that the inscrip­tion goes for on sev­er­al lines Wiles cut for brevi­ty.

Turn­ing to Emi­ly Ann Hemelrijk’s book Matrona Doc­ta: Edu­cat­ed Women in the Roman Elite from Cor­nelia to Julia Dom­na, Dr. Wiles’ source for the Great Pyra­mid poem, we find that Ter­en­tia wasn’t just an edu­cat­ed, upper class woman, she was a very well-con­nect­ed one. The inscrip­tion goes on to iden­ti­fy her broth­er as “a pon­tif­ex and com­pan­ion to your tri­umphs, Tra­jan, and both cen­sor and con­sul before his thir­ti­eth year of age.”

In his anthol­o­gy Women Writ­ers of Ancient Greece and Rome, Ian Michael Plant pro­vides even more his­tor­i­cal con­text. Of Ter­en­tia, we know lit­tle to noth­ing save the Von Boldensele’s copy of her six hexa­m­e­ters (and pos­si­bly more that he ignored). Of Dec­imus Gen­tianus, how­ev­er, we know that he not only served as a con­sul under Tra­jan but also as gov­er­nor of Mace­do­nia under Hadri­an. Ter­en­tia “chose the pyra­mid for her epi­taph to pro­vide a suit­ably grand and ever­last­ing site for her trib­ute to him,” writes Plant. (Cue Shelly’s “Ozy­man­dias.”)

Not only is the poem about a vic­tor, but it appears to shift its address from him to the ulti­mate vic­tor, Emper­or Tra­jan, in its final lines. Should this change our appre­ci­a­tion of the sto­ry as a slice of Roman tourist life and exam­ple of ancient wom­en’s writ­ing? No, but it shows us some­thing about what his­to­ry gets pre­served and why. Despite his­to­ri­ans’ best efforts, espe­cial­ly in pub­lic-fac­ing work, to make the past more acces­si­ble and relat­able, they, too, are lim­it­ed by what oth­er cul­tures chose to pre­serve and what to pass over.

Hemel­rijk admits, “the poem is no lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece,” but Von Bold­er­se­le saw enough mer­it in its sen­ti­ments to record it for pos­ter­i­ty. He also made a judg­ment about the inscription’s his­tor­i­cal import, giv­en its ref­er­ences, which is prob­a­bly the rea­son we have it today.

via Dr. Kate Wiles

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Play Cae­sar: Trav­el Ancient Rome with Stanford’s Inter­ac­tive Map

An Ani­mat­ed Recon­struc­tion of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Vir­tu­al­ly-Recre­at­ed Streets

How the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids Were Built: A New The­o­ry in 3D Ani­ma­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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