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Bill Thayer

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Immortality in 330 Days

CIL VI.1374

[image ALT: A stone wall, of regular courses of limestone blocks, themselves, however, of very varying width. Several small plants are growing in some of the cracks between the blocks. A small-lettered inscription, in Roman capital letters, is beautifully carved across eight of the blocks: its text is given on this page. It is a detail of the E wall of the Pyramid of Cestius, in Rome.]

E face of the Pyramid of Cestius: the lower inscription.

Transcribed and expanded:

L · PONTI · Publii · Filii · CLAudia tribu · MELAE · HEREDIS · ET · POTHI · Liberti
The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 3•• days
by decision
of the heir Lucius Pontus Mela, son of Publius, of the Claudia tribe, and Pothus, freedman.

In case you're wondering where we got Pontus Mela's first name, it appears in the inscriptions (CIL VI.1375) on two statue bases found in the tomb, and now in the Capitoline Museums.

Far more interesting, although it took me over 10 years to tumble to it, is that a mere freedman should be so publicly associated with Cestius' own son in the decision to build this monument, and yet our inscription does state, unambiguously, that the arbitratus was that of both Pontus Mela and Pothus; why?

My solution hinges on Pothus' unusual name, and the unusual form in which it is given in the inscription.

To start with the man's actual name: A freedman's name, as is well known and constantly confirmed in inscriptions, was his old single name as a slave, preceded by the praenomen and nomen of the man who had freed him. The names of slaves, in turn, which were often changed after they were sold, to whatever the new master chose, were much like the names we give today to house pets: while many merely indicated the country from which they came (e.g., Afer, Syrus), often they indicated some special attribute or function. Here, Pothus is not Latin, but, as was also common, Greek: it means "ardent desire", and was the name of one of the three Erotes; like the many slaves named Eros, it is fair to assume that Pothus, though a slave, was his master's beloved. Whose slave had Pothus been?

Now the form. On their monuments and tombstones, freedmen will almost always sign themselves with their full name: after all, the tria nomina is what separates the free man from the slave, who only has one name. Why not here?

My suspicion is that Pothus' full name must have been Lucius Pontus Pothus; i.e., surely he was not some unrelated freedman — else whence the power to decide in this will? and I find it unlikely that he was the pothus of the deceased: few sons, especially armed with the powers given them in Roman law, would tolerate a gay "stepmother". . . . In short, Pothus would have been freed by Marcus Pontus on the death of his father — he could not have been freed by him before, since it is again amply confirmed that even the apparent property of the sons was in fact under the firm control of the paterfamilias, the only person in the family who could free his son's slaves — and Pontus associates Pothus with himself here because they are in effect domestic partners: and under such circumstances, omitting to use the customary form L. Ponti Pothi L. seems to me like the affectionate attitude of a decent man.

The younger student in particular be warned: I don't have a shred of evidence for any of the above, nor should we make any pretense of certainty about it; but on sheer novelistic grounds — imagine the scandal of it all, right there in huge letters on one of the tallest monuments of Rome! — the theory has its appeal.

With that, let's go back to the rest of our inscription. How many days exactly? How about a close-up:

The stone-carved words DIEBVS CCCXXX, the number just barely readable. It is a close-up of part of the inscription on the Pyramid of Cestius, an ancient tomb in Rome.

330 days — that's how long it took to build what is now the most famous pyramid in Italy and perpetuate the memory of Caius Cestius for over 2000 years. It's a pity he didn't specify in his will that a capsule biography of himself should have been included: we know almost nothing about the man.

But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism. . . . Had they made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their Reliques, they had not so grosly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but Pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration.

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Chapter V

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Page updated: 24 Aug 12