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Men's Opinions



47. Allia Potestas. Rome, late 3rd-4th cent. A.D.
(CIL VI.37965=CLE 1988. L) [1]

This unusual inscription is not easy to classify, and its extravagant praise has been taken by some scholars for irony. The deceased, a freedwoman, who was at some point owned by two men (as was Neaera, jointly owned by two men, who contributed towards the cost of her manumission; cf. no. 90, section 29). The epitaph attempts to make her sound like a proper matrona, chaste (two lovers notwithstanding) and diligent at her wool work, but then goes too far and praises her physical attributes. The encomia to Murdia and 'Turia' have a very different tone.

To the gods of the dead, [the tomb] of Aulus' freedwoman, Allia Potestas.

Here lies a woman from Perugia. None was more precious than she in the world. One so diligent as she has never been seen before. Great as you were you are now held in a small urn. Cruel arbiter of fate, and harsh Persephone, why do you deprive us of good, and why does evil triumph, everyone asks. I am tired of answering. They give me their tears, tokens of their good will.

She was courageous, chaste, resolute, honest, a trustworthy guardian. Clean at home, also clean when she went out, famous among the populace. She alone could confront whatever happened. She would speak briefly and so was never reproached. She was first to rise from the bed, and last to return to her bed to rest after she had put each thing in its place. Her yarn never left her hands without good reason. Out of respect she yielded place to all; her habits were healthy. She was never self-satisfied, and never though of herself as a free woman.

Her skin was white, she had beautiful eyes, and her hair was gold? An ivory glow always shone from her face-no mortal (so they say) every possessed a face like it. The curve of her breasts was small on her snow-white bosom. And her legs? Such is the guise of Atalanta upon the stage.

In her anxiety she never stayed still, but moved her smooth limbs, beautiful with her generous body; she sought out every hair. Perhaps one may find fault with her hard hands. She was content with nothing but what she did for herself. There was never a topic she thought she knew well enough. She remained virtuous because she never committed any crime.

While she lived she so guided her two young lovers that they became like the example of Pylades and Orestes-one house would hold them both and one spirit. [2] But now that she is dead, they will separate, and each is growing old by himself. Now instants damage what such a woman built up; look at Troy, to see what a woman once did. I pray that it be right to use such grand comparisons for this lesser event.

These verses for you your patron-whose tears never end-writes in tribute. You are lost, but never will be taken from his heart. These are the gifts he believes the lost will enjoy. After you no woman can seem good. A man who has lived without you has seen his own death while alive. He carries you name in gold back and forth on his arm, where he can keep it, possessing Potestas. [3] As long as these published words of ours survive, so long will you live in these little verses of mine.

In your place I have only your image as solace; [4] this we cherish with reverence and lavish with flowers. When I come with you, it follows in attendance. But to whom in my visiting can I trust a thing so venerable? If there ever is anyone to whom I can entrust it, I shall be fortunate in this alone now that I have lost you. But-woe is me-you have won the contest-my fate and yours are the same.

The man who tries to harm this tomb dares to harm the gods: believe me, this woman, made famous by this inscription, has divinity.


Notes:

1. Cf. Horsfall 1985.

2. Evidently Allia was supported by two lovers, one of whom was probably Aulus Allius himself, her patron. Cf. no. 90, para. 29, where Neaera is owned by two lovers simultaneously.

3. A play on the word potestas, which means 'power'. A very plausible explanation of this unusual name is that it is merely the Latin translation of the Greek word and name Dynamis, also meaning power. It would not be at all surprising if she were Greek or of Greek descent.

4. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon (416-19) the chorus comments on the inadequacy of a statue as substitute for Menelaus' real wife Helen. Admetus, in Euripides' Alcestis, promises his dying wife that he will put a likeness of her in his bed, so that he can embrace and caress it and hold it in his arms, 'so that I will seem to hold my dear wife in my arms even though I am not holding her' (348-54), a speech that illustrates how much emphasis he places on her physical presence. Compare Anyte's epitaph for Thersis, above, no. 13. A Roman sarcophagus lid in the Terme Museum, Rome, shows a man reclining, Etruscan-style, with his arm around not his wife but a bust of her.