Complete a Latin Inscription

This activity can complement study of texts from the world of childhood; students should have read and discussed one or more funerary inscriptions for young girls from the Worlds of Roman Women reader and/or from the Online Companion. With this as background, introduce students to the grave monument of a young girl from the Hadrianic period (on display at the Getty Villa). Encourage them to look carefully at the various views of the sarcophagus and details of its sculpture and inscription, since for this particular piece we have nothing but its own visual evidence.

Explain that this is often the case with material artifacts from classical antiquity. Sometimes the physical piece, frequently broken, is all we have, without context, external references, or even information about where and when it was found. Classicists then have to interpret the piece by drawing upon knowledge gained from study of many different facets of the ancient world. For example, knowledge of female hairstyles, sculpting techniques, and stone-cutting of inscriptions enables scholars to date this piece to the late Hadrianic era, c. 120-140 CE. Although very little remains of the object beneath the girl's right hand, other funerary sculptures suggest that this was a pet dog (see, for example, the funerary altar of Anthus or this sarcophagus of a youth). The dolls are an unusual detail for sarcophagi, but jointed ivory dolls were found in the tombs of Roman girls (see this doll with a diadem, and this doll with the hairstyle of the empress Julia Domna). Images of Cupid were not uncommon on grave monuments of young girls. See, for example, this elaborately carved sarcophagus where the girl's portrait is held up by two Cupids; on both ends is a depiction of Cupid and Psyche, perhaps alluding to the fact that Psyche gained immortality in this myth. As on our sarcophagus, where the unusual pose of Cupid's legs (left crossed under right) echoes that of the deceased girl, here the melon hairstyle of Psyche resembles that of the dead girl.

The following assignment can be done individually, but may work best in small groups: After students have carefully viewed all these images, ask them to write in Latin a plausible conjecture of what the full inscription might have said. They should take into consideration the shape of the fragmentary letters, the size of the gaps (the full inscription is approximately 50 inches long), and the style of the extant parts of the inscription (fairly simple declarative sentences). Their conjecture should be grammatically correct and make sense in relation to the rest of the inscription and the Roman traditions relating to the commemoration of young girls. Each group should present their completed inscription to the rest of the class, explaining why they made the choices they did. At the end of the session, the class can discuss all the conjectures and choose which they think is best. A further activity might be to imagine what this girl's life might have been like: what kind of family did she have? how old was she when she died? how did she die? how does she compare to other Roman girls they have read about?

The goal of this activity is to encourage meaningful Latin composition in an engaging and imaginative way, embedded in authentic cultural context, and emulating a real-life activity of classical scholars.

Submitted by Barbara F. McManus
October 2006
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