Sunday, 14 April 2013

Voices from the Black Sea

'Greetings, passer by!'

Looking over some material I collected on a trip round the Black Sea a couple of years ago, I was again struck by the inscriptions on Greek grave stones from the early centuries AD. There's a tradition of the dead speaking directly on these memorials, being ventriloquised by their surviving relatives, so that we feel that we're hearing the people of the past talking to us personally over a gap of two thousand years. There's something incredibly moving in these inscriptions. They beg the passer by to stop and remember; they tug at our sleeves and demand our attention; they bewail their fates or celebrate their time on earth and give us accounts of their lives.

'Hades came towards me so fast' laments Hegesandros, 'the famous son of Eros and Apphia', in Amasra on the Turkish coast. 'Listen, stranger' says Ephipania from ancient Tomis in modern Rumania, 'my place of origin was Greece....I saw many lands and sailed over the sea because my father, as well as my husband, were ship owners, whom after death I laid in the grave with clean hands. My life was really happy before! I was born among muses and shared the goods of wisdom. As a woman, I gave much help to women, to abandoned wives, being ruled by pious sentiments, and I helped people confined to their beds by suffering, because I realised that mortals' fates are not according to their piousness. Hermogenes full of gratitude devoted this monument as a remembrance'. A life well lived.

And Cecilia, also from Tomis, gives us her life story.

'If you want to know, passer by, who and whose I am, listen: when I was thirteen a young man loved me, worthy of us: then I married him and bore three children. A son, first and then two daughters, the very image of my face. Finally I bore a fourth one, but I should not have had any more, because the child died first and I did too a little time later. I left the light of the sun when I was thirty. Perinthos is my husband and my home. My son's name is Priscus, my daughter's Hieronis. As regards Theodora she was a child in the house when I died. My husband, Perinthos, lives and mourns me with a faint voice. My good father also weeps because I retreated here. I also have here in the grave my mother Flavia Theodora. My husband's father, Caecilius Priscus, also lies here. A greeting to you too whoever you are, you who pass by our graves!'

I feel somehow oddly cheered by these friendly greetings from the people of the past.

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