NEW from the 2nd century CE: In the garden of Rome’s Casino Aurora, farewell to a ‘hero’ from a philosopher admired by Marcus Aurelius

Photo credit: Anthony Majanlahti

An illustrated essay by Gabrielle Discafani (Rutgers MA student in Art History)

A wall of large, reddish tuff rocks borders the footpath winding up the hillside. The gravel ascent curves around a lush space scattered with marble statues and pedestals, the essence of the Casino Aurora garden, the last private remnant of the Villa Ludovisi. Strolling up the slope, you find that the hill’s plateau is marked by the end of the wall, which supports a marble funerary altar resting underneath the shade of a tree, a handful of flowers burgeoning below it.

I recommend that you pause to view the monument, allowing for a moment of quiet reflection at the top of the path before you enter the Casino Aurora, home of HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. For there is good reason to believe that this monument, which has escaped notice, cataloguing, and discussion over the past century and a quarter, was dedicated by a prominent Stoic philosopher of second century CE Rome.

To start at the beginning: on the face of the funerary monument is an epitaph in ancient Greek, dedicated by a father to his deceased son, who is eternally commemorated as a “hero”:

[This is dedicated] to Theodoros, / hero, / having lived / 18 years, five days. / [Dedicated by] Athenodotos, / [his] father.

Over the past 350 years, multiple visitors to Villa Ludovisi have transcribed and catalogued this funerary monument. The first in the series seems to have been the Danish physician Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), who visited Rome briefly in 1643.

The earliest publication of the inscription: Thomas Reinesius (1587-1667), Syntagma Inscriptionum Antiquarum (1682) XII 84, from autopsy (winter 1643) of Danish physician Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680).

Bartholin’s report comes to us via the German physician and philologist Thomas Reinesius (1587-1667), who anthologized Roman inscriptions in Europe in his Syntagma Antiquarum Inscriptionum, published posthumously in Leipzig in 1682. Reinesius notes that the funerary altar was recorded in the same “Ludovisi gardens” where it stands today. He incorporated the inscription in a chapter dedicated to adfectus parentum erga liberos (“parents’ affection toward their children”) with other funerary inscriptions for children outlived by their parents.

Publication of the inscription (1853) by August Böckh and Johannes Franz in Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum III 6413, using a sketch made by Wilhelm Otto Uhden (1763-1835), with critical notes on earlier transcriptions. One wonders under what conditions Uhden viewed the stone, given the errors in line 1 (there is no iota at the end of the word) and line 5 (as noted above, the initial letter is not an eta).

Two 18th century publications of the inscription: Maquardus Gudius (died 1689), Antiquae Inscriptiones quum Graecae, tum Latinae (1731) 248,9 (486,1); and Ludovico Antonio Muratori (died 1750) Novus Thesaurus Veterum Inscriptionum vol. II (1740) 1220, 7. Muratori relies on a sketch made in 1666 by Franciscus Tolomeus, now in Siena (Sched. Ptolem. Cod. Sen. VIII 2, 364); on the actual stone, in line 5 the initial eta in line 5 is rather an epsilon.

The last to record it was George Kaibel (1849-1901), who in 1890 published it in Inscriptiones Graecae XIV, with other inscriptions of Sicily, Italy and the West (IG XIV 1649 = Inscriptiones Graecae Urbis Romae II 582). Oddly, it escaped the attention of both Theodor Schreiber (1880) and Beatrice Palma (1986) in their surveys of the ancient sculptural remains in the possession of the Boncompagni Ludovisi. There are no published images.

G. Kaibel (1890) in Inscriptiones Graecae XIV 1649 p423, from autopsy (“descripsi”) in the Villa Ludovisi—the first editor to have seen the inscription for himself since Gudius in the mid-17th century.

There are not many decorative aspects to this Roman-style grave marker other than an urceus or wine pitcher, modelled on the altar’s side, and a patera or dish, modelled on the opposite side. There are similar motifs e.g., on the Petronia Q. f. Rufina funerary monument in the Casino Aurora garden, which corroborates the approximate dating of the altar to the second century CE.

Wine pitchers and shallow dishes were frequent decorations on grave monuments, often depicted in reliefs and on the sides of stelai, symbolizing eternal libations for the deceased, especially appropriate here on a funerary altar. The pronounced sloping of the pediment indicates that the altar would have been more evocative than functional, as it seems to preclude the potential of realistically offering libations upon its surface.

The Greek inscription on this monument offers punctuative and linguistic markers that are significant in their own right, especially regarding the units of time at the end of Theodoros’ life.

Detail of the Casino Aurora Greek funerary monument, showing inscription. Overall measurements: height = 67.9 cm; length (at base) = 40.6 cm; length (at inscribed portion) = 30.8 cm; width (at base) = 22.9 cm; width (at inscribed portion) =17.8 cm; letter heights: lines 1-2 = 3.25 cm; lines 3-6 = 2.5 cm; line 7 = 2.13 cm

In line 1, the final omega in “Theodoro” appears to be missing an iota subscript, which is typical in these capitalized inscriptions.

Below in the text, one finds the hedera distinguens, or ivy leaf (❦), commonly employed in Roman imperial-era inscriptions, its role being a word divider or a decorative marking. There are two hederae in this inscription, both appearing on the fourth (precisely middle) line. The first ivy leaf is between the word for “years” and the overlined capital iota and eta which represent the numeral “eighteen.” The second ivy leaf is at the end of this line, but its midrib appears to extend into the following line, effectively separating the number “five,” the numeral written as a capital epsilon with an overline, from its corresponding unit, “days.”

In line four, the spelling of ΕΤΕ, meaning “years,” is incorrect; the ending should be -η or -εα, since it is in the accusative case describing the duration of time ([having lived] for 18 years). This word is neuter gendered in the third declension, and the expected ending of eta happens to be a long vowel. So it is odd that ETE ends in an epsilon, a short vowel, or alternatively, that the alpha following the epsilon was omitted.

There is another instance in this text of an epsilon found in a word where an eta should have been used, in the other unit of time: ΕΜΕΡΑΣ, or “days,” in line five. The initial expected vowel, an eta, was shortened to an epsilon. It has been discovered in other Greek dialects that the initial eta is shortened to alpha, but this is a different scenario altogether. These linguistic changes are indicative of Roman second century CE inscriptions. C.A. Faraone and J.L. Rife (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 180 [2007] 141-157) have articulated that a curse tablet, dating between the first and third centuries CE, featuring the same EMERAΣ ‘misspelling’ was found in Greece at Roman Kenchreai.

Now, who is the young man immortalized on this monument as “hero”— the only adjective to describe the deceased? Similar to the placement of the name “(to) Theodoros” in line 1, the word “hero” draws particular attention as the sole word in the second line. The word “hero” draws particular attention as the sole word in the second line, similar to the placement of the name “(to) Theodoros” in line 1. The centered placement of the word and complementary size of the “hero” text to “Theodoros” indicate deliberate isolation in this exquisite inscription.

There are no reasons given in the epitaph for Theodoros’ demise, whether from warfare, illness, or accident. There is no specific mention of the literary, rhetorical, or military achievement of Theodoros, son of Athenodotos, nor is there documentation of a marriage. Yet his death must be significant to warrant the title “hero” and afford a funerary monument. He was rather young, having reached the cusp of young adulthood at 18 years and five days old.

Even in the mid-seventeenth century, Reinesius could remark that the description of Theodoros as a “hero” has a different connotation in a Greco-Roman funerary context than one might assume, calling it a “euphemism … [for the] recently deceased.” Explains C.P. Jones in New Heroes in Antiquity: From Achilles to Antinoos (2010, 49-50):

“It is certainly true that in the vast majority of cases, ‘hero’ implies that a person is dead (though that is not the same as being lexically equivalent to ‘dead’), … It can also be conceded that when the living commemorated their dead, especially those who had died young, they could have called them ‘young hero’ or ‘kindly hero’ without investing much belief in their words … This alleged ‘broadening’ of heroization and devaluation of the term ‘hero’ is in fact a societal change, whereby the wealthy upper classes of the Greek cities express their commemoration of their dead members in an increasingly public way.”

Jones clarifies that the title of “hero” does not exclusively assume status as a casualty of war or a mythological figure as some might assume, but that, from the Hellenistic period onward, it is a common title for the elite deceased, especially regarding youths.

It would seem that the famously philhellenic Romans would adopt this Greek attitude in burial contexts. However, there is just a single inscription in Latin from the entire Roman era that uses the title in this sense, a dedication from Pisidian Antioch in the province of Galatia, to a Titus Claudius Paulinus, “philosopher and hero” (CIL III 6850 = ILS 7777). So though found in Rome, this is a very Greek monument.

And what is to be discovered about the dedicator of this monument—the “pater” named in the inscription, Athenodotos? The name is not a common one, which gives hope for an identification. Whereas the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names lists more than 1350 individuals with the name Theodoros, it has just 28 instances of Athenodotos, with only five of those dating to the Roman imperial period, and none from the west. Since we are looking at a monument in the city of Rome, there is good reason to suggest that we have here the same individual as the philosopher and rhetorician Athenodotos, mentioned by two authors from the second century CE.

The earliest references to that Athenodotos are in the letters (starting between 144-147 CE) from Marcus Cornelius Fronto to his correspondent and student, the future emperor Marcus Aurelius. As Amy Richlin explains in her book Marcus Aurelius in Love (2006), Fronto “came to Rome to make his fortune and rose to become the foremost orator of his time. Owing to this reputation, in 139 CE he was chosen to instruct the young Marcus Aurelius, in rhetoric.”

In his correspondence (65,23 and cf. 17,8 in M.P.J. van der Hout‘s Teubner edition), Fronto mentions his “teacher and parent” Athenodotos, who taught him “in regard to examples and certain images of things which he called εἰκόνες (= similes)”, and was clearly familiar with both Greek and Latin. Richlin comments (p124) that Athenodotos “was a student of Musonius Rufus”—for which see Fronto 135,4—”who was one of the most eminent Roman Stoics and notable for his emphasis on marriage over pederasty.”

It is likely that Athenodotos taught in Rome, and Fronto studied with him there (see van der Hout, A Commentary on the Letters of M. Cornelius Fronto [1999] p43). In one of his letters (17.8), Fronto even confesses to have fallen in love with his teacher.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations 1.13, in the Loeb edition of C.R. Haines

A decade and a half later, Marcus Aurelius, in his famous Meditations that he penned around 161 CE, references a “teacher” by the same name (1.13), in recounting lessons learned:

“From Catulus: not to disregard a friend who blames you, even if he happens to blame an act unreasonably, but to try to re-establish him to his usual self; and [to speak] wholeheartedly fair-sounding words of teachers, as is remembered of Domitius [Balbus, a Stoic philosopher] and Athenodotos. And to [be] truly affectionate concerning children.”

Given the academic genealogy of Athenodotos as the student of Musonius Rufus and as the mentor of Fronto, and Fronto as the tutor of Marcus Aurelius, these references are likely to be alluding to the same man, and validate his existence, occupation, and influence in the second-century CE Roman world. They also strongly suggest that Athenodotos’ philosophical school was that of the Stoics, and that he was primarily active in Rome. We also have noted the rarity of the name. Indeed, the only instance of an Athenodotos found in an inscription of the Italian peninsula and Sicily (to judge from a search of IG XIV and Inscriptiones Graecae Urbis Romae) is our example. So the identification seems possible, even probable.

A view of the (unworked) rear surface of the funerary monument

No writings by Athenodotos have survived. But as a clearly revered philosopher, Athenodotos should have had the financial means to erect a costly funerary altar for his son. And his accomplishments may have allowed his adult son to earn the title “hero” upon his death, not merely due to the common attribution of “hero” to a deceased child in an elite family, but also because of the philosophical prominence and the political connections of his father. It is notable that in the references to Athenodotos, he is associated with being a “parent,” and praised for his exemplary pious behavior, further reinforcing the identification.

It is possible that the documents now newly digitized in the Casino Aurora archive will allow us to make new interpretations about this inscribed monument in the Villa Ludovisi collection—which offers a somber meditation about the “heroic” accolade of Theodoros, who died fairly young, his grieving philosopher father, Athenodotos, and the beauty of the garden where their memories now rest.

Gabrielle Discafani is a Rutgers graduate student in Art History (Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies), interested in the intersections between art and law, and was a post-baccalaureate student of Ancient Greek in the Rutgers Classics Department. She graduated from The George Washington University in 2017 as a Classical Studies major and has since accumulated experience in archives, education, museum research, and a bioarchaeological field school. She expresses her thanks for Dr. T. Corey Brennan’s assistance in researching this funerary altar, and to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for her generosity in enabling and encouraging research on archival objects from her home, the Casino Aurora, and the Villa Ludovisi. Any faults in fact or interpretation are solely those of the author.

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