Saturday, August 2, 2008

And A Very Happy Dies Natalis To You!

So I was busy the other day attempting to come up with a bonus question for the exam I intended to inflict on my poor Latin students on Friday (Note: exam was duly inflicted). And since we had just week taken a look at some of the more interesting graffiti from Pompeii and Ostia, it seemed a good idea to give them their very own graffito to try to untangle. I should point out here that ancient Roman creators of graffiti were just as in touch with the idea of good spelling and grammar as their modern counterparts. Anyway, I think that the graffito I chose, in the end, is actually quite lovely. It's from Pompeii, and was/is located in Via della Fortuna, a street of shops and houses located North of the Forum.

Via della Fortuna

Unfortunately, very unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the actual graffito itself. However, it reads:

illa nata
diie Satu
ora secu
v IIII Non Au

And what does it say? Well, the first line, "Iuen," is a shortened form of the name "Iuenilla," which is itself a variant spelling of "Iuvenilla," a common Roman girl's name. We know this because next to the graffito the name is spelled out in full, around a drawing of a baby. Why a baby? The next line of the graffito explains that. It translates as "that (girl) was born," with the form of the verb "to be" left out. We are dealing here with the announcement of a birth.

The third line, "diie Satu," contains a misspelling. "Diie" should, in fact, be "die," in the ablative case indicating time when, and thus meaning "on the day." "Satu" is short for "Saturni," meaning "of Saturn." Thus we end up with "on the day of Saturn" - in other words, "on Saturday." The Romans did have a seven-day week by this time, with the days named after celestial bodies, a practise that most Romance languages have followed, and that is preserved in English in the names "Saturday," "Sunday," and "Monday."

Break Time! Here's Mount Vesuvius, on a glowery sort of day.

On to the fourth line, then! "Ora" is again in the ablative case for time when. In "proper" written Latin, it would have been "hora," but the initial "h" very often drops out in more colloquial writings, and probably did so in speech as well. "Secu" is short for "secunda," also in the ablative case agreeing with "ora." Taken together, it means "at the second hour."

The last line is where it gets a bit tricky. At first glance, it would appear to translate as "nine (v IIII) days before the Nones (Non) of August (Au)," a Roman date written in the standard format. However, the problem here is that you cannot have a date written as "nine days before the Nones." The Roman month had three Named Days: the Kalends (the first day of the month, and from which we get the word "calendar"), the Nones (the 5th or the 7th, depending on the month), and the infamous Ides (the 13th or 15th). The actual date of a particular day was reckoned based on how many days it was until the next Named Day. Nine days before the Nones would be back before the Kalends, and thus the date would have been written "so many days before the Kalends of August." Therefore we must dispense for now with the "v," and read this as "four days before the Nones of August." The Nones fall on the 5th in August. However, just to be difficult, the Romans reckoned inclusively, so in counting backwards, we must count the 5th, not the 4th, as "1." And so we count off the days: 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd. Iuvenilla was born on Saturday, the 2nd of August.

*Pauses to check today's date*

Finally, we must do something with the "v" in the last line. It actually goes with "ora secu" in the line above, and stood for "vespertina," or "vesprae," or "vesperi," or "vesperis." It doesn't really matter which of them it is, as they all mean, roughly, "evening," so we are dealing with the second hour of the evening. Like us, the Romans had a 24-hour day. However, they achieved this by dividing the time between sunrise and sunset into 12 equal portions, and doing the same for the time between sunset and sunrise. This meant two things. First of all, except at the Equinoctes, the daytime hours were not the same length as the night hours. Secondly, the length of a Roman hour changed over the course of the year, ranging from about 44 minutes to about 76, with the day hours at their longest when the night hours were shortest, and vice versa. And so, after doing a bit of research on when the sun rises and sets in Italy in early August, we can say with some confidence that Iuvenilla was born at around 10:00 pm.

Artist's rendering of the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79

Ok, then, to put it all together, we end up with this:

Literal translation: "Iuvenilla. That girl was born on the Day of Saturn, at the second hour of evening, 4 days before the Nones of August."

Less literal translation: "Iuvenilla. The girl was born on Saturday, August 2, at about 10:00 pm."

Our anonymous graffito-writer has not given any indication of the year of Iuvenilla's birth. However, if we accept two completely unprovable premises, we can at least make an educated guess. First premise: that the calendar has not been distorted at any time, apart from the switch from the Julian version to the Gregorian (September 1752 for Britain and her North American colonies, incidentally), and that therefore we can actually compute accurately the days of the week for a particular ancient year. This is not, perhaps, as unlikely as it might seem. Second premise: That the graffito refers to the last August 2 to fall on a Saturday before the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. I am tentatively assuming this simply because I think it unlikely that the graffito would have survived in any legible state for very long. If I ever see a photo of it, I may revise this opinion. Assuming these two things, then, and having found an excellent day-of-the-week calculator that takes into account the change in calendar, I would submit A.D. 77 as the most likely candidate. I would repeat, however, that there are some very big "ifs" here.

Well, this has been a very long post. I would like to close it by returning to the title, and wishing a very Happy Birthday to Iuvenilla, whoever she was (and would mention, without going into detail, the there are reasons to be optimistic that she survived the eruption)!


Chorus said...

Well, that is just about the coolest thing I've seen all day. Perhaps all week!

EmJayDee said...

WOW!!!! What a post. Thank you.

Crimson Rambler said...

You ENTIRELY rock. But then, I've thought so for a long time.

Chunklets said...

Well, thank you all; it was great fun untangling that one! And "welcome" to emjaydee!