Marcus Antonius Encolpus: Unbelieving Epitaph (From Greek)

Skepticism about the afterlife is not recent. Even in societies of millennia past that might strike us as being immensely superstitious, there were often many who didn't buy into the local mythology about death, or at least didn't take it very seriously. It is indeed a well-attested (if not widely-known) fact that there were plenty of unbelievers and skeptics in ancient Greece and Rome, at all periods. After about the 1st century BC, the Roman intellectual élite had come to the understanding that the traditional ideas of an afterlife were, at the very least, flawed and that if the soul survived the death of the body at all it wasn't in Hades. Outright ridicule of belief in the afterlife was commonplace in the empire among the elite, although among lower social strata this was less the case. One example of what may be elite skepticism, or an affectation of it, is the Greek epitaph inscribed by one Marcus Antonius Encolpus on the grave of his wife Caerellia Fortunata (CIL vi.14672) dating to sometime in the early 3rd century AD, and which I translate here.

While the message of this epitaph might on the face of it strike readers today as pessimistic or depressing, note that Charon the ferryman, like Cerberus the hell-hound, was a frightening, unpleasant figure in popular imagination, especially at this time (as Lucian's works show.) Charon wasn't someone waiting to welcome you. He was someone you dreaded having to deal with when you die. In this light, that Charon, Cerberus and Aeacus do not exist may be taken as a source of comfort. It's worth noting that archaeologists find coins placed in graves as offerings to Charon with increasing frequency during the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, suggesting that popular superstition and fear surrounding him were nonetheless widespread, despite the pervasive skepticism toward the top of the social ladder.

The sentiment of the final line is not unique, as attested in a number of Roman grave inscriptions (e.g. nil mihi post finest nil volo nil cupio "there is nothing of me after my end. I want nothing. I desire nothing." Or non fui, fui, non sum, non curo "I didn't exist. Then I did. Now I don't. I don't care.") Not only are there many other attested expressions of doubt, about the afterlife and the efficacy of ritual offerings, going back several centuries previous, but part of the elegiac passage in this epitaph very strongly recalls part of Lucian's De Luctu where a young boy in Hades mocks his father, with great cruelty, for mourning his death with offerings.
τί δὲ ὁ ὑπὲρ τοῦ τάϕου λίθος ἐστεϕανωμένος; ἤ τί ὑμῖν δύναται τὸν ἄϰρατον ἐπιχεῖν; ἤ νομίζετε ϰαταστάξειν αὐτὸν πρὸς ἡμᾶς ϰαὶ μέχρι τοῦ Ἅιδου διίξεσθαι; τὰ μὲν γὰρ ἐπὶ τῶν ϰαθαγισμῶν ϰαὶ αὐτοὶ ὁρᾶτε, οἶμαι, ὡς τὸ μὲν νοστιμώτατον τῶν παρεσϰευασμένων ὁ ϰαπνὸς παραλαβὼν ἄνω εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν οἴχεται μηδέν τι ἡμᾶς ὀνήσας τοὺς ϰάτω, τὸ δὲ ϰαταλειπόμενον, ἡ ϰόνις, ἀχρεῖον, ἐϰτὸς εἰ μὴ τὴν σποδὸν ἡμᾶς σιτεῖσθαι πεπιστεύϰατε.
(But what good to me) is the garlanded stone above my grave? What's the point in libations of pure wine? Do you imagine it will somehow trickle down to where we are, reach all the way to the Netherworld? As for burnt offerings, I think you yourselves can gather that the greater part of the food's nutrients is born up to the heavens by the smoke, and doesn't do a whit of good for those of us in the world below, and the ash that remains is useless, too. Unless of course you think we can eat dust. 

The lack of belief in the afterlife evinced in the Greek verse epitaph(s) may be compared quite profitably with the Latin prose inscription, in which great pains are taken to see that the tomb not be desecrated by the visitation of someone who has fallen out of favor with the family patriarch, as well as to reward someone who did him a good turn with a place in it. The conjunction of dismissal of the world below and profound concern for the grave and the loved ones interred therein, is an almost unbelievably perfect illustration both of imperial Greco-Roman culture's free-wheeling approach to religious belief and of Romans' profound concern, bordering on obsession, with proper ritual practice, and of how little contradiction there necessarily was between the two. Funeral practice could often be more about remembering the dead for the life they lived, rather than anything to do with a life to come.

Attributing authorship is somewhat difficult, as is often the case with funeral epigraphy. The dedication preceding the epitaph on the stone in Latin is clearly Encolpus'. It is generally well-spelled and competently phrased (using such context-bound locutions as libertis libertabusque) with only mildly subliterary features in the non-formulaic portions. (Tam magna in the sense of tanta without complement, one confusion of "b" and "v", nasal assimilation in amnegauerit, use of opter for propter.) There is an additional inscription in Latin (not translated here) which comes after the Greek verses, and must have been appended later, very likely by somebody less literate. Apart from being much less coherent, it is far more subliterary (there is a likely conflation of nominative and accusative with iubeo, and the spelling deueuet for standard dēbēbit even though the correct spelling appears in the earlier part of the inscription.) The first 8 lines of verse are in Greek iambics and give the impression of being a complete poem on their own. (It makes them a much stronger and more sensical poem if they are read thus, in any case.) The 6 subsequent lines, in elegiac meter, with their dry irreverent take on traditional funeral offerings, may be a later addition. They are extremely different in tone. Four of those lines also appear as an anonymous epigram in the palatine anthology, though the last two lines are attested only in this inscription. This raises a possibility that both of these pieces in their entirety are not original but actually taken from elsewhere. Nonetheless I have, because "anonymous" really didn't seem suitable, listed Marcus Antonius Encolpus as the "author". I have also not regularized the spelling in the Latin, as is my general practice, but have inserted a few emendations in parentheses.

The text was taken from (and, as a matter of fact, originally found by chance in) the Packard Humanities Institute's wonderful Greek epigraphy database, available online here.

Caerellia's Epitaph (CIL VI 14672)
By Marcus Antonius Encolpus
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
For my departed and dearest wife Caerellia Fortunata with whom I lived for 40 tranquil years, and for myself, I Marcus Antonius Encolpus made this tomb, and for my dearest freed slave Antonius Athenaeus, for my freedmen and freedwomen and all of their issue, with the exception of Marcus Antonius Athenio. Him I forbid access or any entry to this tomb, or to have his remains' or those of his descendants'  brought here for burial. If any should transgress in this, he that has done so must pay the priests or the tutors of the Vestal Virgins a sum of 50,000 sestertii, because after many other injuries against my person, he denied me as a parent to him. It is also for Aulus Laelius Apelles my dearest client, who may choose for himself whichever sarcophagus he wishes, as he stood by me in such a catastrophe, and whose good favor I enjoy. 
Do not pass by my epitaph, dear passer-by. 
Stop. Read and learn, and when you understand, go on: 
There is no Charon waiting on a boat in Hades. 
No judge named Aeacus, no dog called Cerberus. 
All of us who've gone dead down here are now no more 
Than rotting bone and ash. I've told it as it is 
And have no more to say. Now, passer-by, go on 
And know I keep the rule of dead men: tell no tales.  

      This tomb's just stone. So bring no myrrh or garlands,

           And don't waste money on a fire,
      If you want to give me something, you really should have 
           Done it when I was still alive.
      If you mix fine wine with ash you just get mud.
          Besides, the dead do not drink wine.
      Just sprinkle some soil, and say: what I was before
           I was, I have become once more.

The Original:
D(is) Cerelliae Fortunatae coniugi karissimae cum qua M(anibus) v. ann. XL s.u.q. M. Antonius Encolpus fecit sibi et Antonio Athenaeo liberto suo karissimo et libertis libertabusque eorum et posteris, excepto M. Antonio Athenione quem ueto in eo monimento aditum habere, neque iter ambitum introitum ullum in eo habere, neque sepulturae causa reliquias eius posterorumque eius inferri, quod si quis aduersus hoc quis fecerit, tunc is qui fecerit poenae nomine pontificibus aut antescolaris uirginum s. L m.n. inferre debebit, ideo quia me pos multas iniurias parentem sibi amnegauerit. Et A. Lelio Apeliti, clienti karissimo quem boluerit do(n)ationis causa sarcofagum eligat sibi, opter quod in tam ma(g)na clade non me reliquerit, cuius beneficia (h)abeo
μή μου παρέλθῃς τὸ ἐπίγραμμα, ὁδοιπόρε,  
ἀλλὰ σταθεὶς ἄκουε καὶ μαθὼν ἄπι.  
οὐκ ἔστι ἐν Ἅδου πλοῖον, οὐ πορθμεὺς Χάρων,  
οὐκ Αἰακὸς κλειδοῦχος, οὐχὶ Κέρβερος κύων  
ἡμεῖς δὲ πάντες οἱ κάτω τεθνηκότες  
ὀστέα τέφρα <γ>εγόναμεν, ἄλλο δὲ οὐδὲ ἕν.  
εἴρηκά σοι ὀρθῶς ὕπαγε, ὀδοιπόρε,  
μὴ καὶ τεθνακὼς ἀδόλεσχός σοι φανῶ  

   Μὴ μύρα, μὴ στεφάνους λιθίναις στήλαισι χαρίζου·
       μηδὲ τὸ πῦρ φλέξῃς ἐς κενὸν ἡ δαπάνη.
   ζῶντί μοι, εἴ τι θέλεις, χάρισαι  τέφρην δὲ μεθύσκων
       πηλὸν ποιήσεις, κοὐχ ὁ θανὼν πίεται.
   τοῦτο ἔσομαι γὰρ ἐγώ, σὺ δὲ τούτοις γῆν ἐπιχώσας
       εἰπέ ὅτ<ι> οὐκ <ὢν> ἦν τοῦτο πάλιν γέγονα

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