Among the many treasures that the waves of history have washed up on our shores, few are as tantalizing as the grave steles that tell us about lives from previous centuries. Sometimes they capture a quotation from the deceased that they saw fit to define the essence of a lifetime. Others record how the owner of the tombstone was regarded by family or friends. The messages they convey are certainly humbling and moving.
Consider the grave stele of Mentor, the gladiator, from II c. A.D. that stoically states: “I, Mentor, have defeated everybody in famous stadiums and died according to fate. Powerful Moria has dragged me to Hades and now, I lie in this grave. My life has ended in the bloody hands of Amarantos.” It is worth noticing that “Mentor” was probably just a pseudonym adopted to evoke a connection with the mythological hero. It is also possible that the grave stele was paid by the same gladiator that killed him.
The stele from king Shalmaneser’s grave (IX c. B.C.), reminds us that political figures have never spared efforts to highlight their achievements: “Shalmaneser, the great king, the mighty king, king of all the four regions, the powerful and the mighty rival of the princes of the whole universe, the great ones, the kings. Son of Assur-Narisapli, king of the universe, king of Assyria, grandson of Tukulti-Ninurta, king of the universe, king of Assyria. The inscription continues with his campaigns and deeds and comes to an end as follows: “At that time, I rebuilt the walls of my city Ashur from their foundations to their summits. I made an image of myself and set it up in the metal-workers gate”.
Frequently, these grave steles reflect the appreciation from friends and comrades of the deceased. That is the case of legionary Aurelius’ stele, inscribed by his friend Septimius in I c. A.D. with the following message: “Heir and legion friend, Syrian Septimius Vibianus, has presented this to trumpeter Aurelius Surus, who at one time served, the subterranean gods fo eighteen years and lived for forty years, a pious and faithful servant of Legion I”.
Yet, these grave steles can also provide insights into a different kind of friendship that brought joy to someone’s life. For example, the stele from the grave of Parthenope, the dog, which informs us that “His owner has buried the dog Parthenope, that he played with, in gratitude for this happiness. Love is rewarding, like the one for this dog. Having been a friend to my owner, I have deserved this grave. Looking at this, find yourself a worthy friend, who is both, ready to love you while you are still alive and also will care for your body when you die.”
These are just a few examples that remind us the despite the centuries that separate us, the need to honour those who we loved and lost has been a constant across human history. Let’s hope that when we are gone, someone will remember us. I personally would happily settle for the words dedicated to the soldier Salmomedes (III c. B.C.) by his friends: “Salmomedes of Adada, good man, farewell”.