What’s in a Name: Visual Puns and Epigraphy

I am teaching a Petronius and Suetonius class this semester, two favorites that both discussed puns. In particular, Petronius’ boorish freedman, Trimalchio, liked to name his slaves using puns. Thus he had a butcher named Carpus that he liked to order to ‘Carpe, inquit’ (Sat. 36.6). By naming him Carpus, he could both call his name and order him to do his job (Sat. 36.8). It seems that names were often a source of punning around, a fact that Suetonius supports. He reports in his Life of Claudius, that “when the people called for Palumbus, [Claudius] responded, ‘He would give them one when he could catch it’ “(Claud. 21). This was a play on the fact that his name in Latin meant ‘wood pigeon’.The love of the pun was strong in Roman literary texts, and thus we should not be surprised to find such humor being expressed via the epigraphic habit. Below, I have brought together a few visual puns from Roman inscriptions.

Probably the best pun I came across was an early Christian epitaph, for a child named Porcella who has a pig on her epitaph (ICUR 7, 20145, Rome). Her epitaph reads: Porcella hic dormit in p(ace) / q(uae) vixit ann(os) III m(enses) X d(ies) XIII, accompanied by a visual pun on her name: a piglet.

Drawing from Maitland 1847, 226. Download the free ebook here.
Drawing from Maitland 1847, 226.  Download the free ebook.

Another from the lapidary collection of the Vatican and collected in Maitland has an inscription commemorating “Doliens, father, to Julius, his son” (Iulio filio pater Doliens fecit…, ICUR 7, 18948).

Drawing in Maitland 1848, 226.
Drawing in Maitland 1847, 226.

dolium was a cask. I have here added a picture of a fresco from a cubiculum in the catacomb of Priscilla commemorating barrel makers as a visual comparison.

Fresco from the catacomb of Priscilla. Photo Credit: David Macchi.
Fresco from the catacomb of Priscilla. Photo Credit: David Macchi.

As Doug Boin helpfully pointed out to me, there is an extraordinary third century “Christian” epitaph in the Baths of Diocletian which commemorates “Licinia Amias, whose name (ămĭas, ae, m., = ἀμία) means ‘tuna fish.'” Even Jewish inscriptions were not immune to the punominal (sorry). In CIJ I, 162, a child named Salpingius (trumpeter) is remembered with little trumpets on his loculus (See Williams 2013, 199).

Inscription now in the Baths of Diocletian. Odd video here.
Inscription now in the Baths of Diocletian. Odd video here.

Lest we think this was a predominantly early Christian type of epigraphic humor, we should visit the early imperial streets of Pompeii. The famous fuller graffito notably alludes to Virgil, but (As Alison Cooley points to [p.115]) it also riffs on the name of the fuller himself, Ululitremulus: “I sing of fullers and an owl, not arms and men” (‘Fullones ululamque cano non arma virumq(ue)’). 

CIL IV, 9131 = CLE 1936.
CIL IV, 9131 = CLE 1936.

I will mention a final visual pun from Pompeii pointed out by Mary Beard (2008, 247), among others: a brazier with a cow on it dedicated by one Marcus Nigidius Vaccula (Cow).

As Plautus exemplifies, Romans loved a good name pun from early on. They were a culture that delighted in nicknames and ribbing on people for just about any physical characteristic. That this humor should also come out in epitaphs is to be expected. Moreover, these inscriptions were probably amusing to those who passed by and read them aloud (as Romans did when they read) while looking at the picture. Unlike many, I find puns an amusing form of wit when done correctly and sparingly. But then again, I am a girl whose nickname was Ionic007 in chemistry class her sophomore year and someone who will probably have a little figurine of Sean Connery inscribed somewhere on her urn.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name: Visual Puns and Epigraphy

Add yours

  1. I would have thought that the ‘Doliens’ example was also a pun on ‘dolens’. Some extra value for money, there…

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