Minicia Marcella: Taken before Her Time

by John Bodel
Minicia Marcella: Taken before Her Time
John Bodel
The American Journal of Philology
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Writing to his friend Aefulanus Marcellinus sometime in A.D. 105 or 106, the younger Pliny lamented the untimely death of the daughter of a mutual friend, Minicius Fundanus: destined for an advantageous mar- riage, the girl had been deprived of her appointed wedding day and cut down in the bloom of youth, before she had completed her fourteenth year: nondum annos quattuordecim impleverat.' Until 1881 Pliny's trib- ute provided all that was known about the unfortunate girl, but in that year the unearthing of a familial tomb on Monte Mario just outside Rome disclosed a pair of funerary altars of late Flavian or Trajanic date, evidently carved by the same hand and bearing the names of a woman, Statoria M. f. Marcella, and a girl, Minicia Marcella Fundani f(i1ia). After briefly considering other possibilities of identification, the first editor of the two inscriptions plausibly concluded that Minicia must be the daughter of Pliny's friend and the Statoria named in the neighboring epitaph: having predeceased her like-named daughter, the mother nat- urally found no place in Pliny's condolences.2 Dates, names, and cir- cumstances fit.3 Only one difficulty stood in the way: the girl's epitaph gives a summary statement of her age at death, precise and unequivocal and seemingly contradictory to Pliny's account: v(ixit) a(nnis) XZl, m(ensibus) XI, d(iebus) VZZ. When manuscripts and inscriptions dis- agree on numbers, the possible sources of error are many and various,

'Ep.5.16.2; cf. (i 6, iam destinata erat egregio iuveni, iam electus nuptiarum dies, iam nos vocati. For the father, C. Minicius Fundanus, suffect consul in 107, see Syme, Roman Papers VII 603-19.

2Dressel, "Camera sepolcrale" 14-16, remarking Pliny's silence about the mother at 5.16.4, sororem patrem [sc. puella] adhortabatur. The inscriptions, along with a third found in the same tomb, are reproduced at CIL VI 16630-32, that of Minicia (16631) also at ILS 1030. Both monuments are preserved in the Gabinetto delle Maschere of the Vatican Museums; see Boschung, Antike Grabaltare 16-17 (stylistic dating), 81 no. 97, 85 no. 245.

31f the speaker, Fundanus, at Plut. De Coh. Ira 6 (Mor. 455 F) is identical with Pliny's friend, his reference to a wife and "little daughters" (Ovyat~~a-but the diminu- tive is perhaps merely affective) confirms the configuration of Minicius' immediate family and furthermore helps to date the dialogue: see Jones, "Chronology" 61-62. The mother's gentilicium suggests a Transpadane origin, as befits the wife of a native of Ticinum: see Syme, Roman Papers VII 608-9; cf. Raepsaet-Charlier, Prosopographie des femmes 582 no. 733 (456 no. 552 for Minicia Marcella).

American Journal of Philology 116 (1995) 453-4h0 0 IWS by The Johns Hopknns Unwersity Press

and in this instance modern opinion has shown little consistency in sorting them out.

Sherwin-White in the standard commentary on Pliny's letters (347 ad loc.) declared it "better to accept the discrepancy than to cor- rect the manuscripts" but declined to pass judgment on the accuracy of either Pliny or the anonymous stonecutter. Stout, who was similarly disinclined to correct manuscripts, conceded that Pliny may have been mistaken but preferred to lay blame for the error at the stonecutter's door, and others have simply accepted the transmitted text without attempting to vindicate its a~thority.~

No one, it seems, has directly impugned Pliny's accuracy, but the precise figure cannot have mattered much to him personally, and the possibility that he was merely guessing or somehow miscalculated cannot be ruled out: his correspondent, Ae- fulanus Marcellinus, seems to have been a connoisseur of Pliny's obitu- ary notices (the only other letter apparently addressed to him, 8.23, also falls into this category) and was no doubt more concerned with rhetori- cal coloring than the unvarnished truth.5 Some editors tacitly correct the manuscripts to agree with the stone, a solution for which Goold has offered an attractive defense.6 Following Dressel (16), Goold (144) proposes that the discrepancy arose from a scribal slip, the letters xiiiimpleverat written in minuscule in a common ancestor of the eight- and nine-book families of manuscripts having been miscopied into xiiiiinpleverat (that is, m was transcribed as in). The emendation is sim- ple, the resolution gratifying; and the genesis of the supposed error is easily paralleled.' In this case, however, the presumed path of transmis- sion is twisted and forked, and it does not appear to lead to the original text.

Whereas the chief representative of the nine-book family (M, saec. IX) and several Renaissance witnesses to the eight-book tradition are said to exhibit Roman numerals at this point, elsewhere in the manuscripts of all three families of Pliny's Letters numbers indicating

4Stout,Scribe and Critic 209. Others: e.g., Mynors; Syme, Roman Papers VII 608 and n. 33. 5Gamberini(Stylistic Theory 290-94) remarks and briefly analyzes the rhetorical elaboration of the two letters to Marcellinus, who is otherwise unknown. 6So Kukula, Merrill, and Guillemin ad loc.; cf. PIR2 M 631. See Goold's review of Stout's edition.

'Cf. Nipperdey at Tac. Ann. 14.64.1,puella vicesimo aetatis anno (Octavia in A.D. 62): "Wahrscheinlich . . . Tac. schrieb duoetvicesimo, was lletvicesimo geschrieben sei- nen Anfang wegen der ~hnlichkeit der drei letzten Buchstaben von puella verlor."


ages were evidently transcribed verbally, whereas numerals were re- served for dates and monetary amounts.8 The head of the ten-book tradition and our oldest surviving witness (II,saec. v ex.), now reduced to just six leaves preserving the text only of Letters 2.20.13-3.5.4, shows both cardinal and ordinal numbers written out, and contemporary in- scriptional evidence to be adduced below indicates that in Pliny's day ages represented by the formula nondum compleverat annos tot were normally spelled out in words.9 It therefore seems probable that in describing Minicia's age at death, Pliny wrote out the figure verbally. The question that needs to be asked, then, unless we suppose that the same scribal error (xiiiiin for xiiiim) arose independently and late in separate branches of the tradition, is how the common ancestor of the eight- and nine-book families of manuscripts came to preserve a Ro- man numeral here, when elsewhere it apparently represented ages with words. Surely it is more plausible to suppose that it did not and that the translation from a verbal to a numerical representation of Minicia's age occurred after the two branches of the family had split, in which case the likelihood of an identical error underlying the reading XI111 transmitted in both traditions becomes more remote. Certainty in these mat- ters cannot be expected, but unless we are prepared to posit an un- usually deep corruption-tredecim copied to xiii, misread as xiiii, and converted back to quattuordecim-in the early stages of transmission in antiquity, prior to the creation of the parent of the eight- and nine-book families, we must conclude that in substance, at least, if not in form, the manuscripts correctly report the number that Pliny wrote: quattuor- decim. How, then, to resolve the discrepancy? Consideration of the diverse contexts from which our information derives suggests that emendation may be unnecessary

Tombstones purporting to indicate the age at death of the de- ceased tend, naturally, toward a spurious precision. The same cannot be said of a consular orator revising his more carefully written correspon- dence (epistulae curatius scriptae, 1.1.1) for publication as a literary opus. Here in particular the theme called for discriminating treatment.

8Ages are written out at Ep. 1.12.4, 11 (see below, note 14), 3.1.10, 7.4.2, 10.79.2 (10.80); cf. 8.5.1 (below, note 15). Jacques and van Ooteghem (Index 965) register the passages where Roman numerals are preserved. For the various branches of the manu- script tradition of Pliny's Letters see briefly Reynolds, "The Younger Pliny"

9See Lowe and Rand, Sixth-Century Fragment (Pierpont Morgan Library M.462) at 2.20.13, 3.1.4, 3.1.7-8, 3.1.10, 3.2.3.

The special pathos of the maiden snatched away just before marriage, enshrined already in Sophocles' Antigone, had by Pliny's day grown into a well-worn topos demanding, among other things, a nuanced ap- preciation of the poignancy of the loss.I0 That Pliny was prepared to comply with conventional expectations in exploiting the motif may be seen from his novel adaptation of a standard device designed to convey the desiderated tragic irony: a catalogue of ambivalent images drawn from the marriage and funeral rites, arranged in pairs, and represented as a series of dismal exchanges. Where traditional treatments focused on the bride and the central paraphernalia of the two ceremonies (fu- neral torches for wedding tapers, a dirge for a marriage hymn, a bier for a bridal bed, and so on), Pliny alludes instead-and self-consciously, as his parenthetical aside shows-to the father's ancillary role in procur- ing the requisite accessories: . . . audivi Fundanum ipsum, ut multa luctuosa dolor invenit, praecipientem, quod in vestes margarita gem- mas fuerat erogaturus, hoc in tus et unguenta et odores impenderetur

(5.16.6).11 Where literary modeling of this sort is so patently contrived, biometrical precision in the matter of the girl's age at death is hardly to be expected. Nor is it found.

In searching for a delicate way to suggest the premature termina- tion of youth, Pliny invoked an age that conveyed to contemporary readers the incipient advance of puberty, an age agreed upon by medical and popular opinion alike as marking the boundary between childhood and adolescence. Lawyers fixed the minimum age for many rights and responsibilities at fourteen for boys and twelve for girls, but conven- tional wisdom-based, as always, on empirical observation-tended to regard fourteen as the age of sexual maturity in girls as well as in boys, and a popular system of measuring life in hebdomads, grounded in numerical symbolism and credited by followers of Hippocrates to So-

IOA staple of the Hellenistic epigrammatists (e.g., Anth. Pal. 7.182, 186, 188, 711, 712) and the authors of funerary poems (e.g., Peek, Grab-Epigramme nos. 683, 988, 1238), the motif was popular also with the novelists (Apul. Met. 4.33.4; Ach. Tat. 1.13.5-6; Xen. Eph. 3.7.2; Heliod. 2.29.3-4, 10.16.10) and in Pliny's day was sometimes found even in more elevated forms (e.g., Sil. Pun. 13.547): see further Seaford, "Tragic Wedding" 106-10, and Rehm, Marriage to Death, on Soph. Ant. 810-13 and related examples in tragedy; Szepessy, "The Girl Who Died"; and, more generally on the "death of a maiden" motif in epitaphs, Lattimore, Themes in Epitaphs 192-94.

"Sen. Contr. 6.6, versae sunt in exsequias nuptiae muratusque genialis lectus in funebrem, subiecrae rogo felices faces, illustrates the banality of the conceit in less skilled hands.


lon, naturally saw the end of the fourteenth year as marking the transi- tion from childhood to youth in both sexes.l2 In alluding to this water- shed, Pliny does not in fact pretend to say precisely at what age Minicia died; he merely observes that she had not yet completed a certain stage of life. Not yet, but nearly so, for she bore the virginal charms of youth with a wisdom and dignity beyond her years: nondum annos quattuor- decim impleverat, et iam illi anilis prudentia, matronalis gravitas erat et tamen suavitas puellaris cum virginali verecundia (5.16.2). In painting this picture of youth hovering at the threshold of maturity, Pliny embel- lishes the portrait with a motif drawn from a palette comprising the full array of feminine virtues, among which diversity of virtue ranked as a virtue itself.13 What mattered in this rhetorical setting, more than chronological precision, were thematic concinnity and unobtrusive- ness. Elsewhere, when it was length of years that counted and veri- similitude was sought, Pliny could be clinically exact.14 The present context demanded subtlety and a lighter touch.

So, here, as elsewhere in eulogizing the dead, Pliny slips comfort- ably and unobtrusively into the language of epitaph.15 The dactylic phrase nondum tot compleverat annos and its variants occur so fre- quently in Latin inscriptions of the early imperial period (always, it seems, with the number written out verbally) that we may assume a popular association of the formula with funerary commemoration. l6 At the same time, the verbs implere and complere in Pliny's day had come

I2Legal barriers: CIL IZ 594 = FIRA 12 21 (/ex col. Gen. lul.) ch. 98; Dig. 28.1.5, . (Ulpian); Macr. Sat. 7.7.6; and below, note 19. Medical opinion: Soran. Gynaec. 1.20, setting the age of menarche "generally around the fourteenth year"; Galen 17 (2) 6.37.8-9,792.12-13 K.; cf. Macr. Somn. 1.6.71,post annos autem bis septem ipsae aetatis necessitate pubescit. tunc enim moveri incipit vis generationis in masculis et purgatio feminarum. Hebdomancy: e.g., Philo Op. Mundi 103-5; Censor. 7.2; Hieron. Epist. 32.9, Amos 6. See further Eyben, "View of Puberty" 695-96.

13Compare Pliny's enthusiasm for the elderly spouse of Macrinus: quor quantas- que virtutes, ex diversis aetatibus sumptas, collegit et miscuit! (Ep. 8.5.1).

I4Cf.Ep. 1.12.4,11, on the suicide of Corellius Rufus after a long struggle with gout, tertio et tricensimo anno, ut ipsum audiebam, pedum dolore correptus est. . . . implevit quidem annum septimum et sexagensimum; and see note 15 below.

I5Cf.Ep. 8.5.1, on the marriage of Macrinus, upon the death of his wife, vixit cum hac viginti novem annis sine iurgio sine offensa, with, e.g., CIL IX 1530, sine iurg(io) sine querella; VI 8438, sine ulla offensa; further, Lattimore, Themes in Epitaphs 279-80, citing scores of examples with numerous slight variations.

IhE.g.,CIL I11 9418 (CLE 1141), VI 21151 (CLE 398), 23010 (CLE503), 25617 (CLE 965, of A.D. lo), 37412 (CLE 2125); ICUR 111 8234 (CLE 735); CIL XIV 2737 (CLE 1297).

to apply in temporal contexts not only to the duration of a specific period of time (years, months, and days) but also, more generally, to the completion or fulfillment of a recognized stage of life (infancy, youth, old age, etc.).17 When the two usages overlapped, any original distinc- tion in meaning tended to become blurred. Compare, for example, a tombstone set up at Beneventum by a bereaved father for a young daughter whose "youth had already twice filled out six years and was holding out the promise of marriage" (bis mihi iarn senos aetas imple- verat annos / spernque dabat We do not know how old the girl was when she died, but it would be rash to assume she had not completed her thirteenth year, since the collocation of references to a twelfth birthday and the prospect of matrimony, though it may inciden- tally point to her actual age, was probably intended in the first place to indicate her eligibility for a formal marriage under Roman law.I9

Lawyers set the minimum limit, but attention to a prospective bride's physical development, as well as to her age in years, no doubt normally played a part in considerations of her readiness for married life.20 That some Romans regarded thirteen as the right age for a girl to marry is shown by a metrical epitaph discovered near Pozzuoli, which combines a popular element from the "death of a bride" motif (the marriage torch turned to the funeral) with a clear statement that the deceased, who died at thirteen, had reached the age for the bridal bed:

quae thalamis aetas fuerat iam nubilis apta / destituit sponsumJlebilis et
I7Cf. Ov. Met. 3.312, maternaque tempora complet ("bring a pregnancy to term"; cf. 11.311); Tac. Ann. 4.58.3, extremum senectam compleverit; and, somewhat later, Dig. (Papinian), puberem aetatem complevit (probably "finish adolescence"-cf. Dig. [Ulpian]; below, note 22-rather than "reach puberty"); (Ulpian), cum nubilem aetatem complesset. The sense of "arriving at" a definite point in life probably grew out of legal usage: cf. Dig. (Scaevola) and 36.1.48 (Javolenus), both concerning a designated age of inheritance, and see further TLL S.V. compleo I11 2095.63-69, s.v. impleo, VII 634.71-635.15.

18CIL IX 1817 (CLE 1055).

I9Cf. Cod. lust. 5.4.24, post duodecim~rm annum; Cass. Dio 54.16.7; Dig. 23.1.9 (Ulpian). Some girls of course did in fact marry during their thirteenth year: e.g., CIL VI 3604, 10867, 29324.

ZOThe jurist Labeo is typically direct: non potest videri nupta quae virum pati non potest (Dig. 36.2.30); cf. Fest. p. 250 M.,femina a duodecim (sc. annis) viripotens, sive patiens; Servius at Aen. 7.53, "iam matura viro, iam plenis nubilis annis"; CIL XI1 743 (CLE 454), of a girl dead at seventeen, . . .pervixit virgo; ubi iam matura placebat, nuptias indixit; further, Gardner, Women 38-41, and Treggiari, Roman Marriage 39-42.


s0ceros.2~At Rome, it seems, many girls did indeed marry young, be- tween the ages of eleven and thirteen (Morizot, "L'iige au mariage"); elsewhere in Italy and the western provinces a first marriage came more normally, perhaps, in the late teens (Shaw, "Age of Roman Girls at Marriage"). What is more to the point, the emperor Hadrian evidently regarded girls as having attained full puberty at fourteen; beyond that age alimentary support was felt to be no longer necessary.22 Such was the enlightened social thinking of Pliny's day, and it is with its norms that his own attitudes generally conformed.

When the young daughter of his friend Minicius Fundanus died shortly before her wedding day, the unfortunate but happy coincidence of social circumstance and literary convention made Pliny's artistic path clear. The epitaph inscribed on her monument duly recorded for posterity the total sum of her days of life; it fell to Pliny, writing too for posterity but in a different medium and with a different purpose, to lament the loss of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, ripe for the mar- riage of which she was now cruelly deprived. Both texts purport to represent her age at death. Neither is demonstrably accurate, and yet each, within its rhetorical and cultural context, is perfectly correct.


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21AE1974, 260, dated by the editor (D'Arms, "Inscriptions from Puteoli" 165) to the early second century A.D.

22Dig. (Ulpian). For the concept of plena pubertas see Dig. (Modestinus); Inst. 1.11.4; Censor. 7.3 (setting it at seventeen).

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