A 2500-Year-Old Tribute to a Lost Friend

ego vhontei ersiniioi 

vineti karis vivoi oliialekve murtuvoi atisteit

I (am a grave) for Fonts Ersinios

(He was) Vinetos’s friend. He (Vinetos?) sets (me) up for (him), whether alive or dead. 

(Venetic inscription on stone. Este, Italy. c. 500-475 BC. M. Lejeune “Manuel de la Langue Vénète”, #75 ter)

I was very struck by this inscription the first time I read it. Even though we don’t know exactly what the second line means, the emotion behind the inscription is apparent nonetheless.

Most Venetic graveDSC03933stones are very simple, and include just the name and rank of the deceased. Sometimes they also include the name of the person who set them up, and many are written as “speaking objects”, so that the grave refers to itself as “I”. Some, particularly from Padua, also include beautiful images of people in chariots or on horseback; gravestones from Este, though, like this one, are normally undecorated. (The image here is of a different gravestone which is similar in style, as unfortunately I don’t have a photo of the Fonts inscription on hand.)

This is one of the few gravestones from Este that tells us something more about the relationship between the writer and the dead. Traditionally, people have read the second line as one sentence, so that karis (a nominative noun which means something like “friend” or “beloved”, from the same root as the Latin adjective carus) is the subject of the verb atisteit “sets up”. But this leaves the writer strangely anonymous – why would he only identify himself as “a friend of Vinetos”? And how who would Vinetos be anyway? It seems more likely to me that we should divide the second line in two: the deceased Fonts was the friend of Vinetos, and it’s Vinetos who has set up the grave and written his tribute (a bit laconically, I accept).

The end of the line also gives us some trouble. The words vivoi and murtuvoi are easily identifiable as the adjectives “alive” and “dead” in the masculine singular dative. The word in the middle seems to be some kind of adverb, probably with the word -kve, “and”, on the end. There are all kinds of suggestions for what the adverb might mean. Is Fonts Ersinios “alive and unfortunately dead”? Or do these words tell us something about the circumstances – is the grave actually a cenotaph, set up for him “whether alive or dead”? For now, we don’t know exactly what this evocative inscription wants to tell us.

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