Pompeii and Pigs

An exhibit and an inscription

One recent weekend, my family and I jumped on a train that took us to Oxford, more specifically, the Ashmolean Museum. I’ve mentioned the place previously and described it to my son as the British Museum’s much quirkier cousin.

The draw on this day was an exhibition in which I was quite interested, “Last Supper in Pompeii”, which tells the story of Roman food and drink culture. In Gods & Heroes, we provided players with delicious food and drinks such as:

  • Caecubum: Caecuban wine, known as the finest in the ancient world, produced on a coastal plain of Latium.
  • Locustum Elixam: boiled lobster.
  • Lucanicae: Lucanian sausages, this area of the Southern Italic Peninsula apparently produced excellent cased ground meats.
  • Posca: a drink made of vinegar, water, and herbs, somewhat like modern shrub.
  • Ptisanarium: a barley drink similar to horchata—odd because the Spanish word comes ultimately from Latin hordeum, “barley”, though our word tisane, meaning a medicinal drink comes from ptisanarium.

I cribbed many of the foods from the 1st century AD cookbook attributed to Caelius Apicius, De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), the oldest surviving European one, and which also formed an important cornerstone of the Ashmolean exhibit, with many descriptions of its dishes as well as corresponding cookware appearing.

One surprising item in particular was related to a dish from the book, glires—dormice, either stuffed with pork, pine nuts, and spices and baked, or roasted and dipped in honey, a taste apparently handed down from the Etruscans. This was a terracotta jar called a glirarium in which the live rodents were kept, and given loads of walnuts, chestnuts, and acorns. the jar had air holes, but was impossible for them to climb out of and was kept dark so they would think it was time to hibernate and stuff themselves, similar to the fattening process the modern French use for ortolans, their songbird delicacy.

Something else caught my eye as well, mostly because it was so cute: a small silver votive figurine of a chubby piglet. This was clearly the same type of ex-voto I’ve described previously. The Ashmolean placed it within a section about the atrium of the Roman home, specifically in the lararium, where it most certainly would not have appeared in ancient times (though it was linked thematically with artifacts that did, so I get it). Instead, of course, such an item would be placed in a shrine of the god to which it was dedicated, in this case, Hercules (and it also hails from Herculaneum, where there must’ve been at least one important one), with its form a likely reference to the Erymanthian Boar (aper Erymanthius), the capture of which made up his fourth labor.

The piglet bears an inscription as such items invariably do:

HER•VOE•M•L•

The exhibition’s description of the item, which struck me as incorrect, rendered this as:

HERculi VOEsius Marci Libertus

To Hercules from Voesius, Freedman of Marcus

Looking into other sources, I found in the Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/ Slaby (EDCS) something entirely different, but with which I also did not agree:

HERculi VOt(E)um (solvit) Merito Libens

To Hercules, (he) fulfills? (his vow) willingly and deservedly

My own rendering splits the difference:

HERculi VOEsius votum solvit Merito Libens

To Hercules, Voesius (fulfills his vow) willingly and deservedly

How did I reach this conclusion?

Let’s begin with the problems with the Ashmolean’s version. The formulae for this type of religio-magical inscription are, naturally, quite important. If the inscription was from a secular setting and read simply VOE M L, I’d be fully on board with their interpretation of it as an extended name, and in such M is always Marcus. On a votive, however, the VSLM formula is ubiquitous, and reading this as a further shortening of this initialism seems on steadier ground. Additionally, though the piglet is not large, and likely hollow as many such objects are, it’s still quite a bit of silver and the workmanship is quite lovely, so I’d tend to think it would be beyond the means of a freedman.

As for the other interpretation, the EDCS relies on the VSLM formula a bit too much. Latin not only contains no form of votum inflected or otherwise with voe in it, there’s no word of any kind with that cluster of letters, so instead they’re positing an odd abbreviation. Furthermore, the S for solvit is still missing. More compelling still is that the name of the vow-keeper would also be missing in this version, and names are clearly of major importance: the simplest defixio (curse tablet) is a Nixonesque list of the names of those being cursed, for example. Hercules needs to know that it is Voesius who has repaid him.

Of course all this is my opinion and for that matter based on rather limited information. I do feel certain this silver figurine represents the mythic boar though. The beast of Erymanthus was white like Moby Dick, and silver and white are often used interchangeably in Latin. Rather than being docile this little guy has his head raised proudly with an anthropomorphic, intelligent, and defiant gaze. The beast was also one of the few Hercules captured alive and King Eurystheus of Tiryns, who ordered the labors, had to beg him to take the fearsome creature away. As such, the Erymanthian boar would have been the symbol of an untameable spirit of the wilderness.

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