Praetextatus – Death and Immortality: Immortality (Ch. 4.3)


Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – A Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.


CIL VI 1779 expresses the idea of immortality in three ways: first, because of Praetextatus’ philosophical studies, the gate of heaven lies open to him, porta quis caeli patet (v.9). Second, he has initiated Paulina into the mysteries and thus she has been freed from the fate of death, tu me, marite, disciplinarum bono puram ac pudicam sorte mortis eximens (v.22-23). Third, at the end of the poem Paulina is convinced that they will be reunited in the afterlife (v.38-41).

Sorte mortis eximens

During the Empire, Platonic philosophy and mystery cults were regarded as the two ways that could lead to the immortality of the soul. Plutarch, for example, to console his wife in the face of death, introduced her to the mysteries of Dionysus as well as Platonic philosophy.[1] The initiation into the mysteries has thus given Paulina the conviction of her personal immortality because by initiating her into the cults, Praetextatus has liberated her from death (v.22-25). The purpose of several expressions in the funerary poem is to manifest how Praetextatus and Paulina have become especially close to the gods through mysteries.[2] She is called the friend of gods, amica numinum (v.4 in part b), the handmaid of gods, famula divis (v.24) and hominum deumque consciam (v.17) and he is pius (v.15, 27) and doctus (v.13). He has found the divine secrets through mystery cults and conceals them in his heart (v.13-14).

At the very end of the poem Paulina assures herself that she will be together with her husband in the afterlife, for the unity of spouses is not interrupted by death. Maybe her words tua quia sum fuique postque mortem mox ero (v.40-41) are not only an expression of immortality but also an expression of her eternal fidelity as an univira. The idea of marital love lasting beyond death is a frequent theme of Latin funerary inscriptions; some of them attest that the married couple has been buried in the same grave, their mutual tomb being now their marital bed, e.g. quos iungit tumulus, iunxerat ut thalamus.[3]

Moving farewell words on pagan tomb inscriptions and farewell scenes on reliefs do not imply any certainty or belief in immortality; on the contrary, pagan epitaphs usually contain disillusioned lamentations or gloomy scepticism, manifesting resignation in the face of death. Bitter fatalism is expressed, for example, in a first-century dialogue between Atimetus and the deceased Homonoea where the surviving spouse laments the cruel fate of his wife while she asks him to stop weeping because tears are useless.[4] The dialogues between the spouses in Greek and Roman funerary poems express sorrow according to the genre, usually presented in a dialogue between a deceased person and a surviving one while Praetextatus’ and Paulina’s poem is a rare dialogue between the two dead persons.[5]

Furthermore, there is a striking difference between the resignation in earlier Latin pagan inscriptions and the optimistic tone and the happy longing for death in CIL VI 1779. Paulina’s conviction of immortality recalls more the tone in contemporary Christian texts than the tone in pagan ones. The certainty of personal salvation and happy longing for death appear in Christian funerary poems and in the texts of Christian writers, for example in Jerome’s letters when he consoles his friends whose nearest relatives have died. His letters to Marcella on Lea’s death, to Paula on Blesilla’s death, to Heliodorus on Nepotianus’ death are all full of consolation, encouragement and certainty of immortality.[6] Contrary to Christian texts, I have not found many pagan parallels for the immortality gained in the mysteries and even the few parallels are uncertain or otherwise obscure. In CIL VI 510 from 376, Sextilius Agesilaus Aedesius is said to have gained immortality or salvation in the rite of taurobolium, taurobolio criobolioq(ue) in aeternum renatus.[7]

The husband is snatched from his widow’s lap in CIL VI 1756 = CLE 1347, on the epitaph of Praetextatus’ Christian contemporary Petronius Probus, dilectae gremio raptus in aethra Probae (part a, v.10). The widow’s sorrow recalls Paulina’s grief in CIL VI 1779 as the wife is said to have been happy – even too happy! – as long as she had remained together with Probus. She had been worthy of her dignified husband and now she was worthy of a mutual tomb with him:

Solamen tanti coniux tamen optima luctus

Hoc Proba sortita est, iungat ut urna pares.

Felix, heu nimium felix, dum vita maneret,

Digno iuncta viro, digna simul tumulo (part a, v.15-18).

The certainty of immortality

Paulina’s last words in the funerary poem are an implicit expression of belief in immortality: though she mourns Praetextatus’ death, she comforts herself with the assurance that she will be together with her husband after her own death:

His nunc ademptis maesta coniunx maceror,

felix, maritum si superstitem mihi

divi dedissent, sed tamen felix, tua

quia sum fuique postque mortem mox ero (v.38-41).

It was obviously this expression of certainty that provoked Jerome’s sneers at Praetextatus in his letters to Marcella and Paula. Paulina felt happy (felix mentioned twice) because she believed that she would soon be reunited with her husband in heaven and Jerome answered, calling her an unhappy wife (uxor infelix, Hier. epist. 23.3) who mistakenly believed that her husband had reached the heavenly palace.

Paulina’s words could be interpreted as a strong and polemical assertion against all those who dared doubt Praetextatus’ immortality, Jerome among others. Moreover, her assurance of immortality might be targeted against the so-called Epicurean sceptic formulae frequent on pagan funerary inscriptions. The possibility of immortality in the afterlife is often denied on epitaphs, sometimes with the formula non fui, fui, non sum, non curo or in Greek **, in many variations.[8] In fact, a few funerary inscriptions clearly react against this nihilism, playing on the same words.[9] Tertullian also uses the same play on words in his Apology, qui non eras, factus es, cum iterum non eris, fies.[10] Paulina’s words tua quia sum fuique postque mortem ero could thus be interpreted as a manifestation of her belief in life after death, directed against this scepticism. Though Paulina mourns her separation from her husband, she is optimistic since the word maceror is twice followed by felix.

The astral immortality of the soul

When alluding to Praetextatus’ studies of literature and philosophy, Paulina refers to the wise to whom the gate of heaven lies open, soforum, porta quis (=quibus) caeli patet (v.9). This gate of heaven was believed to be the entrance through which the soul, separated from the body, arrived in heaven, its original home. The expression caeli porta patet already appears in the funerary epigram of Scipio Africanus composed by Ennius (quoted by Seneca): si fas endo plagas caelestum ascendere cuiquam est, / mi soli caeli maxima porta patet.[11]

The conception of the celestial origin and the astral immortality of the soul was commonplace in Graeco-Roman antiquity, e.g. in Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean texts. The Pythagoreans had already developed theories of the divine origin of the human soul and its relation with stars. The idea of the relationship between human souls and celestial bodies appears, for example, in Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Manilius’ Astronomica, Macrobius’ Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis and Firmicus Maternus’ Mathesis.[12]

In funerary inscriptions, especially on senatorial epitaphs, pagan as well as Christian, the deceased person is often depicted returning to the stars or already having reached the stars and staying with the gods.[13] Petronius Probus in CIL VI 1756 = CLE 1347 also reached the stars, vivit et astra tenet (v.12 in part b) and the heavenly ether, exuviis resolutus, in aetheris aequore tutum / curris iter cunctis integer a vitiis (part a, v.1-2). He lives blessed in the eternal abode of paradise and has put on the new garments of his heavenly office, vivit in aeterna paradisi sede beatus, / qui nova decedens muneris aetherii / vestimenta tulit (part a, v.23-25). There are two different contemporary aspects of immortality side by side in Petronius Probus’ poem, the astral immortality and Christian eternity. On the one hand Probus is snatched to the heavenly ether, raptus in aethra (v.10 in part b) and on the other hand Christ is asked to take him to his heavenly choirs, hunc tu, Christe, choris iungas caelestibus oro, v.27 in part a).[14]

There were two or three gates of heaven. According to Macrobius, the Tropic of Cancer was called the portal of men because souls descended through it from heaven to earth while the Tropic of Capricorn was called the portal of gods because souls returned through it to heaven and joined the gods. Some authors wrote that there were three gates of heaven: the first one at the sign of Scorpio, the second gate between the signs of Leo and Cancer and the third one between the signs of Aquarius and Pisces. Ideas of the cosmic wanderings of the soul and of the tropical signs as heavenly gates appear also in Proclus, Manilius and Arnobius.[15]

The gate of heaven, or heaven in general, is open also in Christian funerary inscriptions and in Christian literature, for example in expressions celi tibi paten(t); martyribus sanctis pateat quod regia caeli and certa fides iustis caelestia regna patere on the epitaph of Bishop Felix IV from the sixth century.[16] Claudian, when describing Emperor Theodosius’ ascent to heaven, speaks of the golden gates of heaven opening for the new divus: caeli rutilaeque patescunt / sponte fores.[17] Christian epitaphs refer to the ‘Christian’ afterlife with the expression in caelo, usually in plural in caelis or caelestia regna since the Christian image of otherworldly eternal happiness clearly was influenced by pagan conceptions of the heaven as the destination of human souls.[18]

Paulina’s words porta quis caeli patet (v.9) imply that Praetextatus has reached heaven. It was very important for Jerome to refute Paulina’s belief that the pagan Praetextatus had gained astral immortality after his death and therefore, in his consolation letter to Marcella he places Praetextatus in the disgusting darkness of hell, in contrast to Lea who was enjoying eternal happiness. Praetextatus did not, Jerome asserts, reach the heavenly palace of the Milky Way as the miserable widow thought.[19] His hostile words are a clear reference to the lines of the funerary poem in which Paulina mourns her husband, as it is shown in ch. 4.2.

Jerome’s expression in lacteo caeli palatio refers to the Milky Way, a route through which the gods travelled to heaven or it was their home.[20] It was often believed to be the way through which the human soul reached the stars or it was considered to be the place the soul reached finally after it was freed from its worldly burden.[21] Cicero asserted that all the great statesmen and heroes who had saved, aided or enlarged their patria were rewarded with a place in heavens or in the Milky Way.[22] The heroes of the Old Testament, Elias and Enoch also found their way to the Milky Way in the Christian poem of Paulinus of Nola.[23]

Pagan and Christian expressions of immortality

There are similar formulae and expressions in both pagan and Christian texts concerning immortality in the fourth century but is this similarity only superficial and limited to the level of expressions? G. Sanders has pointed out that Christian epitaphs refer to pagan beliefs very rarely though Christianity adapted and adopted various images from pagan conceptions of immortality and though expressions concerning the afterlife were connected with contemporary representations of the universe. Thus, he distinguishes the characteristic expressions of the genre from the content of the poems, admitting that there are similarities at the level of form but very rarely at the level of content for the symbiosis of the form does not imply the metabolism of the basis.[24] However, I wonder if the form and the content in funerary poems can be separated as simply as Sanders does.

In the fourth century different promises of personal salvation made by mystery religions and conceptions of the immortality of the soul spread by philosophical schools as well as monotheistic and syncretistic ideas of divinity, Judeo-Christian soteriology and eschatology seem to have melted into a common mentality. There was a common language with such slogans as heaven, hell or Tartarus, immortality, eternity, the communion of the holy, belief and salvation. These elements altogether formed the general climate of the ideas of immortality in the fourth century since the existential experience of mortality and death was common, a conditio humana.[25]


[1] Plut. consol. ad uxorem 611D. Cf. Arnob. nat. 1.62 attacks against the intellectuals who believed they could achieve immortality in external ways, through sacrifices and rites.

[2] Cf. ch. 2.3.

[3] CIL VI 25427 = CLE 1142. Cf. a Christian epitaph CLE 1432 where the spouse will be thalami tumulique comis after death. Other funerary poems of married couples: CIL VI 13548 = CLE 1559 = Lattimore 249: cara iungant corpora / haec rursum nostrae sed perpetuae nuptiae; CIL VI 20569 = CLE 1027 = Lattimore 249: manis si modo tangit amor.

[4] CIL VI 12652 = CLE 995: parce tuam, coniux, fletu quassare iuventam / fataque maerendo sollicitare mea! / Nil prosunt lacrimae nec possunt fata moveri. Cf. CIL I 1011 = CIL VI 9499 = ILS 7472 = CLE 959 = Lefkowitz – Fant 134 nr.137 = Courtney 168 nr.180 from the first century B.C.E., a moving farewell scene between the spouses, Aurelia Philematio and Aurelius Hermias. Lattimore 249; Lambrechts 44, 51, 53.

[5] Von Hesberg-Tonn 137-138; Lambrechts 14.

[6] Hier. epist. 23 ad Marcellam; epist. 39 ad Paulam; epist. 60 ad Heliodorum.

[7] CIL VI 510 = ILS 4152 = CIMRM 520 = CCCA 242. According to Sanders 1984b, 301-302 the expression in aeternum in the pagan inscriptions did not refer to salvation, e.g. in CIL VI 1080 = CIL VI 31236; and CIL VI 510 is not clear and cannot be clarified without comparative material. He asserts that renatus cannot be interpreted as rebirth into new, eternal life because there are no other similar pagan inscriptions. Burkert 25, 28 also asserts that “the dimension of an afterlife is much less obvious” in the documents of pagan mystery cults and a redirection towards otherworldly concerns is not to be found in the pagan mysteries. Cf. AE 1946, no. 84 from S. Prisca, v.11: pi(e) r(e)b(u)s renatum dulcibus atque creatum, v.14: et nos servasti (a)eternali sanguine fuso where the word (a)eternali cannot be read with certainty. Burkert 111-112; Sanders 1982, 226 n.20; Beard – North – Price 1998b, 318-319.

[8] The formula is abbreviated to NFNSNC. Variations: CIL VIII 2885=CLE 800: Non fueras / nunc es, iterum / nunc desines es/se; CIL VI 9258: Non fui et so (=sum), non ero, non mihi dolet; CIG III 6745=IG XIV 1201; CIL V 1939=CIL XI 6545: Non / fueram, non sum, / nescio, non ad me / pertin(et); CIL V 3415=CLE 1095: Nunc labor omnis [abest semper] / curaeque molest(a)e, / nec scio quit nunc sim, nec scio qu[it fuerim]; CIL XIII 530: Non fui, fui, me/mini, non sum, / non curo; CIL II 1434: N[i]l fui, nil sum. Et tu qui vivis, es, [bibe], lude, veni. Cumont 1928, 73-85 calls this negation of immortality ‘profession de foi épicurienne’.

[9] The play on words e.g. in CIL VI 13528 = CLE 1559: Hic corpus vatis Laberi, nam spiritus ivit / illuc unde ortus; quaerite fontem animae. / Quod fueram, non sum, sed rursus ero quod modo non sum, / ortus et occasus, vitaeque morsque itid(em) est.

[10] Tert. apol. 48.5-6: Recogita, quid fueris antequam esses. Utique nihil: meminisses enim, si quid fuisses. Qui ergo nihil fueras priusquam esses, idem nihil factus cum esse desieris, cur non possis rursus esse de nihilo, eiusdem ipsius auctoris voluntate, qui te voluit esse de nihilo? Quid novi tibi eveniet? Qui non eras, factus es, cum iterum non eris, fies.

[11] Sen. epist. 108.34. Cf. Cic. rep. 6.24-26: Bene meritis de patria quasi limes caeli aditum patet; Cic. Tusc. 1.30.72: iis ad illos a quibus essent profecti reditum facilem patere; Propert. 4.11.101: moribus et caelum patet.

[12] Cic. rep. 6.13-15; Manil. 4.910; Macr. somn. 1.11; 1.14.16; Firm. math. 1.5.10-12. For ancient views of the immortality of the soul, see Rougier 71-72, 80; Capelle 21-33; Pikhaus 295-297; Kajanto 34, 51; Janssens 74-75. Late Graeco-Roman Mithraism also stressed the astral ascension of the soul and Mithras was identified with Sol-Helios as the psychopompos who leads souls to heaven in Iul. caes. 336. Though Praetextatus was pater patrum, his paganism was not exclusively Mithraic. Turcan 183.

[13] E.g. CIL VI 13528 = CLE 1559: anima caelo reddita est; ICUR I 1001: quod tales animae protinus astra petunt. Sanders 1968a, 38-57; Sanders 1983, 280-281; Pikhaus 219-221, 301-304; Janssens 61-64, 75, 80-81, 310-312 with numerous examples of Christian epitaphs.

[14] Sanders 1983, 281; Matthews 1975, 195-196. Similar expressions, e.g. chorus deorum on the epitaph of the pagan Rufius Festus Avienius, CIL VI 537 = ILS 2944 = CLE 1530; Claud. cons. Stil. 2.421: nec minor in caelo chorus est; Roueché no. 157, v.5; Porph. vita Plot. 23. Cf. CIL VI 9663: inter deos receptus est; ICUR II 4226: mens est in celo recepta; ICUR VI 16650: a deo et san(c)tis acce(p)ta; Cic. rep. 6.16.

[15] Macr. somn. 1.12.1-2; Procl. in remp. 2 p.129 Kroll; Manilius 1.758-761; Ioseph. bell. iudaic.; Arnob. nat. 2.16. The moon was also regarded as a gate of heaven, Capelle 10-13. For the gates of heaven and the ascent of the soul, see Elferink 3-7; Syska 183; Lewy 1956, 182-184, 413-414; Gundel 566.

[16] ICUR II 4640; Epigrammata Damasiana, ed. A. Ferrua, Roma 1942, nr.39; ILCV 986. Tertullian refuted the widely spread views according to which heaven was already open for souls (Tert. anim. 55.3: nulli patet caelum terra adhuc salva) and pagan views of the open heaven, Tert. nat. 1.10.30; 2.10; 2.12. Finé 205-210.

[17] Claud. paneg. Honor. cos. III, 169-170.

[18] Kajanto 27-53, Janssens 61-64, 303-312, Solin 334 and Aronen 13-14 , with examples from Christian epitaphs and funerary poems.

[19] Hier. epist. 23.2-3. Cf. Hier. epist. 39.3.

[20] The Milky Way is called by several different names in literature and in inscriptions: in Latin lacteus orbis, lacteus circulus, galaxius, galaxeus, in Greek **, later **. Following Greek models Ovid. met. 1.168-169 describes the gods using the Milky Way as a highway to Zeus’ heavenly palace. Martianus Capella relates that the gods lived in the Milky Way, 2.208: iter in Galaxium flectit, ubi senatum deum a Iove noverat congregatum; 1.97: in palatia quae in Galaxia Iovis arbitri habitationem potissimam faciunt. For the Milky Way, see Gundel 561-564; Capelle 37-48; Nilsson 1954, 108-109.

[21] Procl. in remp. 2 p.129 Kroll; Porph. antr. nymph. 22-23; 27-29; Macr. somn. 1.12.13; Philopon. de aetern. mundi 7.20; Manil. 1.750-761, 799-802; Fav. Eul. 1.2: quod et immortalis esset animi mentisque substantia, et bene meritis de re publica patriaeque custodibus lactei circuli lucida ac candens habitatio deberetur; Dracont. carm. prof. 5.325-326: … scandens qua lacteus axis / vertitur, aetherii qua se dat circulus orbis; CIL III 9632 = CLE 1438: aetatis victrix dulcis obit nimium. / Sede beatorum recipit te lacteus orbis / e gremio matris: hoc tua digna fides.

[22] Cic. rep. 6.13: qui patriam conservaverint, adiuverint auxerint; also Cic. rep. 6.16: ea vita via est in caelum et in hunc coetum eorum, qui iam vixerunt et corpore laxati illum incolunt locum, quem vides, (erat autem splendidissimo candore inter flammas circus elucens), quem vos, ut a Graiis accepistis, orbem lacteum nuncupatis. Cf. Macr. somn. 1.4.3-4.

[23] Paul. Nol. carm. 5.37: pande viam, quae me post vincula corporis aegri / in sublime ferat, puri qua lactea caeli / semita ventosae superat vaga nubila lunae / qua proceres abiere pii quaque integer olim / raptus quadriiugo penetrat super aera curru / Elias et solido cum corpore praevius Enoch.

[24] Sanders 1968a, 47; Sanders 1968b, 76; Sanders 1977, 175; Sanders 1983, 280.

[25] Sanders 1984a, 368-369, 383; Sanders 1968b, 84 and Janssens 97 stress the differences while Pikhaus 306, Chuvin 262, Storoni Mazzolani 113, 131 and C.P. Jones 1982, 264-271 emphasize the similarities.

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