I have just spent a week in Swat, N.-W. Pakistan, the guest of Dr. Luca M. Olivieri and the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, based in Saidu Sharif. I had been planning to blog a daily journal once I was back in the U.K., but the best-laid plans, etc.: a bout of food poisoning got in the way, and I’ll blog selected highlights over the next few months instead. Today I’m starting with one of the last sites I visited, which was also one of the most memorable.
Jahanabad lies in a side valley off the main River Swat. The road from Saidu Sharif and Mingora tracks along the edge of the main river: when Aurel Stein visited in 1926 there was no road, and he had to ride his horse through the river. Then at Manglor or Manglawar we turned up to the right, and before long we could see what we were aiming for: a huge 7th-century Buddha carved on a cliff dominating the approach up the valley. At six metres tall the Jahanabad Buddha was claimed to be the largest carved buddha in Central Asia after the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The connection to Bamiyan would prove to be regrettably apt in other ways.
Seeing the Buddha from afar is one thing. To get up close to it you walk up the mountain through an orchard of persimmon trees underplanted with onions (which scented the path), fragments of ancients structures visible at the edges of the orchard. I was being led by Akhtar Munir, also known as Tota, who as a young man (he showed me a photo) had worked for Giuseppe Tucci, the great Italian scholar who established what is now called ISMEO, Associazione Internazionale di Studi sul Mediterraneo e l’Oriente, and the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan, based at the Mission House in Saidu Sharif. Tota and I communicated in basic Italian on this hillside in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to the intense amusement of the policeman who was accompanying us, and Tota put me to shame with the cracking pace he set as we climbed. He was careful, as we went, to pick out an ancient staircase that survived in fragments up the mountain–the original staircase associated with access by the pious to the Buddha image above.
We passed a spring, then at length emerged onto a ledge below the Buddha image. In 1926 Aurel Stein commented how difficult it was to take a decent photo, and this is partly because, as restorers of the image recently discovered, it is designed to be viewed from a precise location ten metres below it. The head alone is 1.6m high, rendered disproportionately large for reasons of perspective. My best shot, with apologies:
The Buddha may be hard to photograph, but the view back down the valley toward Manglawar and the Swat river conveys how dominant was the position occupied by the Buddha. Tota and the policeman are taking a breather in the foreground:
We were in fact in the middle of a massive ritual complex. The architectural fragments in the orchards below were what remained of a Buddhist monastery encompassing the spring, with the staircase rising up through the monastery toward the Buddha. Above us, on the top of the mountain, were the remains of a stupa, to which paths from our location led up. Further images and inscribed rocks in the vicinity, and caves with indications of ritual use, confirm how significant a cult centre it was in its day.
In a recent article (“The itinerary of O rgyan pa in Swat/Uddiyana (second half of 13th Century)”, Journal of Asian Civilizations 40 ), Dr Olivieri establishes that additional confirmation of the site’s importance comes in an account by a Tibetan pilgrim to Swat (ancient Uddiyana) in the 13th Century, O rgyan pa (whose name means “the man of Uddiyana”: his trip made him famous), originally translated by Giuseppe Tucci in Travels of Tibetan pilgrims in the Swat valley (Calcutta, 1940), at p. 52. O rgyan pa describes a temple called Mangalaor, founded by king Indraboti, “where there are various stone images of Buddha (Munindra), Tara and Lokesvara” (aspects of the Buddha). Mangalaor must be Manglawar, and Indrabhuti, in the Tibetan tradition, was both himself an important teacher and also the spiritual father of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the figure credited with the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.
Aurel Stein may have complained about the difficulties of photographing the Jahanabad Buddha, but he also commented that its elevated position had protected it from anyone who might have wished it harm. In September 2007, however, the Buddha was defaced by Taliban looking to emulate the achievements of their fellow-militants over the border in Afghanistan. The attack on the image, with rockets and later explosives, was a highly symbolic gesture at a time when the Taliban were extending their control over Swat. In 2009 they also blew up a boulder decorated with an image of Avalokitesvara, “pre-eminently the dispenser of mercy and help in the northern Buddhist Pantheon” in Stein’s words. Over five seasons from 2012 Dr Olivieri and the Italian Mission have meticulously reconstructed the Buddha’s face, a task complicated further by the subtle issues of perspective mentioned earlier. The result is a fine piece of contemporary reconstruction, which advertises what is new but manages also to convey the impact of the original monument. The Avalokisvara boulder, blown to pieces by the Taliban, has also been reconstituted, and just this year was installed in the garden of the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif, itself almost entirely rebuilt after a huge bomb blast severely damaged it in 2008:
This story is bound to resonate with me, so reminiscent of Bamiyan but with an overwhelmingly positive outcome. More importantly, though, it illustrates both the determination of the people and authorities of Swat to preserve their incredibly rich archaeological environment, and the commitment of the Italian Mission to apply their academic and technical skills to supporting them in that task. The symbolism of this restored Buddha looking down over its valley is intensely powerful.
The archaeological study of Swat began with Aurel Stein’s visit to the princely state of Swat in 1926. (On Stein’s activities in the North-West Frontier Province and beyond, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, see this excellent account by Wannaporn Rienjang.) His description of the Buddhist remains in this valley in his popular account On Alexander’s Track to the Indus ends with some charming speculation about the persistence of ancient observation in this remarkable place (p. 80):
“About half a mile to the east of [Manglawar], alongside of the track leading up the valley, there are some large trees where wild-duck abound by day and night. They gather there in great numbers from their feeding-grounds on the network of channels and pools formed by the Swat river and the large stream that joins it from the side of Manglawar. The birds while in the trees or flying to and from them are considered sacrosanct, though elsewhere the Swatis eagerly shoot and trap them. No explanation was forthcoming of the asylum thus granted. Could it possibly be connected with the fact that the mound of the great ruined Stupa already mentioned rises not far off?”
A blog on something that caught my attention at a conference this week, an epitaph (AE 1928, no. 73) discovered in Rome in the 1920s:
Behold, traveller, the ashes of Sulpicia the reader,
to whom had been given the slave name Petale.
She had lived in number more than thirty-four years
and had given birth to a son, Aglaos, in this world.
She had seen all the good things of nature. She flourished in art.
She excelled in beauty. She had grown in talent.
Jealous Fate was unwilling for her to lead a lengthy time in life;
their very distaff failed the Fates.
The suggestion made during the conference was that what I’ve given as the translation of the first three words, “the ashes of Sulpicia the reader”, was only one option: they could also be read as “the ashes of the reader of Sulpicia”, i.e. Sulpicia was not the name of the dead woman, but of her employer or owner. In either case we’re dealing with a servant who apparently had the job of reading to her current or former owners. This person would be a rarely-attested example of a female reader, a lectrix rather than a male lector. If her name was Sulpicia she had certainly been freed, as I’ll explain, whereas if she was “of/belonging to Sulpicia” she might still be a slave; in the latter case, too, the identity of Sulpicia would offer scope for speculation.
I had not heard of this inscription before yesterday, but it struck me as obvious on reading it that the subject of the epitaph was Sulpicia Petale the lectrix, and that there was no other Sulpicia directly relevant to this inscription: it really wasn’t ambiguous. The key was the second line, quoi seruile datum nomen erat Petale, “to whom the slave name Petale had been given”. Why would the inscription specify the subject’s “slave name”, rather than simply recording her name as Petale, unless she was no longer a slave? And if, as it seems, she had been freed, why wouldn’t her freed name be given? Manumitted slaves assumed the name of their former masters: Tiro, freed by M. Tullius Cicero, became M. Tullius Tiro. If Petale had belonged to Cicero and then been freed, she would have become Tullia Petale. Our Petale belonged to a family of Sulpicii, hence when freed became Sulpicia Petale. What the first couplet of this epitaph is doing, then, is naming the dead person, albeit in a more elaborate fashion than usual. “These are the remains of Sulpicia, whose name when a slave was Petale.” Her respectable name leads; her older, slave name is consigned to the end of the couplet. It’s very elegant composition, and that can’t be said of everything in this poem.
I really can’t think of any other way of understanding the second line, and I find the popularity of the idea that there’s ambiguity here quite hard to fathom. For that matter, an epitaph beginning not with the name of the person honoured but their employer or owner seems awkward even in a Roman context, and taking Sulpiciae as governed by lectricis and unrelated to cineres feels like a very unnatural way of reading the Latin. Nevertheless this is a reading found in all the recent discussions of the inscription that I’ve seen, and it originated with no less an eminence than Jérôme Carcopino, who introduced the newly-found inscription to the Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France in 1928: “De Sulpicia la lectrice (ou: De la lectrice de Sulpicia?)” is the translation he offered of Sulpiciae … lectricis.
Carcopino’s interest in this inscription, as expressed in his presentation to the Société, explicitly consists in the possibility that it offers a connection to the most celebrated bearer of the name Sulpicia. This Sulpicia was a poet some of whose compositions (which poems in particular is fiercely debated) are included in the third book of Tibullus’ elegies: she is in fact the only female poet in Latin whose poetry survives from antiquity (Carcopino speculates that this epitaph is another one of her poems), and in the past this has drawn to her an interesting kind of attention. Mathilde Skoie’s book in the bibliography is a brilliant study of the reception of Sulpicia from the Renaissance onwards, responses she sees as united by a determination “to write scandal out of the text”, a refusal to acknowledge the truly scandalous force of a woman speaking of sexual desire in the context of a culture as male-dominated as Rome (cf. Stevenson 36). Carcopino doesn’t escape this style of patronising chivalry himself, speculating that Petale’s name, which suggests Greek petalon, a leaf, bears a resemblance to the name of Sulpicia’s lover in her elegies, Cerinthus, from kerinthon, honeywort, “as if, in the house of Sulpicia, all the names she gave had to breathe a perfume similarly mingled with flowers and Hellenism.” Hmm, though, to be fair, he does also study the language of the epitaph, concluding that it could be dated to late Republic/early Empire–Sulpicia the elegist’s time, in other words.
If seems clear enough that nobody would have paid much attention to this inscription if it hadn’t featured the name Sulpicia. But I think I’d go further and say that it’s this wish to find Sulpicia the poet in the epitaph that also explains the peculiar determination, in the face of fairly obvious objections, to find its opening ambiguous. Some kind of connection to the poet is not entirely precluded if we read “Sulpicia the lectrix” (she belonged to, and was freed by, people bearing the name Sulpicius), but it’s much more tenuous. If it were “the lectrix of Sulpicia”, on the other hand, there would be someone other than the dead woman identified as Sulpicia, and this Sulpicia would be someone who enjoyed having literature read to her.
Well, my concern in all this is really just a question of interpretation: I can’t make the Latin say what Carcopino and many others want it to be able to say. Not everything in this epitaph is crystal-clear, but the first couplet is: the dead woman was a Sulpicia with the slave name Petale, Sulpicia Petale. But there is another dimension to all this. Sulpicia the poet, while a truly remarkable individual, was the aristocratic daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus, renowned jurist and correspondent of Cicero, and niece of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, one of the most prominent figures in Augustan Rome, both in poetry and politics.
Sulpicia Petale had by sheer ability escaped slavery and earned the immortality represented by this versified inscription. Well, maybe that’s me being as sentimental as Carcopino, but I can’t help feeling that Sulpicia Petale, the real subject of this epitaph, is where we should be directing our attention.
M. J. Carcopino, “Épitaphe en vers de la lectrice Petale”, Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France 1929, 84–6;
P. Hallett, “Absent Roman Fathers in the writings of their daughters: Cornelia and Sulpicia”, in S. Huebner and D. M. Ratzan (eds.), Growing Up Fatherless in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2009), 175-91, at 187-90;
P. Hallett, “Ovid’s Thisbe and a Roman Woman Love Poet”, in B.W. Boyd and C. Fox (eds.), Approaches to Teaching World Literature: Ovid and Ovidianism (New York, 2010), 414-433, at 367-370;
P. Hallett, “Scenarios of Sulpiciae: moral discourses and immoral verses”, EuGeStA 1 (2011);
E. Hauser, “Optima tu proprii nominis auctor: The semantics of female authorship in ancient Rome, from Sulpicia to Proba”, EuGeStA 6 (2016);
M. Skoie, Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990 (Oxford, 2002);
J. Stevenson, Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2005), (on this inscription) 42-44.