An ancient Latin inscription on the pyramids of Giza

The pyramids of Giza still retained their outer casing into the middle ages, and only lost it when the Arabs started to use it as a source of stone.  But in 1332 a German noble, Wilhelm von Boldensele, while on pilgrimage in the orient, visited the site.  In his Itinerarius Guelielmi de Boldensele in terram sanctam [1] he writes:

Beyond Babylonia (Cairo) and the river of paradise, in the direction of the desert that lies between Egypt and Africa, there are several monuments of the ancients, shaped like pyramids; two of them are amazingly large and high, with very large, polished stones, and on these I found characters inscribed in different languages. In one monument I came across the following Latin verses, chiselled in stone:

Vidi pyramidas sine te, dulcissime frater,
Et tibi, quod potui, lacrimas hie moesta profudi,
Et nostri memorem luctus hanc sculpo querelam.
Sit nomen Decimi Cetianni pyramide alta
Pontificis comitisque tuis, Trajane, triumphis
Lustra sex intra censoris consulis esse.

I have seen the pyramids in stone without you, beloved brother,
and for you I have grieved here as much as I could, and shed my tears;
And mindful of our grief I chisel this lament:
May the high pyramid know the name of Decimus Cetiannus,
The pontifex and companion of your triumphs, O Trajan,
(Who within six lustra was both censor and consul??).[2]

The inscription and the stone on which it was inscribed have long since vanished from the world.  But the name of D. Cetiannus, priest and companion of the emperor Trajan is preserved; because a German traveller twelve centuries later happened to write down the graffito.

I wonder what remains of antiquity might be mouldering in Arabic texts, unknown because Arabic literature is pretty much unknown and inaccessible, untranslated because unknown?

On the same inscription, see the following post.

UPDATE: 16 September 2019.  A twitter thread by the excellent Dr Kate Wiles here drew my attention to further information.  I don’t see any sign that this will be written up, and it would be a shame to lose what she and others uncovered.  She writes:

Some time around AD 120, a Roman woman, Terentia, visited the pyramids and, in the smooth limestone facing of the Great Pyramid, she carved a poem in memory of her brother.

‘I saw the pyramids without you, my dearest brother, and here I sadly shed tears for you, which is all I could do. And I inscribe this lament in memory of our grief. May thus be clearly visible on the high pyramid the name of Decimus Gentianus…’

… Emily Hemelrijk in her book Matrona Docta says: ‘The poem is no literary masterpiece’ but also admires Terentia’s ‘pretension in inscribing a poem on one of the great pyramids of Egypt’. ‘Her poem was meant for eternity’.

There is more in I.M. Plant, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, 2004, 155-6,[3] which tells us:[4]

Terentia was a Roman visitor to Egypt whose only known work is a poem which she composed as an epitaph for her brother, Decimus Terentius Gentianus, and had inscribed on the pyramid of Cheops. The poem was discovered and recorded in 1335 by a German pilgrim, Wilhelm von Boldensele. Since then all the limestone facing on the pyramid has been removed and the inscription itself has been lost. Terentia’s poem, as we have it, consists of six hexameters, but may originally have been longer.

We do know a little about her brother. Decimus Terentius Gentianus was consul suffectus under the Emperor Trajan in AD 116, and governor of Macedonia under Hadrian as a censitor in AD 120.2 This helps us to date Terentia’s visit to Egypt and her poem. Still in mourning for her brother, she chose the pyramid for her epitaph to provide a suitably grand and everlasting site for her tribute to him.^ She was proud of her brother’s political achievements at such a young age (under thirty), and the status and position in the imperial court that this reflected. Traditionally a man could not attain the rank of consul before he turned forty, though this Republican practice, codified in the Lex Vibia Annalis in 180 BC, was disregarded by the emperors who promoted themselves, family members and favourites without regard to the age limit. There is no other record of Terentius reaching the rank of censor, Terentia may have elevated her brother’s appointment as censitor in her poem to exaggerate his achievements.

It has been suggested that Terentia visited Egypt as a member of Hadrian’s touring party in AD 130. This may be so but there is no evidence for it, and Terentia’s epitaph must have been written after AD 130 as the Historia Augusta (23) records that Terentius did not die until after Hadrian’s tour.

Terentius had been popular in the senate and at one time considered a possible successor by Hadrian. Terentia’s poem is all the more remarkable for her boldness in lauding a politician who had fallen out of favour with the reigning emperor. Terentia looks back to the success of her brother under Trajan, whom she addresses, but does not mention Hadrian at all. Perhaps Egypt was far enough away from Rome for such political graffiti to pass unnoticed. Terentia did not need to travel to Egypt with the Emperor: evidence from the graffiti on the statue of Memnon shows that there was considerable Roman tourism in Egypt by both men and women.

Terentia’s poem can be compared with the epigrams by Caecilia Trebulla and Julia Balbilla, inscribed in the time of Hadrian on the Colossus of Memnon, as examples of occasional poetry. They show that at this time women of the Roman elite were literate—Terentia adapts a verse of Horace in line three—and could express themselves well in verse.

The text itself is better known as the Liber de quibusdam ultramarinis partibus et praecipue de Terra Sancta.  A critical edition was printed by Deluz in 1972: “O. Deluz, Liber de quibusdam ultramarinis partibus et praecipue de terra sancta de Guillaume de Boldenses (1336), suivi de la traduction de Frère Jean de Long (1351), Paris (Diss. masch.) 1972 aus einer Baseler Hs.”[5]

Written when it was, it circulated in manuscript copies, as did a French translation.  R. Rohricht, Bibliotheca Geographica Palestinae (1890; online here) lists 25 mss. for Boldensele (p.73), 4 in Munich alone:[6]

Thomas Schmid located one of the Vienna mss, number 523, online here.  The catalogue suggests that the manuscript is 14th century, but I’m not entirely certain of the full shelfmark.  The text is on image 30 – this seems to be folio 10v – where it fills the first column (click for a larger size):

A more modern but partial list of manuscripts is accessible at Cendari here.  Finally an excellent list of manuscripts and bibliography is at Arlima here.  This gives the following mss:

  1. Basel, Öffentliche Bibliothek der Universität, D. IV, 8 (anc. E. III. 20)
  2. Bruxelles, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, 8779
  3. Colmar, Bibliothèque municipale, 228, f. 12a-29b.  Online here.
  4. Den Haag, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Z. 183, f. 1-14
  5. Giessen, Universitätsbibliothek, 159, f. 1-12.  Online here.
  6. Klosterneuburg, Stiftsbibliothek, ?? (Pez, Thaur. I A, LXXXVII)
  7. Lambach, Stiftsbibliothek, ?? (Tübing. Theol. Quartalschr. 1868, 326)
  8. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Suppl. lat. 322
  9. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 903, f. 174-196
  10. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 18621, f. 83-122
  11. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 22377, f. 183-190
  12. München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 27006
  13. Namur, Bibliothèque municipale, 50
  14. Praha, Archiv pražského hradu, Knihovna metropolitní kapituly, G. 42
  15. Praha, Archiv pražského hradu, Knihovna metropolitní kapituly, N. 13
  16. Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, 737, f. 169-175
  17. Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reginensi latini, 171
  18. Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 523
  19. Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 3529, f. 132-153
  20. Wilna, Gräfl. Potocklische Bibliothek, [sans cote], f. 188-201
  21. Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Weissenb. 40, f. 95-110 (B b 2)
  22. Wrocław, Biblioteka uniwersytecka, IV, 37, 4°
  23. localisation actuelle inconnue: Straubing, Cod. d. früheren Dechantan Matthias Ebersperger (B b I)
  24. localisation actuelle inconnue: anc. ms. Cheltenham, Sir Thomas Phillipps, n° 6650

The last item, according to Worldcat, is in fact at the University of Minnesota in the USA, here.

All of these are presumably copies.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if the autograph existed somewhere?

  1. [1]No modern edition seems to exist: my source is a translation of extracts in J.P.A. Van der Vin, Travellers to Greece and Constantinople. Ancient Monuments and Old Traditions  in Medieval Travellers’ Tales (PIHANS 49), 1980. [27 cm, softcover; X, 751 (2 vols.)].  ISBN: 90-6258-049-1. p.574 f, esp. p.577-8.  Downloadable here.
  2. [2]Text and translation from Van der Vin.
  3. [3]Google Books preview here.
  4. [4]I could only view the introduction.  There are copious notes, but I could not view these either.
  5. [5]Information and further bibliography from here.
  6. [6]These details and image from Phil Booth.

9 thoughts on “An ancient Latin inscription on the pyramids of Giza

  1. To find basic bibliographic information on editions of and commentary on medieval historical writings (incl. travel accounts) from areas then under German rule, use the Bavarian Academy of Sciences’ online _Repertorium “Geschichtsquellen des deutschen Mittelalters”_. The latter’s entry for Guilielmus de Boldensele is here:
    and its entry for Ludolfus de Sudheim is here:

    The _Repertorium_’s entry on Boldensele includes a listing for C. L. Grotefend’s edition of this work in _Zeitschrift des Historischen Vereins für Niedersachsen_, Jahrgang 1852 (publ. 1855). Quick Googling of that journal title will show that the volume in question is available on the Web in a digitization by the BSB in Munich at:
    This edition forms item no. 2 in Grotefend’s “Die Edelherren von Boldensele oder Boldensen” and begins on p. 226 [image/scan no. 234]; the edited text begins on p. 236 [image/scan no. 244]. Happy reading!

    Buecheler edited the poem in fasc. 1 of his BT _Carmina latina epigraphica_, where it is no. 270 on pp. 130-131. A digitization of that volume is here (I found it by Googling “boldenseli”):
    Note his solution to the problem of _esse_ in the poem’s final line.

  2. Thank you very much indeed for these details; how to find these texts is the sort of information that someone like myself will not know.

  3. Also see the poem on Diotima, where the author is called Terentia
    Lots of info by googling “Vidi pyramidas sine te”, including this helpful page, which notes it is in CIL 3.21
    Also written up on p. 56 of Jane Stevenson, Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority, from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 2005

  4. Thank you so much for the Diotima page on Terentia: clearly the author has done some of the legwork for us already! The other material is a good idea: I was too much on the run to look!

    The name, then, he reckons is “Decimus Terentius Gentianus”. That makes sense.

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