Martial’s epigram on Canace

Sarcophagus of a Roman girl
Sarcophagus of a Roman girl – from

The Latin Poet Martial (b. 38–41 AD, d. 102–104 AD), known for his ferocious satires in his Epigrams, also showed often in his writing a humane and compassionate personality, in particular towards the most powerless people: children and slaves. In particular Epigram 11.91 mourns a 7-year-old girl who died after having been disfigured by a horrible disease. The saddest thing is not death, but how it came.


Canace, one of the daughters of Aeolia, lies buried in this tomb, a little child whose seventh winter was her last. “O shame! O dire fate!” why are you in haste, traveller, to weep? We do not here complain of the shortness of life; sadder than death itself was the manner of it; a horrid disease destroyed her face, and seized upon her delicate mouth. The cruel foe devoured her very lips, nor was her body consigned entire to the funeral pile. If the fates intended to fall on her with such headlong violence, they should have come in some other form. But death hastened to close the passage of her sweet voice, lest her tongue should dissuade the stern goddesses from their purpose.

Source: Latin poem in Wikisource, English translation by The Tertullian Project.

Previously published on Agapeta, 2015/04/18.

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