Translation and notes copyright © 2000 John T. Quinn; all rights reserved.

        I’ve seen the pyramids without you, sweetest brother,
and here sorrow drained my tears — too small a gift.
I carve this lament, a memory of the grief we share.
So may there remain on this high pyramid the name
5Decimus Gentianus, priest and comrade, o Trajan,
at your triumphs, a censor & a consul before he was thirty.
        Vidi pyramidas sine te, dulcissime frater,
et tibi, quod potui, lacrimas hic maesta profudi,
et nostri memorem luctus hanc sculpo querelam.
Si<c> nomen Decimi <G>entia<n>i pyramide alta,
5pontificis comitisque tuis, Traiane, triumphis,
lustra<que> sex intra censoris, consulis, e<x>s<t>e<t>.

This poem was found and recorded in 1335 by a German visitor to Egypt, where it was carved into the limestone facing of the Pyramid of Cheops. Since, in the intervening centuries, all the facing was removed for use in new construction, the original inscription is now lost.

The feminine form “maesta” in the second line ensures that the voice of the poem is a woman’s. She was called Terentia, if, as is likely, the name which the German visitor garbled in the fourth line is that of Decimus Terentius Gentianus, consul suffectus under the Emperor Trajan in 116.

Terentia was not the only woman from Rome to inscribe occasional verse on ancient Egyptian monuments. The “Colossus of Memnon” (actually, the northernmost colossal statue of Amenhotep III in front of his mortuary temple at Thebes) contains seven poems (in Greek) written by Roman women. Four are the work of Julia Balbilla, who visited Egypt at approximately the same time as Terentia; three are by an otherwise unknown lady named Caecilia Trebulla.

See Emily A. Hemelrijk, Matrona Docta: Educated women in the Roman elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna (Routledge, 1999) 171-172 for a careful discussion of Terentia’s poem, and its connections with such traditions as tourist graffiti, sepulchral verse epitaphs, and Roman literature (Horace and Ovid, above all). Here I will only add that Terentia piquantly had the poem commemorating her “small gift” inscribed on the Great Pyramid – one way of associating the poem, and the brother it celebrates, with Horace’s own poetic monument, “higher than the royal placement of the pyramids” (Odes 3.30.2).

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