Terminus: concedo nulli

The image above is from a lavish Carolingian manuscript (Vat.Pal.lat.1564 fol.50v) made at Aachen c.825. The manuscript incorporates fragments of various Roman Agrimensores, or gromatic writers, including Frontinus and Siculus Flaccus, who wrote technical treatises on the rather complicated practice of surveying land in Rome. As a whole, the Latin of the fragments is quite corrupt, and was first systematically analyzed by the superb classical scholar Karl Lachmann in 1848. For this particular passage, ascribed to a certain Latinus v.p. Togatus, the text reads: Terminus sive petra naturalis si branca lupi habuerit facta, arborem peregrinam significat. Terminus sive petra naturalis si branca ursi habuerit lucum significat. So, among buried shards of pottery, Greek letters gamma and coins, we have a boundary-stone with a wolf’s claw signifying an exotic tree (if we are to remember Pliny, the peach tree comes to mind, as does a scribal error for a third-declension plural). We also have a stone with a bear’s claw (branca ursi) that signifies a sacred grove.

Interestingly, small illuminations of blocks of stone are inserted directly into the text; they are nothing like the Roman adaptation of Greek herma to which Erasmus applied his motto. But one remembers the stories in Plutarch and Appian of wolves clawing at the boundary-stones of the Gracchi. Here, the images refuse to yield their place to text, and both are set in the vellum to provide a single, lucid explanation, and it’s strange to imagine this manuscript crossing the alps on the back of a mule after the fall of Heidelberg in 1622.