Caesar Hic Erat (Caesar was here!)
By Ben Paites, Collections and Learning Curator
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Roman Inscriptions in Colchester Museums’ Collections
The word ‘inscription’ comes from the Latin ‘inscriptio’, meaning ‘I write on something’ in English. Therefore, inscriptions can come in many different forms, from graffiti scratched or painted onto a surface to writing having been included in the design of the object. The following examples are some of my favourites from Colchester Museums’ collection, showing a range of different forms and some important discoveries.
Tombstone Of Longinus Sdapeze
Latin: LONGINVS SDAPEZE / MATYCI F[IL] DVPLICARIVS / ALA PRIMA TH[R]ACVM PACO / SARDI ANNO XL AN[N]OR XV / HEREDES SEXS TESTAM[ENTUM] / H[IC] S[ITVS] E[ST]
English: Longinus Sdapeze. Son of Mataycus, duplicarius of the First Squadron of Thracian cavalry from the district of Sardica. Aged 40, with 15 years of service. His inheritors had this erected in accordance with his will. Here he lies.
The tombstone of Longinus Sdapeze is one of my favourite objects in the museums. He was a low-ranking cavalry officer in the Roman army, who travelled all the way from his homeland in Sardica, modern day Bulgaria. He ended his days in Colchester where this large and impressive tombstone was made in his honour.
His story highlights how far people travelled in the Roman world. We know Roman Colchester would have been full of people from a diverse range of cultures from across the Roman Empire. North Africa, the Near East and much of Europe were under Roman rule at different points, with many people from these regions travelling to and settling in other parts of the Empire. Longinus’ story helps us explore ideas of diversity in Roman Britain.
Fragment Of A Roman Mixing Bowl (Mortarium)
A mortarium is a bowl, often with small stones or shell fragments embedded on the inside, used for grinding herbs and spices. Although you can find stamps in the form of potters’ marks on Roman mortaria it is rare to find any other writing on them.
Unfortunately, only one letter of the inscription survives, so it is impossible to know what the original writing said. Perhaps it was the name of the owner or gave instruction to the user. The Latin for “grind” is Molere, though the dot before the E in this inscription suggests the word began rather than ended in E.
A complete Roman mortarium.
Fragment Of A Wine Jar (Amphora)
Latin: FAL / LOLL
English: Falernian wine of Lollius
Amphoras are an iconic part of Roman culture. The large vessels used to transport wine, oil or even their famous fish sauce ‘Garum’ can be found across the Empire. Much like today, the Romans had a range of different products, all sold at different prices based on popularity and how far they had to travel.
Falernian wine was known to be incredibly popular across the Empire. The grapes were grown on Mount Falernus in Italy and there were three major types you could get. An inscription from Pompeii informs us a flagon of Falernian wine could be 4 times the cost of most other wines. Clearly the people of Roman Colchester had expensive taste!
An amphora (right) on display at Colchester Castle.
Fragment Of A Roman Urn
The Romans would often scratch their own graffiti onto ordinary kitchen vessels. This pot would have likely been used to contain ingredients in a Roman household, such as seeds or fresh fruit. These vessels were also sometimes used to carry cremated human remains, with many found buried in Roman cemeteries. However, none were found with this particular example.
The word scratched on the outside isn’t a familiar Latin word, though it is similar to the word ‘enervatus’, which means weakened. It could be that the contents of this vessel were once something that caused people to be weakened or sleepy. Alternatively, this could be an unfamiliar Roman name, referring to the owner of the contents. As many Roman names were inspired by the child at birth, this may have been a weak baby that was given a relevant name.
Fragment Of A Drinking Cup (Beaker)
Graffiti on vessels, much like the example above, are often found in visible locations, such as the body or rim. This example however has the writing on the base of the vessel, suggesting it was meant to be hidden.
Only three letters have been engraved onto this object, not forming any known Roman word or name, so this is likely an abbreviation. There are several Roman names beginning with Cat-, one famous example belonging to the author Catullus. However, without more context we can’t know for sure.
Another possible interpretation comes from the local archaeological unit, Colchester Archaeological Trust. I wonder if a cheeky archaeologist of the past scratched their acronym CAT on the base to mark the find?
Latin: DEO SILVANO / CALLIRIO D[ATO] / CINTVSMVS / AERARIVS / V S L M
English: Given to the God Silvanus / Callirius / Cintusmus / the coppersmith / duly and gladly fulfilled his vow.
A big aspect of Roman religion was communicating to the gods. Whether that was by making offerings and prayers at home or going to a temple to get a priest to do this on your behalf, it was important to thank the relevant deity if your prayers were answered. One way of doing this was by writing your message on a metal plaque and hammering it to a wall, usually at a temple or shrine.
This inscription is dedicated to a hybrid god, part Roman and part local to Britain. Silvanus was the Roman god of the forest and we can assume Callirius was the British equivalent. The Romans often merged their own gods with similar ones in the lands they conquered, creating these hybrids. We also know that this particular message came from Cintusmus, a coppersmith.
The final phrase of the inscription suggests Cintusmus had asked the god for something and promised to make this offering when the god provided what he had asked for. Perhaps he was making a journey through the woods and asked for safe passage or, as someone who would use wood a lot in their craft, perhaps he had secured a large quantity of wood for work?
Latin: FLAMMA SENOVARI
English: The flame of Senovarus
Sometimes you find graffiti carved onto personal items, usually with the name of the owner to make it clear who it belonged to. Knives are not commonly associated with dinning as the romans tended to eat with their fingers. However, knives were used in crafting to cut a range of materials to size. Therefore, personalised utensils, such as knives, likely belonged to a cook or craftsperson.
This particular example has an intriguing inscription, not just referring to the name of the owner. ‘The flame of Senovarus’ might have been a nickname the owner gave their knife, though it is unclear what connection flames have to cutting. Senovarus is a British name, so this would have been a local person too. Perhaps there is an unknown connection between knives and flames that was part of local British culture.
English: i oo e ee a u o (the Greek vowels)
Intaglios are carved stones, often showing characters from mythology or things from the natural world. They are placed into rings to be worn and used with hot wax to seal important documents. Each design is unique to the owner and acts as a signature. This intaglio has a design of the Roman god Harpocrates engraved on the front. Harpocrates was the god of secrets and confidentiality, making this is an especially appropriate image.
On the back of the intaglio is a fascinating piece of graffiti. The stone is Lapis Lazuli, making it an incredibly rare example of its type. Once again, usually personal items are engraved with the name of the owner, but this is not the case here. The vowels of the Greek alphabet have been scratched into the stone. It has been suggested that this could be a magical gem, with the design and writing being used for magical protection. Or perhaps it was a bored intaglio maker’s apprentice, practicing their Greek, knowing it would likely never be seen by the owner.
The reverse of the intaglio shows the god Harpocrates.