The last few days I spent in the Taunus mountain range in Hesse, Germany, exploring Roman remains with my son, who, as my loyal readers may remember, is interested in everything Roman (as well as everything else).
Among the most impressive sites in that area is the so-called Saalburg.
The Saalburg is an almost fully reconstructed Roman fort near the German limes – an overwhelming, popular museum with ever changing exhibitions and activities for the general (and not so general) public:
When we entered, we asked the museum guard whether it was okay to take photos, and he said it was, under the condition that we’d do ‘not too noisily’ (‘aber nicht so laut’). Fun!
In a room next to the fort’s aedes, the standards shrine, there is a display of inscriptions – not only from the Saalburg and adjacent areas, but also from further afield. In this area, the following (slightly damaged) votive altar caught my attention, so I decided to take a photo of it (very silently, of course, following the guard’s instructions, ever the obedient German that I am!):
This altar was found rather far away from the Saalburg – namely in Stockstadt, Bavaria, in a sanctuary of the beneficiarii (on which see below).
The altar’s front contains three inscriptions – a long one, and two little and rather peculiar labels (which were one of the main reasons for my initial interest in this piece).
The central, long inscription, with its numerous ligatures, appears to date to the late second century and reads as follows (CIL XIII 6638):
I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo)
ceteris diis dea-
Genio Iuni Victori-
Senilis b(ene)f(iciarius) co(n)s(ularis)
[v(otum)] s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).
To Jupiter Optimus Maximus [= the Best and Greatest] the Protector, to the remaining gods and goddesses, and to the genius of Iunius Victorinus, the governor: Gaius Secionius Senilis, consular beneficiarius, fulfilled his vow gladly and deservedly.
The opening, abbreviated dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (I. O. M.) is set apart from Jupiter’s honorific epithet conservator, the Protector, by the sculpture of a female and a male bust, which in turn are separated from one another by a decorated, ritual staff.
Above the inscription, in the monument’s gable and in between two rosettas (one of which is now lost due to the stone’s damage), there is the representation of a bearded, male figure with a thunderbolt – presumably Jupiter himself, as the first-mentioned recipient of this votive altar.
The identities of the two figures is explained by inscribed labels, to the left and to the right of this sculpted frame:
The fact that these two names are inscribed in the nominative (rather than in the dative, as all other divine entities in this inscription) clearly sets these two labels apart from the flow of the main text – a rather remarkable peculiarity of this monument that does not exactly find many parallels in the corpus of ancient Latin inscriptions.
A similar oddity lies in the fact that Secionius Senilis decided to include the Genius of his better, Iunius Victorinus, in the list of deities that were presented with this altar – alongside Jupiter and ‘the other gods and goddesses’ – as an expression of his gratefulness for their role in fulfilling his wishes (votum).
Iunius Victorinus – the inscription calls him a consularis, i. e. a legate of consular rank, serving as provincial governor – appears to be identical with one Lucius Iunius Victorinus Flavius Caelianus who is known from another altar that was found in Britain, viz. at Kirksteads, near Kirkandrews-on-Eden, by Hadrian’s Wall, dedicated to an unknown deity ob res trans | vallum pro|spere gestas (‘for affairs successfully carried out beyond the wall’).
The most plausible scenario is then, that Iunius Victorinus went on from Britain to become governor of Germania superior (though perhaps not straight away).
Gaius Secionius Senilis, the German altar’s dedicant, is otherwise unknown. His inscription identifies him as a beneficiarius consularis, a member of the governor’s staff (whose salary, due to his special position, was 50% above that of his peers – whence the title beneficiarius, ‘recipient of additional [pay] benefits’).
While the dedicant carries the tria nomina of a Roman citizen, his family name Secionius is somewhat of a mystery. Some have explained it as Celtic, whereas others (less plausibly and largely on the basis of the mention of Isis and Serapis in this inscription) thought of him as being of oriental descent.
Why did Secionius erect this (by provincial standards reasonably lavish) altar?
This is a difficult, but perhaps not an altogether unsolvable riddle.
The first thing one must note is the sequence of deities that the dedicant mentions: Jupiter Conservator, ‘the remaining gods and goddesses’, and the genius of his governor.
Jupiter Conservator, the protector of the Roman empire (or even the entire world, conservator orbis) was an important element of the Roman imperial cult – linked to the will and well-being of the emperor himself.
The genius of the named individual – the governor Iunius Victorinus – is a Roman concept that conceptualises the innate abilities and greatness of mind of a person; a votive altar to the genius of an individual implies that the dedicant had wished for someone’s genius being strong and successful enough in a challenging situation.
(One might add that, while votives to the genius of an individual such as a patron or the like [rather than that of a military unit] is a practice that stands out, this practice is known from areas such as Gallia Cisalpina: another clue hinting towards a Celtic origin of the dedicant?)
And then there are ‘the remaining gods and goddesses’ – certainly Isis and Serapis, as depicted on the stone itself. Both Isis and Serapis are gods of fertility, prosperity, and well-being – Serapis is sometimes even likened to Aesculapius, the god of healing. Since Vespasian the couple were also linked to successful return from a complicated mission.
This imagery of the inscription coincides with the representation of a cornucopia on the altar’s right side (image available here): the opposite, left side of the altar has a thunderbolt, linking it to the mention of Jupiter (image available here).
The inscription from Kirksteads shows Iunius Victorinus as a brave military man, operating beyond the vallum in enemy territory (something that he himself regarded as dangerous enough to promise an altar for the successful completion of his mission).
Iunius Victorinus may well have distinguished himself in that regard, so that he subsequently was transferred to Germania superior as consular legate – building on that reputation.
Did Iunius Victorinus receive an imperial order to carry out similar missions in Germany? Did he lead troops beyond the limes?
A dedication specifically to deities that are related to the imperial cult, to prosperity and health, and to the abilities of the commander, made by his staff officer, are a strong indication of that – and the existence of the altar shows that Iunius Victorinus must have succeeded (again).
In the imagination of Secionius Senilis this was the work of several deities – and the monument’s iconography allows us to push this a bit further still.
While Jupiter himself, represented in the altar’s gable, appears to reign supreme, his official title I. O. M. Conservator is interrupted by the frame that contains the sculpture of Isis and Serapis – a frame through which these deities appear to look into our world, but which equally well allows us to glance into the world of gods imagined by the dedicator.
Secionius did not only choose to single out Isis and Serapis among ‘the remaining gods and goddesses’, but in his iconography he chose to interlink them (and their protective power) with Jupiter Conservator himself.
On the sides of the altar, Isis and Serapis feature just as prominently as Jupiter, insofar as one side carries the thunderbolt, whereas the other has the cornucopia (again symbolising fertility, prosperity, and even abundance).
When nowadays we explore the borders of the western Roman Empire, we tend to be taken in by the scenery – whether it is the beautiful, atmospheric loneliness of Hadrian’s Wall or the fertile fields and the woodlands of the German limes.
It is hard to imagine that the same places were not spaces for romantic walks to those who built, enforced, and defended them almost 2,000 years ago – they were the extremes of an empire, and unknown dangers awaited them beyond these demarcations of Roman power.
Following the hiking path along the German limes today means walking on the Roman side and the Germanic side in equal measure.
To the Romans setting foot on ‘the other side’, in certain times and places, was reason enough to pray to the gods that meant stability of the state, health and well-being, and personal capability, to protect them from the dangers and perils of what they regarded barbarian territory.
To students of Roman history, ‘the Romans’ may appear to be a driven and self-confident, homogeneous bunch – a united force, always prepared to fight, marching forward, erecting bulwarks against those pesky barbarians.
Looking at the individuals who ultimately were but cogs in the Roman imperial machinery, looking at their fears and concerns, allows us to paint a rather different, more complicated, and more human picture.