Escape Routes

Probably in A. D. 474, Gaius Sollius Modestus Sidonius Apollinaris, more commonly known just as Sidonius Apollinaris, a Gallo-Roman aristocrat, Bishop of Clermont (eventually canonised), as well as an acclaimed poet, wrote a letter to one Magnus Felix, a former prefect of Gaul (Sidonius, Epistles 3.17).

In his letter, Sidonius urges Felix, who appears to have been particularly bad at answering his mail (at least when it came from Sidonius…), to comment on the following matter (3.17.2–3, transl. W. B. Anderson):

certe vel metus noster materiam stilo tuo faciat, mementoque viatorum manus gravare chartis, quatinus amicorum cura relevetur, et indicare festina, si quam praevio deo quaestor Licinianus trepidationi mutuae ianuam securitatis aperuerit. persona siquidem est, ut perhibent, magna exspectatione maior adventu, relatu sublimis inspectione sublimior et ob omnia felicitatis naturaeque dona monstrabilis. summa censura, par comitas et prudentia fidesque misso mittentique conveniens; nihil adfectatum simulatumque, ponderique sermonum vera potius severitas quam severitatis imitatio; et nec, ut plurimi, qui cum credita diffidenter allegant, volunt videri egisse se cautius, sed neque ex illo, ut ferunt, numero qui secreta dirigentium principum venditantes ambiunt a barbaris bene agi cum legato potius quam cum legatione.

At least let our anxieties, if nothing else, provide material for your pen; take care to load the arms of travellers with despatches, so that the cares of your friends may be lightened, and do not delay to inform us whether under God’s guidance Licinianus the quaestor has opened any door of safety to our joint alarm. People say that he is a person who inspires large expectations and exceeds them all when he appears, who is exalted in repute but rises still higher on acquaintance, a man remarkable for every endowment of fortune and of nature. He is very strict, but no less courteous and wise, and he shows a conscientiousness which befits the emissary as much as the master who sends him. There is no affectation or pretence about him, and his weighty deliverances show genuine rectitude not a mere imitation of it. He is not like most people, who deliver with an air of hesitation the message with which they are charged and expect to be considered to have acted cautiously; still less, I am told, is he of the number of those who traffic in the secrets of the princes who instruct them and who seek to secure from the barbarians favourable treatment for the envoy rather than for his mission.

Licinianus, Sidonius hoped, would provide some kind of relief to the citizens of Clermont, his bishopric, who were under threat from the Ostrogoths at the time – a relief that Sidonius metaphorically describes as ianua securitatis, a door – or rather a gateway – to safety, a life in which the concerns, curae, of the inhabitants would be removed so that they could enjoy securitas (literally: un-concern) again.

Although metaphorical use of ianua had featured in Latin literature already for several centuries by the time Sidonius composed his letter, the phrase ianua securitatis appears to be unique in surviving Latin literature.

It is all the more surprising to find it on a coat of arms in Berkshire’s county town of Reading – a coat of arms that, recently restored, decorates an otherwise utterly unremarkable side-entrance to an outstanding, listed building on West Street known as the W. I. Palmer Memorial Hall:


Supported by two talbots on green grass (which serves as the bottom mantle), this coat of arms features a blue shield at its centre that displays a golden gateway with a key in its middle and a round sign displaying waves in its central arch. The same round elements with its waves is repeated in the collars around the talbots’ necks. Above the shield there is a helmet, with a crowned lion holding a sword and surrounded by a top mantle. Below the shield there is a motto scroll that displays the words Janua Securitatis, ‘gateway to safety’, ‘gateway to security’.

In 2015, I published a little anthology of the delightful range of Latin inscriptions of Reading (which you are encouraged to buy – it is very good, if I do say so myself: The Writing on the Wall: An Anthology of Reading’s Latin Inscriptions), but I chose not to include this particular piece. I did not know enough about it, and at any rate, the text is very short.

Yet, I remained curious about its meaning, and, supported by emeritus professor Jane F. Gardner, who has been a resident of Reading for longer than I have been alive, I think I eventually managed to uncover its original purpose (though I cannot be entirely sure).

Recently, the property has been converted into flats – and while these flats may be a safe haven for their tenants or owners, this is, of course, not to what the coat of arms pertains. The owner of the property invested a fair bit of money, however, in the restoration of the piece, which previously looked more like this:


This gives me a good enough reason to reveal what I now think is the sign’s origin (though I stand to be corrected – if you know better, please do let me know!).

Prior to its current manifestation, the building was shared by a temp agency and the London College of Research. Unsurprisingly, they had nothing to do with this coat of arms. The same is evidently true for previous tenants that I managed to track down, including the Reading Chamber of Commerce and the Co-operative.

Before that, however, the W. I. Palmer Memorial hall housed an Amethyst Tea Bar, promoting temperance – and this gives a connection straight back to the person who had the present-day lavish façade, as well as his name, added to the building: William Isaac Palmer, who, as offspring of a Quaker family, supported the temperance movement on religious grounds. The central shield, with its golden key in the middle of a gate, strongly supports the view that this coat of arms originated in a religious context.

Sidonius hoped for a ianua securitatis, a gateway to security, while he found himself and his parish embattled by the Ostrogoths.

If the coat of arms does indeed relate to Reading’s temperance movement, as I suspect, then it must have been designed with a similar idea in mind (and quite possibly as a deliberate reference to Sidonius): good people, embattled by hostile forces in the shape and form of alcoholism and excess, need a feasible escape route, provided by a hope-inspiring leader, to find a life of unconcern.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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4 Responses to Escape Routes

  1. Ken Ostrand says:

    Welcome back, oh Muse!

    Too long you were away.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you: yes! I was finalising a book manuscript, and I had to work like crazy for that. Here’s hoping for a more prolific muse in 2018!


  3. an interesting corner of Reading history and a reminder to look up when walking around the town.
    I notice your twitter handle felonius_kru appears to have gone away 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you – yes, I swapped it for @petrifiedmuse on there – thanks for the reminder, I must change this in the settings on here.


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