The solidarity of the precariously employed

A papyrus from the Hermopolite nome in Egypt, dated to A. D. 117, written by a lady called Eudaimonis to her daughter Aline addresses a wide range of family matters, including some current worries over the family business (P. Brem. 63, transl. R. S. Bagnall – R. Cribiore):

Eudaimonis to her daughter Aline, greetings. Above all, I pray that you may give birth in good time, and that I shall receive news of a baby boy.

You sailed away on the 29th and on the next day I finished drawing down (?the wool). I at last got the material from the dyer on the 10th of Epeiph. I am working with your slave girls as far as possible. I cannot find girls who can work with me, for they are all working for their own mistresses. Our workers marched through all the city eager for more money.

Your sister Souerous gave birth. Teeus wrote me a letter thanking you so that I know, my lady, that my instructions will be valid, for she has left all her family to come with you. The little one sends you her greetings and is persevering with her studies. Rest assured that I shall not pay studious attention to God until I get my son back safe.

Why did you send me 20 drachmae in my difficult situation? I already have the vision of being naked when winter starts.

Farewell. Epeiph 22.

(Postscript): The wife of Eudemos has stuck by me and I am grateful to her for that.

(Address on back): To her daughter Aline.

In the second paragraph, Eudaimonis refers to the family weaving business, which she would appear to run on Aline’s behalf while she was on maternity leave (so to speak, if such a blatant anachronism can be permitted).

Things were not going too well for Eudaimonis during her stint as acting manager: she reports a highly disruptive walk-out, threatening the functioning of the entire operation, staged by her workforce to protest their wages publicly, visibly, and audibly for the entire city to witness.

Attempts on Eudaimonis’s side simply to replace her workers with ad-hoc cover failed: no one made themselves available – not an indication of good reputation or competitive pay in Eudaimonis’s and Aline’s business, but also, as has been speculated, consequence of the economic crisis caused by the Jewish-Roman (Kitos) War at the time.

It is unknown how this local event of industrial action was eventually resolved. It shows quite clearly, however, the importance of competitive pay – and the power that lies in unity when it comes to making a positive impact on the conditions offered by one’s employer.

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Strike, Legal Action, and Delusion

Photo from a 1913 bakers’ strike in France (with soldiers called in).

Many stories about walk-outs and strikes in the Roman Empire originate from its Eastern provinces.

A particularly noteworthy event in this context is the strike of the bakers’ guild in Ephesus in the second half of the second century A. D. – an event that is known from an edict, originally presumably written in Latin and subsequently translated into rather careless Greek (SEG IV 512).

In the English translation of Allan Chester Johnson, Paul Robinson Coleman-Norton, and Frank Card Bourne, the transmitted (somewhat fragmentary) text reads as follows:

. . . and according to the agreements . . . thus it happens that sometimes the people fall into confusion and tumults because of the captious audacity of the factions of bakers in the market place, for which they should have been summoned forthwith and placed on trial. But, since it is necessary to provide for the welfare of the city rather than for the punishment of these persons, I have resolved to bring them to their senses by means of an edict.

I, therefore, order the bakers not to indulge in meetings and their leaders not to undertake audacious actions, but to obey in every respect the regulations made for the common welfare and to furnish the city faultlessly with the labour that is necessary for bread-making.

But if anyone of them hereafter is apprehended either attending a meeting contrary to orders or taking the lead in any tumult or sedition he shall be summoned and punished with the appropriate penalty. But if anyone plotting against the city dares to hide himself he shall in addition have ‘belonging to the decury’ branded upon his foot; and anyone who harbors such person shall be liable to the same punishment.

In the prytany of Claudius Modestus, on the fourth day from the beginning of the month Klareon, at a meeting of the council held on another occasion, Marcellinus said, ‘Yesterday Hermeias gave a very great example of the folly of the workshop foremen . . .’

Though it is not entirely clear from this text what the bakers were doing, and how the tumults were caused, it is clear that they also withheld their labour – after all, the edict requires them to ‘to furnish the city faultlessly with the labour that is necessary for bread-making’ for the future.

The edict is not only testament to the effectiveness of collective industrial action in causing disruption and public attention to pressing matters, especially when the disruption affects central aspects of provisions in the public interest (for another example see an earlier blog piece). It also shows the great responsibility that everyone involved in such a conflict has when it comes to striking the right balance between valiantly defending vital interest and not causing disruption to a degree that a forceful response becomes necessary.

Talks, designed to resolve the dispute, are necessary. But that requires both sides to enter negotiations without conditions.

In the case of the Ephesian bakers, the Roman magistrate wrote:

‘But, since it is necessary to provide for the welfare of the city rather than for the punishment of these persons, I have resolved to bring them to their senses by means of an edict.’

The modern editors added a footnote to this:

‘This is perhaps one of the most unrealistic, overoptimistic, and pitiable sentences in Roman legal documents.’

It is indeed.

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United we stand, divided we fall

A Latin inscription from Beirut, dating to the third century A. D., records a conflict between shipowners from Arelate (Arles) in Gaul and the Roman government:

[- – – I]ulianus naviculariis / [mar]inis Arelatensibus quinque / [co]rporum salutem / [qu]id lecto decreto vestro scripserim / [- – -]S[- – -] proc(uratori) Augg(ustorum) e(gregio) v(iro) subi/[e]ci iussi opto felicissimi bene valeatis e(xemplum) e(pistulae) / exemplum decreti naviculariorum ma/rinorum Arelatensium quinque cor/porum item eorum quae aput me acta / sunt subieci et cum eadem querella la/tius procedat ceteris etiam imploranti/bus auxilium aequitatis cum quadam de/nuntiatione cessaturi propediem obsequi / si permaneat iniuria peto ut tam indemni/tati rationis quam securitati hominum / qui annonae deserviunt consulatur / inprimi charactere regulas ferreas et / adplicari prosecutores ex officio tuo iu/beas qui in urbe pondus quo susce/perint tradant // – – – – – –  / Maxi[- – -] / utique [- – -] / et ex[- – -]tor ex[- – -]/cianu[- – -]/nes pr[- – – ha]vicula[ri- – -] / feci / eiusdem [- – -] / legi decret[um naviculariorum – – -]/tes hom[ines – – -]/tiones [- – -] / est ut [- – -] / coni[- – -] / non [- – -] / SES[- – -] / ST[- – -] / R[- – -].

(CIL III 14165.8 (cf. p. 2328.78) = ILS 06987)

In the translation of Fik Meijer and Onno van Nijf:

Claudius Julianus to the navicularii marini (marine shippers) of the five corpora (associations) of Arles, greetings! What I wrote, after reading your decree, to . . . a . . . s . . ., vir egregius procurator of the Augusti, I have ordered, and I want it to be added (thereafter). Fortunate people, may you prosper! Copy of the letter (from (J)ulianus to the procurator). I have added a copy of the decree of the navicularii marini of Arles belonging to the five corpora and likewise (a copy) of the documents from the courtcase conducted before me. And should the same dispute continue further, and the other (navicularii) appeal to justice with what amounts to a formal complaint that they will soon cease to comply with their obligations, and if the injustice continues, I request that provision be made for both a guarantee against fiscal loss in the books and for exoneration of the people providing services for the annona, and that you order the marking of the iron bars, and that escorts from your staff be provided, who will hand over (details of) the cargo weight that they ‘have taken on board’.

As far as one can tell on the basis of this fragmentary text, the navicularii marini, who played a role in Rome’s food supply (annona), felt short-changed or defrauded by Roman state authorities or its corrupt representatives. (Mention of officially administered ‘marking of the iron bars’, among other things, would suggest that previously fraudulent measures were in applied or misappropriation and embezzlement took place.)

In response to the injustice they encountered, the marine shippers relied on their corpora, their corporations or trade unions, so to speak, and made a powerful representation.

They sought, and obtained, a legal decree from the governor, and, to increase pressure on the Roman government, they threatened to disrupt the provision of previously agreed services, should the injustice continue (cessaturi propediem obsequi / si permaneat iniuria) – a veritable threat of industrial action, jeopardising Rome’s food supply.

Threat of such collective action, rather than individual complaints, was enough to gain a favourable outcome – an outcome that was advertised even far away from Arelate, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

There is strength in numbers when one wishes to fight against unfair treatment, and only slaves without the means or the power to revolt have to render services at a cost solely determined by their masters.


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On strike!

Tibicines, professional flute-players, held an awkward position within the society of Republican Rome.

On the one hand, they were admired for their skills and regarded as quintessential for maintaining the sacred order of the state. Unsurprisingly, due to their quintessential role in many central aspects of religious and cultic life, they enjoyed many privileges, several of them introduced as early as the Roman Kingdom.

On the other hand, like most artists, they held little actual influence, and they were an easy target for ridicule, not least due to their presence at holidays, feasts, and celebrations on occasion of which copious amounts of alcohol were consumed.

In 311 B. C., however, as the Roman historian Livy reports, the following, remarkable incident occurred (Liv. 9.30.5):

I should omit, as an incident hardly worth narrating, a little thing that happened in that same year, but that it seemed to concern religion. The flute-players, angry at having been forbidden by the last censors to hold their feast, according to old custom, in the temple of Jupiter, went off to Tibur in a body, so that there was no one in the City to pipe at sacrifices.

The flute-players’ established right to feast in the temple of Jupiter appears to have dated back to Rome’s legendary second king, Numa Pompilius, as Plutarch reports in his Quaestiones Romanae on the same incident (ch. 55):

This sort of men (as it seems) had great privileges accruing to them from the grant of King Numa, by reason of his godly devotion; which things afterward being taken from them when the Decemviri managed the government, they forsook the city.

Whether it was the censors (as Livy says) or the Decemviri (as Plutarch claims) who chose to interfere with what the flute-players regarded as their sacred entitlement, we cannot know. In fact, Ovid gives yet third version of the story in his work Fasti (6.657–664):

In the times of your ancestors of yore the flute-player was much employed and was always held in great honour. The flute played in temples, it played at games, it played at mournful funerals. The labour was sweetened by its reward; but a time followed which of a sudden broke the practice of the pleasing art. Moreover, the aedile had ordered that the musicians who accompanied funeral processions should be ten, no more.

Whatever may have happened, the flute-players clearly felt that they were confronted with a withdrawal of long-enjoyed privileges and potentially a significant threat to their livelihoods. Consequently, they chose to withdraw to Tibur (Tivoli) and to go on an indefinite strike – after all, why should one show gratefulness, or even tolerance, in a situation in which such proposals are made, when there is no apparent need for such measures other than the desire of a few (usually significantly better-off) leaders to present themselves in a certain light?

The strike of the flute-players, to the mind of the Romans anyway, was a very dangerous situation indeed. It posed a supreme threat to the sacred order and therefore the well-being of the city of Rome herself.

Livy continues his report (9.30.6–10):

Troubled by the religious aspect of the case, the senate dispatched representatives to the Tiburtines, requesting them to use their best endeavours to restore these men to Rome. The Tiburtines courteously undertook to do so; and sending for the pipers to their senate-house, urged them to return.

When they found it impossible to persuade them, they employed a ruse, not ill-adapted to the nature of the men. On a holiday various citizens invited parties of the pipers to their houses, on the pretext of celebrating the feast with music. There they plied them with wine, which people of that profession are generally greedy of, until they got them stupefied. In this condition they threw them, fast asleep, into waggons and carried them away to Rome; nor did the pipers perceive what had taken place until daylight found them – still suffering from the debauch – in the waggons, which had been left standing in the Forum.

The people then flocked about them and prevailed with them to remain. They were permitted on three days in every year to roam the City in festal robes, making music and enjoying the licence that is now customary, and to such as should play at sacrifices was given again the privilege of banqueting in the temple.

These incidents occurred while men were preoccupied with two mighty wars.

One can almost feel from this just how intense the situation must have been when the flute-players faced the people whom they had deserted in anger, with an acute need to make a decision – to carry on striking, or to do what was expected of them for the common good (and what they, of course, enjoyed).

Ovid’s version of this stand-off, as well as the events that led up to it, is even more intense (Fasti 6.669–692):

At Tibur there was a certain man who had been a slave, but had long been free, a man worthy of any rank. In his country place he made ready a banquet and invited the tuneful throng; they gathered to the festal board. It was night, and their eyes and heads swam with wine, when a messenger arrived with a made-up tale, and thus he spoke (to the freedman): ‘Break up the banquet without delay, for see here comes the master of thy rod!’ Immediately the guests bestirred their limbs, reeling with heady wine; their shaky legs or stood or slipped. But the master of the house, ‘Off with you all!’ says he, and when they dawdled he packed them in a wain that was well lined with rushes. The time, the motion, and the wine allured to slumber, and the tipsy crew fancied that they were on their way back to Tibur. And now the wain had entered the city of Rome by the Esquiline, and at morn it stood in the middle of the Forum. In order to deceive the Senate as to their persons and their number, Plautius commanded that their faces should be covered with masks; and he mingled others with them and ordered them to wear long garments, to the end that women flute-players might be added to the band. In that way he thought that the return of the exiles could be best concealed, lest they should be censured for having come back against the orders of their guild. The plan was approved, and now they are allowed to wear their new garb on the Ides and to sing merry words to the old tunes.

Prima facie Ovid seems to provide a rationale for the use of peculiar garments worn in his own times. But in doing so, he offers much deeper insights into the dynamics of such strikes. With a powerful collegium (‘guild’), and thus essentially the ancient equivalent of a modern-day trade union, in the background, and the need to escape the blame of being traitors to the cause (or ‘scabs’, as one would call it now), individuals still need to make difficult, personal choices – weighing up their own interests against the common good.

Ovid (and other authors) suggest that the flute-players, in response to the booze-fuelled trap into which they fell, came up with a cunning plan that allowed the strikers to preserve face when finding their way back into the society from which they chose to withdraw in response to the shabby treatment that they had received.

Yet, and this is also clear from Ovid, and even more so from Livy’s account: the harsh, collaborative, action was a successful response to an act of profound injustice – a threat to established rights – and repeated acts of disrespectful behaviour towards their profession, which, though easily ridiculed for its faults, played a central role in its society.

At the beginning of his report, Livy suggests that the story as such would not be especially worth mentioning at all, if it were not for its religious implications.

Livy’s final statement, however, reveals another aspect to it: haec inter duorum ingentium bellorum curam gerebantur, ‘these incidents occurred while men were preoccupied with two mighty wars’.

In other words, this was a completely needless (and ultimately futile and costly) conflict, caused for no good reason, that distracted much energy from the much bigger challenges that one should have focused on instead – collectively.

To gain collective support against much bigger challenges, of course, requires leaders who are not just looking after their own benefits and economic gain for only a few at the expense of the many. It requires leaders who, beyond cheap lip service and meaningless rhetoric, value the contributions of those on whose labour the general prosperity of our society rests, leaders who honour contracts and established rights, and leaders who are prepared to defend the dignity of those whom they were appointed to serve.

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True Love

Love Birds.jpeg

exemplo iunctae tibi sint in amore columbae,
masculus et totum femina coniugium.
errat, qui finem vesani quaerit amoris:
verus amor nullum novit habere modum.

‘Let doves yoked in love be your model, male and female, a perfect union. He errs who seeks to put a limit to the madness of love: true love knows no bounds.’

(Propertius 2.15.27-30, transl. G. P. Goold)

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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.

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In memoriam Dr Hans Krummrey (1930-2018)

A few days ago, I received the sad news that Dr Hans Krummrey, one-time director of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum in Berlin, had passed away.

It would be inappropriate for me to attempt a full obituary – there are others who have known Dr Krummrey for much longer than I have, and who will be able to praise his true and lasting achievements. I am aware of many of them, of course, but he and his many decades of service to Latin epigraphical scholarship, with many a personal hardship that he underwent for the greater good, deserve a far better chronicler than I ever could be.

Dr Krummrey, born 1930 in Guben/Gubin, was already retired by the time that I first met him when I joined the CIL, initially as an undergraduate research assistant appointed by Krummrey’s successor Dr Manfred G. Schmidt, and eventually as a member of research staff. Yet, Krummrey was very much still a permanent fixture of this institution, with an unassuming humility and a sense of duty that was verging on self-sacrifice, that has made a lasting impression on me professionally at an important stage of my academic career.

When I started my PhD in 1997, with a project on the so-called Saturnian verse inscriptions, I could not have hoped for a more generous, supportive senior advisor. The co-editor of the addenda and corrigenda to CIL I ed. alt. had worked on  the Republican Latin inscriptions for decades, as well as a first-rate scholar of the Carmina Latina Epigraphica (with one of the finest paper databases on the subject that I am aware of to the present day), Krummrey left no detail of my work unturned.

In his most beautifully ironic and self-deprecating manner, he steered me away from many a grave mistake – except for those, of course, that I was too stubborn to acknowledge (usually to my regret). Krummrey’s painstaking attention to detail, his insistence on due method and consistency, and his long experience were invaluable (and I can just about imagine how embarrassed he would be to read this about himself).

But there was another side to him that I distinctly remember: an almost childlike joy that Krummrey derived from technical equipment – a joy that was contagious, and a joy that meant that in many ways, while still in post, he drove the CIL to embrace technological advances as much as possible, even in an eminently difficult and challenging, and eventually, rapidly changing political environment.

I will never be able to repay my debt to him, but today, more than ever before, I see it as my obligation to honour his work – and to share the passion and enthusiasm that he has helped me to develop and to foster with future generations of scholars in the field of Latin epigraphy and the Latin verse inscriptions.

Occasionally, we would joke about our shared research interests as ‘graveyard science’, telling each other of particularly outrageous pieces that we had recently studied.

It seems fitting therefore to conclude this short, personal piece in commemoration of Dr Krummrey with a piece from Sisak/Siscia in modern-day Croatia (CIL III 3980 = ILS 5228 = AE 2006.34):

D(is) M(anibus).
positus est hic Leburna
magister mimariorum
[q]ui uicxit annos plus
[m]inus centum.
[al]iquotie(n)s mortuus
[sum], set sic nunquam.
[opto u]os ad superos bene

To the Spirits of the Departed.

Here lies Leburna, master of a mime troupe, who lived for one-hundred years, give a few, take a few.

I have died many times, but never like this before.

I hope you up there are doing fine.

Graveyard science and death have been our business for a long time, and they continue to be mine. It has not made anything any easier when confronted with the real thing.

Dr Krummrey – requiescas in pace.

Dr Hans Krummrey, 1930–2018

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Once a thief…?

I have been looking at the Latin inscriptions of Silchester recently, and in that context I came across a very remarkable item: the so-called Vyne ring:

The Vyne ring, around a seal depicting (and naming) the goddess Venus, bears a Christian inscription that reads as follows (CIL VII 1305 = RIB II.3 2422.14):

Seniciane, vivas iin (!) de.

Senicianus, may you live in God.

Discovered in 1785 in a field near Calleva Atrebatum, Roman Silchester, this piece appears to date to the fourth century A. D.

It would have been a lovely, but otherwise unremarkable find if it had not been for the discovery of a curse tablet at Lydney, Gloucestershire, conveniently dated to the fourth century A. D., that exhibits the following text (CIL VII 140 = RIB I 306 = ILS 4730; image, text, and translation from here):

Nodenti Silvianus
anilum perdedit
demediam partem
donavit Nodenti
inter quibus nomen
Seniciani nollis
petmittas sanita-
tem donec perfera(t)
usque templum [No-]

To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and given half (its value) to Nodens. Among those who are called Senicianus do not allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens.

The connection between these two items, found far apart from one another, was made by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who then is believed to have discussed both the curse tablet and the ring with J. R. R. Tolkien, then professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford – and it has been imagined by some that this, in turn, may have inspired Tolkien’s idea of Lord Sauron’s ring.

There are perfectly good reasons to be sceptical about this connection, of course: if something is too good to be true, it’s probably not true, as they say – and the starting point for such scepticism has to be, of course, that the name Senicianus or, in its alternative spelling, Senecianus, is not an uncommon one.

Amazingly, when looking for this name in the surviving Latin inscriptions of Roman Britain, another curse tablet comes to light – this time from Aquae Sulis, modern-day Bath (AE 1982.667):

(Side A) Seu gen(tili)s seu C/h(r)istianus quaecumque (!) utrum vir / [u]trum mulier utrum puer utrum puella / utrum s[er]vus utrum liber mihi Annia[n]/o Ma{n}tutene de bursa mea s(e)x argente[o]s / furaverit (!) tu d[o]mina dea ab ipso perexi[g]/e [- – – eo]s si mihi per [f]raudem aliquam inde p/r(a)eg[u]stum (?) dederit nec sic (!) ipsi dona sed ut sangu/inem suum (r)eputes qui mihi hoc inrogaverit.

(Side B) Postum[inu]s (?) Pisso / Locinna [A]launa / Materna Gunsula / C[an]didina Euticius / Peregrinus / Latinus / Senicianus / Avitianus / Victor / Sco[ti]us / Aessicunia / Paltucca / Calliopis / Celerianus.

In the translation of J. G. Gager:

(Side A) Whether pagan or Christian, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free, whoever has stolen from me, Annianus (son of) Matutina (?), six silver coins from my purse, you, Lady Goddess, are to exact (them) from him. If through some deceit he has given me … and do not give thus to him but reckon as (?) the blood of him who has invoked this upon me.

(Side B) Postuminus, Pisso, Locinna, Alauna, Materna, Gunsula, C[an]didina, Euticius, Peregrinus, Latinus, Senicianus, Avitianus, Victor, Scotius, Aessicunia, Paltucca, Calliopis, Celerianus.

Again the name of Senicianus appears on a curse directed against a thief, ‘whether a pagan or Christian’ (!), as John Wacher points out, the route from Lydney to Silchester, where Senicianus appears to have lost ‘his’ ring (with his own inscription added), could of course lead via Bath without much of a detour. The date of the Bath curse tablet, commonly given as fourth century A. D., would fit the bill as well.

Did Senicianus strike again?

And what about another Bath tablet that reads as follows (AE 1982.658) . . .

[D]eae Suli donavi [arge]/ntiolos sex quos perd[idi] / a nomin[i]bus infra script[is] / deae exactura(!) est / Senicia(n)us et Saturninus {sed} / et Ann[i]ola. c(h)arta picta perscri[pta]. / An(n)[i]ola / Senicianus / Saturninus.

In Gager’s translation:

I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact (them) from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola. The written page has been copied out. Anniola. Senicianus. Saturninus.

It is all too easy to get carried away in one’s desire to connect the dots on a map and thus to create convenient narratives.

A few years ago, R. S. O. Tomlin published yet another curse tablet from Roman Britain – this time from Leicester. And guess what – a Senicianus features here as well (ZPE 167 (2008) 208):

D{a}eo Maglo <do> euum qui fr(a)udum (!) / fecit de pa(e)d(ag)o(g)io <do> el{a}eum qui / furtum de pada(g)o(g)ium sa(g)um / qui sa(g)um Servandi invola/vit / S[il]vester Ri(g)omandus / S[e]nelis Venustinus / Vorvena / Calaminus / Felicianus / Ruf{a}edo / Vendicina /Ingenuinus / Iuventius / Alocus / Cennosus / Germanus / Senedo / Cunovendus / Regalis / Ni(g)ella / [[S[enic]ianus]] / <do=OD> ant{a}e nonum diem / illum tollat / qui sa(g)um involavit / Servandi.

‘I give to the god Maglus him who did wrong from the slave-quarters; I give him who (did) theft from the slave-quarters; who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Ri(g)omandus, Senilis, Venustinus, Vorvena, Calaminus, Felicianus, Rufedo, Vendicina, Ingenuinus, luventius, Alocus, Cennosus, Germanus, Senedo, Cunovendus, Regalis, Ni(g)ella, Senicianus (deleted). I give (that the god Maglus) before the ninth day take away him who stole the cloak of Servandus.’

Would it not be amazing if the (subsequently erased) suspect Senicianus – ring-thief of Lydney and six-silver-coins-thief of Aquae Sulis (on at least one occasion, if not two)  – were to have been our man at Leicester at well?

Well, if it was him, he must have been closer to one-hundred years old before he actually made it to Lydney and Bath (travelling took a long time back then, of course) – the Leicester tablet has been dated to the mid-second to the mid-third century, much earlier than the other pieces mentioned so far.

My conclusion?

Captivating stories of rings, deceit, and curses are best written by the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, not by those who are interested in the history and epigraphy of Roman Britain.

As for the Vyne ring, it seems very reasonable to acknowledge the beautiful irony that this ring bears the name of one Senicianus as its owner, wishing him well in the name of God, while one Silvianus at Lydney, in the same century, suspected a man of that very name Senicianus of theft of his gold ring, while, again in the same century, a man called Senicianus was suspected of pick-pocketing at Bath.

Other than that, we should stick to the established principle that one must be regarded as innocent until conclusively proven guilty, or, in Latin: in dubio pro reo.

Posted in Epigraphy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Black and White

It has been a long time since I last posted on here – the reason is simple: I’m frantically trying to finish a book about the Latin verse inscriptions of Rome’s poor and marginalised. I hope to have everything done by the end of this year – and there’s still a fair bit to do. But I haven’t forgotten this little blog!


Head of a Roman Boy (second century A. D.). – Image source:

October is Black History Month in the U. K.

I don’t particularly like the idea of  Black History Month.

To me, black history is human history.

As such, I am just as interested in it as I am in any other facet of human history, and I firmly believe that it should be studied by everyone as just that, every month, every day – unafraid to embrace the complexity and diversity of human life in all its shades and nuances (not shying away from those bits in our history that give us little reason to be proud of or that we no longer find convenient as part of our narratives).

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to find it easy to come to terms with that, for reasons I cannot fathom or respect. As a result, marginalised groups remain marginalised in their representation in historical and literary disciplines. And that is one of the many reasons why we do need Black History Month, promoting cohesion and diversity to counterbalance biases that otherwise often remain unaddressed.

A recent string of heated exchanges made it quite obvious that this is true for my own discipline, Classics, as well – a discipline that (to me, anyway) is so exciting because it is so diverse and complex (even though we do not always do justice to that, myself included).

What had happened?

Over the last couple of months or so, there has been a long row on Twitter, with Mary Beard (once again) at the centre of some unspeakably vile trolling and abuse, challenging the notion of a presence of Blacks in the Roman Empire as something ‘normal’. (My colleague Matthew Nicholls contributed a nice little piece about this debate here, and Mary Beard added an interesting item to it here.)

As part of the debate focused on the presence or absence of genetic evidence for the presence of sub-Saharan types in the DNA available for the classical world, it may be worthwhile, I thought, to look at how the ancients themselves thought about genetic inheritance and race – concepts not at all alien to them, if conceptualised and expressed differently.

The following piece comes from a little-read ancient author called Calpurnius Flaccus who seems to have produced his work, a collection of rhetorical exercises, around the reign of Hadrian in the early second century A. D.

As a rhetorical exercise, it presents a (made-up) case, an accusation, and a defence – the text is somewhat fragmentary, but the main lines are clear (Calpurnius Flaccus, Declamations 2, transl. L. A. Sussmann):

(i) The Case:

The Son Who Was Born Black (Natus Aethiops)

(ii) The Accusation:

Love is blind: it has neither rhyme nor reason. Otherwise, we would all love in the same way. Not infrequently the reason for sinning is to sin in a manner that invites disbelief. “Children don’t always take after their parents,” she tells us. What business do you have with employing this sort of defense plea, other than to reveal that you have sinned quite recklessly? Are we surprised for this to be a law of nature, that a person’s features are inherited by his offspring, and that the races of man preserve these like the transcribed copies of a document? Indeed, for each race of man its own characteristic physical appearance remains fixed. In Germany, they have ruddy faces and their great stature is crowned by blonde hair; in Spain <…> they are not all imbued with the same shade of skin. In the opposite direction, where the vault of Heaven, curving out and coming to an end + dispatches the rising sun, there more sprawling, and yes, there more compactly sized bodies are born. The races of men are diverse, yet nobody is dissimilar to his own particular race. “What are you saying then,” she goes on, “I made love to a black man?” Gentlemen of the jury, now and then disgusting acts also have their own distinctive qualities of attraction, and people take a certain pleasure in . Are you surprised that someone falls in love irrationally, since it is by no means the mark of a rational person to embark upon a love affair at all? Grant me the eyes, sensible ones, of a woman: no adulterer is handsome. Chastity doomed to be lost cares not the last how it should be lost. It is a peculiarity of depraved lust not to care where it may drop. When once chastity has been ruined, no source of ruin is degrading after people’s minds have sunk into vice. In the end, the man who gratified her lust was one on whom her husband’s suspicion could not fall.

(iii) The Defence:

Is not therefore the fact that she desired to give birth stronger evidence of her chastity than the fact that she did give birth disastrously is evidence of her inchastity? You see a fetus violently discharged from her possibly injured internal organs: much of its plight may even yet be inside her womb. You see scorched skin – it’s the blood’s fault; but you regard it as the pigment of its skin. What you see may well be an injury to the baby. This very condition, the fact that bruising has darkened and deeply discolored its skin, a long lapse of time may alleviate. Quite often snow-white limbs are tanned by the sun, and a pale complexion departs from the body. Shelter from the sun forces limbs to become pale, however naturally swarthy they were. Grant as much time as you think nature allows for this process.

This remarkable passage (which is not for the faint-hearted – or those who think of the ancient world as a safe refuge from a world that has become somewhat unhinged recently) is a masterful example of ethnocentrism. It places Rome and Italy at the centre of its considerations and has it defined the default: the husband (accusing) and the wife (accused) are safely placed there, and their physical appearance and complexions define the normal.

From here, all other types are defined: there are the Germans in the North (wrinkly, tall, blonde), the Spaniards in the West (partly not transmitted, but with great variation to their complexions), and the Asians in the East (who are either somewhat more sprawling or more compactly sized). None of them compare particularly favourably to the default.

The reason for such variation in appearance, according to the accuser, is adaptation to climate (a common view in the ancient world) – each region produces a specific type of humans, related to proximity to the sun, humidity, and so forth.

And then there are the Blacks, named by their mythical name Aethiopes (literally ‘those with the burnt face’). And it was one of them, the accusers claim, who fathered the woman’s child – someone who, according to the husband, was deemed least likely to be the suspect: presumably because he was a slave.

The accusation therefore: this child was the result of an act of adultery with a black man (an Aethiops) – which one can easily tell, as certain features are heredetary, including skin colour.

This was well-known at the time.

As our author has the accuser put it: miramur hanc legem esse naturae, ut in sobolem transeant formae, quas quasi descriptas species custodiunt (‘are we surprised for this to be a law of nature, that a person’s features are inherited by his offspring, and that the races of man preserve these like the transcribed copies of a document’)?

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, gives evidence for a Roman understanding of genetic dominance of black skin colour when he describes that it will prevail in mixed-race children.

Plutarch, in turn, relates a story in which a woman, though not particularly dark-skinned herself apparently, gave birth to a black baby and eventually was found to be the great-granddaughter of an Ethiopian.)

Remarkably, despite the heavily race-focused discourse of the accusation (the Latin term in use here is gens, ‘family’, as identified by the blood-line), none of it challenges in any way the humanity, worth, or the very right to existence of any gens. Instead, any diversion from the norm, resulting from climatic differences, comprises a certain level of disfigurement (ruddiness, body height, body spread, shades of complexion etc.) as compared to the ideal that is the Roman archetype (which remains undefined!).

It is in that regard that the text describes black skin as a deviation from the norm that is less than aesthetically pleasing (and it makes this point in rather strong, bold terms). At the same time, the text also does not object, in principle, to such mixed-race encounters – it may be an aesthetically questionable choice (following the logic of this text, that is), but one that is perfectly normal from the perspective of lovers, who are all a bit mad to begin with.

What is (and remains) bad about the whole scenario is the (alleged) act of infidelity – and, as if that was not bad enough, infidelity with someone as low as a slave: the husband certainly never expected her to sink so low (as the final sentence would appear to imply).

The defence, too, focuses on the adaptability of the human skin to its environment, but in a rather more short-termist way, working forward from the assertion that the entire birth process had been profoundly upsetting and dramatic  – in fact, true credit to the accused’s fidelity rather than the opposite. (Time to remind oneself: this is a fictitious case!)

In this context it is pointed out that one’s complexion may change even in the short term (rather than as part of one’s genetic inheritance), depending on exposure to the sun (or lack thereof). Something similar, it is argued, may have happened to the baby as it was born under very difficult circumstances.

Time will show, it is claimed, that the baby’s skin colour is not, in fact, the result of an act of infidelity (note, too, what the text does not say, namely that intercourse with an Aethiops would be out of the question for a woman of high reputation!), but of complications.

A difficult text, no doubt, and one full of potentially quite challenging remarks about genetic inheritance.

The message I prefer to take away from it, however, is this:

Expers iudicii est amor; non rationem habet, non sanitatem; alioquin omnes idem amaremus.

Love is blind: it has neither rhyme nor reason. Otherwise, we would all love in the same way.

A statement even the (allegedly) spurned (made-up) accuser cannot disagree with.


Posted in Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

A postscript to Reverend Grainger of St Giles

How lovely to see my work used in this fascinating context!

The Whitley Pump

Plaque to John Cecil Grainger in St Giles Church

In October, the Whitley Pump wrote about the impressive memorial to Rev John Cecil Grainger of St Giles, who died in 1857, and was buried in Reading Old Cemetery. His parishioners also erected a tablet in St Giles Church.

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