How to read a Roman inscription

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Thanas
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How to read a Roman inscription

Post by Thanas » 2009-01-31 10:16am

Let's say you are a history student, who is on a field trip with his class. You are just trudging along, secretly wishing you were at home instead of having to walk in soggy fields, which soil your new jeans and listening to your professor drone on about the virtues of roman architecture. Suddenly, you almost bump into the student in front of you - the groop has stopped. Slowly, you and your fellow studends gather around a huge block filled with incomprehensible markings.

Image

You suddenly wish you had cut back on the moonshine the evening before. What is even worse, the professor has stopped his droning and is looking at you expectantly. With a rising dread in your stomach, you realise that you have been selected to read and translate the inscription.
Gathering the last of your willpower, you start: "Impcaesl Septsevero piopertinaci Augarabadiab" "Thank you. Next." You have been dismissed. What's worse, a section of your classmates can barely stop themselves from snickering. Those are the few who decided to take their studies seriously and who attended epigraphy lectures. When noticing them, the professor's face lights up and he selects one of them to "show the rest (meaning you) how it is done". While the selected student proceeds to do so, you mutter "Who cares about this. I am studying modern history anyway", knowing full well your grade in this class will not be a credit to your reputation.

This situation could have been easily avoided. Reading Roman inscriptions is not that hard. And while I cannot be a substitute for a real lecture, I will try and show the basics of it in this post.

General facts
Roman inscriptions are primary sources. They are of incredible worth to anyone trying to write biographies and show the extent of roman culture. However, a block of stone is just that, no matter how interesting the inscription may be. When interpreting an inscription, one has to keep three things in mind:

a) What kind of inscription is it?
b) Where was it placed?
c) What material is it made of?

Regarding a, it is important to notice that there are many kinds of inscriptions. First, there are building inscriptions, usually characterized by the words (or a form of) fecit (he has done) or restituit (he has restored).
Then, there are inscriptions that are epitaphs. These are characterized by the number of years the person has lived (a form of vixit annos, annorum etc.) and are the most numerous of inscriptions found.
Then, there are dedication inscriptions to the various gods. These usually start with naming the gods, even if only in abbreviated form (IOM= Iovi Optimo Maximo, the best and greatest Jupiter), then the person who dedicated the inscription and finally why he made that inscription. A classical abbreviation in that regard is VSLM (votum solvit laebens merito=he has fulfilled his vow according to merit). The Romans were a practical people. For example, a Roman would make a vow to a god, which might have happened like this: "If you, god, do this for me, I will create an inscription in your honour". This is why "according to merit" is there, because the god has fulfilled his or her part of the promise. Another familiar forms are pro se et suis (for him and his familia), pro salute sua (for the wellbeing of himself) or pro salute imperatoris (for the wellbeing of the Emperor).
The final category are inscriptions made in honor of someone. They name the whole cursus honorum of that person and usually are among the most magnificent monuments created.

Following that, it should be easy to find out what type of inscription the above-posted image represents. Please try to do so now, if you cannot find it, you may click on the spoilerized text below.
Spoiler
Image
As you can see, it is a building inscription. Even more, it is an inscription for something that was restored.
The placement of an inscription (b) is the most important clue to the interpretation of it. A simple picture of an inscription is worthless without the context. (Note: the following four pictures were taken from here.

Image
For example, if you had this inscription and no context, you would probably write it off as nothing special. But that whole picture changes once you realize that it is one of four who formed the basis of this monument:
Image.


Of course, you might say that this hardly applies to "standard" inscriptions. Well, it does.
Take this inscription, for example:
Image

which is just part of this one:
Image.

This allows us to base conclusions on the wealth and status of the owner, for example.

A lot of monuments have been used in modern reconstructions or drawings, for example the majority of depictions of centurions are based on this monument:
Image

With regards to c), the materials used for the inscription allow clues with regards to the wealth and as well as the trade. For example, if you find a marble inscription in northern Germany, it means that there must have been trade routes in existence to Italy or other provinces, for marble was not locally available in northern Germany.

Of course, this is just a very general overview and should not be treated as a substitute of a lecture under any circumstances.

Roman names and abbreviations

Male Romans had at least three names. First, there was the praenomen, the gentilnomen and the cognomen. For example, if we take Gaius Iulius Caesar, his praenomen (first name) would be Gaius, his gentilnomen (the name of his house) Iulius and his cognomen (the name he was actually called) Caesar. That is also the reason why he is called Caesar and not Iulius by the history books. Regarding the Praenomen, it was convention that the firstborn son received the praenomen of the father. Praenomen, Gentilnomen and Cognomen form the trinomina.

One can also distinguish freedmen and non-romans this way. Freedman usually took the name of their patron and added their name as cognomen, non-romans did not use the trinomina. Thus, despite his name Romanius, it is clear that the rider posted in the inscription above was not born a Roman.

Female Romans were just called the feminine version of the gentilnomen, for example Octavia or Julia. Thus, the need for distinction between Octavia the elder and Octavia the younger (maior and minor).

However, in inscriptions, most Romans simply did not rely on the trinomina alone.

Image
Image © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

C(aius) Vibius C(ai) f(ilius)| Ste(llatina) [tribu] Secundus | mil(es) leg(ionis) XV | Apol(linaris) an(norum) XLV | stip(endiorum) XXI | h(ic) s(itus) e(st) | ex testamento

Lets look at the name:
C(aius) Vibius C(ai) f(ilius) Ste(llatina) [tribu] Secundus

Caius - Praenomen
Vibius - Gentilnomen
Cai filius - this is what we call the filliation. It literally means "son of Gaius". It tells us the name of the father, which was Caius Vibius as well.
Stellatina tribu - the tribus, the district in which his name was entered into the roll of citizens. This is the primary proof of Roman citizenship we find in inscriptions.
Secundus - his cognomen.

This is a typical arrangements you will find on most epitaphs. The other part of the inscription is pretty much standard as well:

miles legionis XV Apollinaris - Soldier of the XV legion Apollinaris
annorum XLV - 45 years old
stipendiorum XXI - he served 21 years in the legion
hic situs est - he is buried underneath the monument
ex testamento - the monument was built according to his will (and paid from his savings).

Following that, the inscription would be translated like this:

Here lies Caius Vibius Secundus, son of Caius, citizen of the Stellatina district, soldier of the fifteenth legion Apollinaris. He was 45 years of age and served 21 in the legion. The Monument was built according to his will.

Interpreting the inscription
There are several conclusions one can draw from the monument:
a) It is standard size and premanufactured. It is not a unique monument. This as well as the poor quality of the writing can lead someone to conclude that the person buried here was not very wealthy.
b) Despite serving 21 years, the soldier in question never rose above the rank of miles, the lowest rank possible in a legion. He never was one of the immunes, nor was he ever a soldier of the first cohort. In short, he was just a typical grunt with no exceptional abilities whatsoever.
c) He died while on duty. This can be deduced from the fact that he is not called a veteran on the inscription and that his 25 year term of service was not up.
d) Knowing where the monument was found allows us to trace the movements of the XV legion.
e) From the origin (stellatina) one can deduce the recruitment practices of the legion, considering the origin of the soldier. However, as we do not know how the Stellatina was formed or what it encompassed, this is not possible here.

How to transscribe a roman inscription.

Most people use the Leidener Klammersystem. The most important parts are:

[…] means that parts of the inscription were missing or unreadable. Example: Stellatina [tribu].
(…) means that abbreviations were used. Example: P(ontifex) M(aximus).
[[...]] means an appearance damnatio memoriae. Example: [[Imperator Caesar Publius Septimius Geta Augustus]] for Geta. Damnatio memoriae was the complete eradication of a persons memory and public appearances, including the erasure of that persons name on inscriptions.
<…> the editor has corrected an error made by the original writer.
{…} useless repetition made by the original writer
..... mean that there are a number of letters that are unreadable. Each suggested letter is represented by one point. A point written under a deciphered letter means that the letter was unclear to read.
v, vv or vacat mean an empty space where nothing has ever been written.
| mean that the line has come to an end.


And now it is your turn, if you are willing. Look at the first inscription, or any inscription posted in this thread, transcribe and translate it with the following list of abbreviations. If you want to, you can post your answer using spoiler tags in this thread, or PM me. Don't be afraid to try, it really is quite easy.
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Karza
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Re: How to read a Roman inscription

Post by Karza » 2009-02-01 04:45am

Gah. All I can get out of that first one is lots of titles, some numbers and a few instances that I suspect to be names, but not a damn clue how all this actually relates to each other in it. Maybe I should've cut back on the moonshine last night too :P .
"Death before dishonour" they say, but how much dishonour are we talking about exactly? I mean, I can handle a lot. I could fellate a smurf if the alternative was death.
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Thanas
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Re: How to read a Roman inscription

Post by Thanas » 2009-02-01 07:11am

Try one of the smaller ones, then. Go on, they are more fun.
Whoever says "education does not matter" can try ignorance
------------
A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! - Chief Judge Haywood
------------
My LPs

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