Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds So welcome to the GNM. What we’re looking at here are the Mithraeum Altars discovered at Carrawburgh back in 1950. And these three were actually discovered standing together. And what we’ll do is we’ll start with this first central altar as a way of approaching the reading of these interesting monuments. One of things to note, of course, is we have to look out for visual clues, even before we start to read the text itself. So the visual clues here are really quite dramatic. This altar has been cut through so that a burning torch could actually send shafts of light, brightening up the inside of the darkened Mithraeum and really creating a sense of drama and dynamism, even in this stone monument.
Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds And that halo actually helps to bring out this painted figure at the centre of the panel. Beneath this is the text. And in this instance, it’s fairly simple, fairly formulaic. It starts with deo, “to the god” invicto. So deo invicto Mithrae. “To the unconquerable god, Mithras.” And what you’ll note here is that here and on some of the other altars, we have little markers to tell us that we have gaps between the words. It doesn’t always work that way, unfortunately. But that can be a useful clue if you’re trying to work out what you should be reading. The next thing that we can expect on altars in general is that we’ll have the names of the dedicants.
Skip to 1 minute and 37 seconds That’s very important in Roman altar-making practise. And because it’s important to be seen to be doing the right thing and to publicly acknowledge that. So an M– always an abbreviation for Marcus– the name Simplicius Simplex. And note here the way in which the Romans ligature letters frequently. So we have an M and P back-to-back. And an E and an L, so L-E-X. It’s a nice– it’s not simply about saving space. It’s also quite an arty thing, making a text look interesting. And then underneath, who was Marcus Simplicius Simplex? He was the prefect, the praefectus, the individual in charge of the unit.
Skip to 2 minutes and 21 seconds And in this instance, we’re not told what the unit is because, of course, worshippers in the Mithraeum would have known exactly what unit it was. The temple itself is only a few metres away from the fort where the garrison resided. And that is followed with the classic formula V-S-L-M, votum solvit libens merito, that is “willingly fulfilled his vow.” The altar is part of the process of vow making. It’s essential to Roman religion. And if you see VSLM on an inscription, it’s telling you it’s an altar. Now if we move to the next one, this altar looks rather different.
Skip to 3 minutes and 0 seconds It’s got the same essential elements, the shaft and capital, but it also has a very pronounced focus here– this circular structure into which offerings would be made. The dedication is similar in some respects too. Again, the “to the god” deo invicto, “to the unconquerable god.” Mithras has been reduced here to just an M. People know from the context that we’re talking about Mithras. Then again, we have the name of the dedicant. L, a little interstitial here, Antonius, A-N-T-O-N-I-U-S, Proculus. And he is, again, the prefect. Note this lovely use here, R-A-E-F, in this instance, of the first cohort C-O-H for “cohort.” The number for 1 is actually here. So “cohors prima,” B-A-T.
Skip to 3 minutes and 56 seconds That tells us that it is the first cohort of Batavi, “bativorum.” “Cohort prima Batavorum.” And the unit carries this very long title, and it’s interesting to see how much of the altar is actually given over to the unit title. A-N-T-O-N-I-N-I-N-I-A-E. Antonininiae. So the unit would have been style originally “cohors prima Batavorum Antonininiae.” That title is actually, we know, used by units between AD 211 and 222. And what happens is it is essentially a title that units have strapped on to their regimental title.
Skip to 4 minutes and 44 seconds It’s given by the Emperor Caracalla who’s particularly anxious to cement his relations with the army, notably the army in Britain, after he himself has murdered his brother Geta to who many of the soldiers of Britain actually were rather more loyal. That gives us a date for the altar. There’s no formal dating on it, but we can therefore put this altar in the early third century. And again, we finish off here with V-S-L-M. Now we go from that altar to the third in the group. And in some ways, this is the most detailed of the lot. We start again with the dedication to Mithras, but it’s been abbreviated again. D. Full stop. I-N.
Skip to 5 minutes and 26 seconds And then we have M, just for Mithras, and an S, “sacra.” So “sacred to the unconquerable god Mithras.” And the name of the dedicant of course follows. We’re used to this format now. A-V-L, always for Aulus. A little interstitial here for the next name, Cluentius. And then the next name again, Habitus. So the classic tria nomina of a Roman citizen. Aulus Cluentius Habitus, who is– again– a prefect and also of that same unit. Cohort. So “cohors,” in Latin. “Prima Batavorum,” given in full. Note there’s no “Antonininiae” on this particular one because in fact, as we’ll see, this is an earlier altar in the group. He tells us quite a lot about him. In fact, this is really all about him.
Skip to 6 minutes and 18 seconds It’s interesting when you think how little text is actually given over to the god Mithras. And he tells us that his home– or “domus”– is in Italy, which is very interesting because traditionally Batavian units were supposed to be commanded by Batavian nobles. So here we’ve got an Italian in charge. That demonstrates something’s going on, I think. And when he gives us his home, he refers to the voting tribe from which he comes. Now a voting tribe is the way that Roman citizens are organised. They belong to voting tribes. At this time in the third century, we relatively rarely see them mentioning this in British inscriptions. But here, he’s doing just that. And he then tells us where he comes from.
Skip to 6 minutes and 59 seconds So his voting tribe is here, reduced to V-L-T-I-N-A. It’s the Voltinian voting tribe. But he tells us of the town he comes from. And he tells it as it is a Colonia, Colonia Septimia Aureliana L Now what is that L for? Well, it’s interesting that he assumes we would know what it is, because there are so many towns in the Roman Empire that begin with L. He’s talking about Larinum. And we know that, as he would have realised, because one of his famous ancestors– his namesake in fact, Aulus Cluentius Habitus– was in fact protected by or defended by the famous Cicero back in 66 BC from charges that he’d murdered his stepfather.
Skip to 7 minutes and 46 seconds So any well-read Roman would have known the association between this family and Larinum. And it’s interesting that he assumes that that holds good too in a Mithraeum on the northern frontier. We can date this too, because the town of Larinum had been promoted to colonial status. And we know that that must have taken place around about AD 208. So again, an early third century inscription here. No formal date on it, but that crucial clue. Signing off with V-S-L-M. So I hope that at the end of this sequence, you’ll feel perhaps a little bit more confident about just how much we can extract from Roman altars. The texts do have a clear formulaic element.
Skip to 8 minutes and 33 seconds And you’ll always find that there’s more in the text that you can read, even without Latin, than you might perhaps assume. If you are a Latinist, I think you can also see how many different layers of meaning we can extract from this information.
Re-reading the altars
| RIB 1546
Line 1: DEO INVICTO
Line 2: MITRAE M(ARCUS) SIM
Line 3: PLICIVS SIMPLEX
Line 4: PR(A)EF(ECVS) V(OTUM) S(OLVIT) L(IBENS) M(ERITO)
Line 1: TO THE INVINCIBLE GOD
Line 2: MITHRAS MARCUS
Line 3: SIMPLICIUS SIMPLEX
Line 4: PREFECT WILLINGLY AND DESERVEDLY FULFILLED HIS VOW
| RIB 1544
Line 1: DEO INV(ICTO) M(ITHRAE)
Line 2: L(VCIVS) ANTONIVS
Line 3: PROCVLVS
Line 4: PRAEF(ECTVS) COH(ORTIS) I BAT(AVORUM)
Line 5: ANTONINIANAE
Line 6: V(OTVUM) S(OLVIT) L(IBENS) M(ERITO)
Line 1: TO THE INVINCIBLE GOD MITHRAS
Line 2: LUCIUS ANTONIUS
Line 3: PROCULUS
Line 4: PREFECT OF THE 1ST COHORT OF BATAVIANS
Line 5: ANTONINIANA
Line 6: WILLINGLY AND DESERVEDLY FULFILLED HIS VOW
Laser scanned altar images © NU Digital Heritage.
© Newcastle University