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Reading the evidence: military tombstones

A guide to the Flavinus tombstone filmed in Hexham Abbey.
I think the first thing, when studying a monument like this, to remember is that there’s an awful lot of information over and above the text itself, and that most people who saw this displayed in the northern frontier, best part of 2,000 years ago, couldn’t have actually read the Latin bit themselves either. So there’s a lot of information to be read from the image. And if we look at this image, it’s a pretty impressive, in-your-face monument. You have a rider with an elaborately plumed helmet. He’s carrying a strange staff. He is on a horse. The horse is a very important part of this funerary iconography here, which is itself richly decorated. You can see the trappings on the horse here.
And he is riding over a cowering barbarian. Now, dramatic as the cowering barbarian may seem here, he’s actually by far the least important part of this story, because battered barbarians make great space fillers for funerary monuments involving horses. What they want to show is the link between rider and horse, because the soldier is drawing his status from the fact that he is a horse soldier. And secondly, because he is a standard bearer. So both of those are prominently displayed to us. And that message would have been very clear to someone in the military milieu of northern Britain in the first century AD. But there is text as well, and that text follows formulae that are very, very familiar.
In fact, if we were looking at this on the German frontier, if we were looking at this text or a version of it in Rome itself, we would find identical formulae used. So what does this text actually tell us about our horseman? Well, the text starts with the familiar introduction really, ‘dis manibus’, that is to say, to the spirits of the departed. And then it gives us the deceased’s name. No surprise there. We would expect that, wouldn’t we, on a tombstone. So we have his name here, Flavinus. Rather interesting touch here.
The stonemason has, after the F, the l, the a, the v, moved on to the n and tucked a little i just on top of the n to give us the Flavinus, n, v, s. Who is he? There are many things we might say about ourselves on our epitaph or those who set the epitaphs up for us might say. But the main information that we get on these types of tombstone is the military status. He is an EQ. He is an eques, that is to say, a cavalryman, a horseman of the ala, A-L-A, Latin for wing, the term used for a cavalry regiment, the ala Petriana.
Now, some of the most ancient cavalry regiments in Roman service actually were known by the names of their founder or distinguished commander. This regiment we know a lot about. It was to become the most important cavalry regiment in Britain, the only cavalry regiment in Britain of 1,000 strong. Those days are ahead of it now. It’s known simply as the ala Petriana on this tombstone. But its formal title ends up blossoming to the ala Augusta Gallorum Petriana milliaria civium Romanorum, a sense of just how a regiment can carry so much in its title. And it tells us that he wasn’t just any horseman. He was also a signifer. So here the text reinforces the image of the standard bearer.
Tells us also who his troop commander was. He was in the turma, T-V-R here, T-V-R of Candidus. And it’s interesting that the subunits of the Roman Army are not given numbers at this level, the centuries and the turma. They’re always known by their commander’s names. Then we have his age at death, not a date when he died. Note, the Romans don’t do that, but his age at death. And that age is 25. So annorum, the A-N for annorum, and then the Roman numerals, two X’s and a V. Underneath this we have S-T-I-P for stipendiorum. Now, in English today, we talk about stipendary and non-stipendary positions, paid or unpaid positions, so he has served seven years before dying.
Interesting that his period of military service is seen as something that is important to record, but it is. It’s a standard on military tombstones. And then the H and S for what would most commonly be H-S-E, hic situs est, is buried here. Well, Flavinus is not buried here. We don’t know now exactly where he’s buried. This fine monument was understandably an attractive source of stone for the new abbey when it was constructed in the seventh century. And that’s how Flavinus found his way here to Hexham, the monument used as part of the construction of the abbey.
When it was recovered, when it was discovered in more recent times, prominently displayed here so we can all enjoy it and appreciate just how elaborate the funerary architecture of a single cavalry trooper on the northern frontier might have been in first century AD.

Reading and interpreting the tombstone of Flavinus of the Ala Petriana (housed in Hexham Abbey, Northumberland) whose epitaph is known to specialists as RIB 1172.

Almost all Roman inscriptions from Britain have been allocated an RIB (Roman Inscriptions of Britain) number for reference.

In addition to the video, we will examine two funerary monuments from Colchester for comparison with Flavinus, before inviting you to decipher a couple of other examples associated with the Roman army’s first decades in Britain in a quiz in the next step. You will find the Glossary of Terms from Step 1.1 useful for the next couple of steps.

Longinus tombstone, Colchester (RIB 201)

There are obvious similarities with Flavinus’ memorial, the horse and the barbarian, and that is unsurprising because both are auxiliary cavalrymen who served in alae. You can see the title of Longinus’ unit Ala Prima Tracum on the third line, it follows immediately after his name Longinus, his father’s name, and his rank duplicarius (a soldier on double pay). After giving the name of his unit, the epitaph includes other information we might expect on a military tombstone: the place he comes from (Sardica, modern Sofia in Bulgaria), his age (XL or 40) and the number of years he served (XV or 15). The text concludes by stating that his heirs set the memorial up.

Next to the picture of the monument below, we include an expansion of the text and below it a translation. The rounded brackets () show where we have expanded the Roman abbreviations, to give the full word, square brackets [] show where it has been possible to restore the reading of letters missing because of damage the memorial has suffered.

Longinus tombstone LONGINVS SDAPEZE








Longinus son of (this comes from the filiation, see the word filius in the second line) Sdapezematygus, soldier on double pay of the first wing of Thracians (Ala I Thracum), from the district (pagus) of Sardica. 40 years of age, served 15 years, his heirs set this monument up in accordance with the terms of his will. He lies buried here.

Marcus Favonius Facilis, Colchester (RIB 200)

Our second example dates from about the same time as the first and also comes from Colchester, but the deceased is depicted very differently. He is Marcus Favonius Facilis, and he has three names (tria nomina), a form of naming associated with citizens at this time. His citizenship is further mentioned by the reference to the Pollian voting tribe (Roman citizens were divided into voting tribes). Indeed, Marcus was not serving in an auxiliary regiment but in one of the legions. The sculpture shows him with the symbols of his rank, he carries the vine cane (vitis). Unlike the ordinary soldiers, who wear their swords on their right hips, he wears his on the left. Other types of information that would be expected on epitaphs are included here too. You may note that the sculptor had no scruples about starting to carve a word on one line, and finishing it on the next. This is a common Roman practice.

Once again we have placed an expansion of the Latin text next to the picture of the monument and a translation below:






Marcus Favonius Facilis (note how this last name actually follows two other pieces of information), son of Marcus, of the Pollian voting tribe, centurion of the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX). Verecundus and Novicius his freedmen (liberti) set this up. He lies here.

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