How Roman Britons kept on the good side of a bad emperor
In 1672, a Roman altar was found on the south bank of the River Tyne at South Shields. Measuring over a meter in height, it had images of sacrificial tools and a wine-mixing bowl carved into three of its sides, while on top was a dish-shaped hollow (the focus) which once held the fire that sent burnt offerings up to the gods.
On the front of the altar is an 11-line inscription in Latin. In 1683, Martin Lister, the physician and naturalist, made the first attempt at reading it, but was disappointed to find that large sections of it were illegible.
Over the next 300 years, academics and enthusiasts worked on the stone, picking out new words and making corrections, until the text made sense. As you can see in this series of drawings, there were lots of changes along the way:
In 2009-10, two scholars from the University of Mainz, Bjorn Brecht and Bruno Kessler, scanned the image surface to reveal the remaining text, allowing Paul Bidwell, Head of Archaeology at Tyne and Wear Museums, to produce a near-complete reading. Today, we think it reads something like this:
dis ║ conservato/rib(us) ° pro salu(te) / imp(eratoris) ° C(aesaris) M(arci) Aurêl(i) / Antonini / Aug(usti) Brit(annici) Max(imi) / [[[et imp(eratoris) C(aesaris) P(ubli) Sep(timi) Getae Aug(usti) Brit(annici)]]] /[n(umerus) [?] L[u]g[udun]ens(iu)m /ob reditu(m) ║v(otum) s(olverunt)
‘To the preserving gods for the welfare of Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus Greatest Britannicus and of Imperator Caesar Publius Septimius Geta Augustus Britannicus. The corps of the Lugudunenses fulfilled their vow for their return.’
The Invisible Man
Part of the reason that Lister had found it so difficult to read the inscription was because someone had deliberately erased a large section of it, three-quarters of the way down. He thought that perhaps that it had originally recorded the names of the people who set up the altar. But Roman history suggests a different story.
The first name on the stone, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus Greatest Britannicus, is the official title of the emperor we know better by his nickname ‘Caracalla’. Caracalla was the eldest son of the emperor Septimius Severus, and father and son were joint rulers when they came to Britain in AD 211. Their plan was to extend Rome’s control over the northern parts of the island.
But when Septimius Severus died unexpectedly at York in AD 211, Caracalla’s younger brother Geta was promoted to fill his father’s place and the two brothers were proclaimed joint emperors by the Roman army. It was an arrangement that wouldn’t last long. Before the year was out, Caracalla had Geta murdered and took sole control of the empire.
As a demonstration of his absolute power, Caracalla decreed that all traces of his younger brother should be erased – a process that we now call a damnatio memoriae. On our altar from South Shields, Geta’s name has been intentionally scratched away. These erasures were carried out all over the empire as gestures of allegiance to Caracalla. A Roman painting from Algeria, now in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, shows how Geta’s face was even rubbed out of a portrait of the imperial family.
One of the strange things about these official erasures is that they often draw more attention to the alteration than if the stone or painting had been left alone. It’s unlikely that the process was ever intended to completely wipe out all traces of a person, but rather that these sometimes messy erasures were meant to stand out, and remind everyone who the winners and losers were.
Luckily for us, despite the erasure, the all-important letter G for ‘Geta’ has survived, precisely in the place we would expect it.
Dating by disasters
Although the inscription doesn’t have a date in its text, we can work it out from other events. The stone calls both brothers ‘emperor’, so it must have been set up after their accession on 4th February 211 (a fixed start point for dating we call a terminus post quem). The fact that the altar originally included Geta’s name means that it must have been set up before his death in February 212 (an end-point we call a terminus ante quem). Combining these two historical dates, we can narrow down the altar’s date to the twelve-month period in between.
Up-to-date and out of trouble
The last line of the inscription gives us some idea about why the Lugudunenses (the local community at South Shields) set up the altar. We’re told that they had made a promise to set up an offering to celebrate the sibling emperor’s ‘return’. Very probably this means their safe return to Rome from Britain. The Roman historian Herodian tells us that Caracalla and Geta carried their father’s ashes back to Rome via Gaul. Perhaps South Shields was even the start point of their journey.
Roman Britain is sometimes thought of as a far outpost of the empire. But this altar shows us that the people in South Shields in the third century AD were keeping up-to-date with news from Rome. They had word of the two brothers’ safe return to Rome before setting up their altar, and later they received news of Geta’s damnatio memoriae and acted on it, just as the Roman community in Algeria did. Tyneside was as much a part of the Roman empire as any other, and the people there knew how important it was to stay on the right side of their unpredictable emperor.
AD 211-12 from South Shields. Ashmolean Museum ANChandler.3.3. H. 1.26, W. 0.61, D. 0.37. Currently on display in Arbeia Museum, South Shields, on permanent loan from the Ashmolean.
Bidwell, P. (2014) ‘The Roman names of the fort at South Shields and an altar to the di conservatores’, in Life in the Limes. Studies of the people and objects of the Roman frontiers presented to Lindsay Allason-Jones on the occasion of her birthday and retirement, eds R. Collins and F. McIntosh (Oxford and Philadelphia: Oxbow) 49-58
Bruce, J.C. (1875) Lapidarium Septentrionale: or a Description of the Monuments of Roman Rule in the North of England (London)
Chandler, R. (1763) Marmora Oxoniensia (Oxford, Clarendon Press)
Collingwood, R.G. (1923) ‘An altar from South Shields, now at Oxford,’ Archaeologia Aeliana 3rd series vol. 20, 55-62
A more detailed discussion of the altar, with full bibliographic references, will appear in the new catalogue of the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions, which will be freely available online before 2016.