Tag: Latin Tombstones

Two new Rider Reliefs in the Ashmolean – Podcast 8

At the end of 2015, the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions Project unveiled the first of its new installations, with a pair of Roman Rider Reliefs, now on show in the Rome Gallery.

Two recently-installed tombstones in the Ashmolean Rome Gallery: ANMichaelis.214 and AN1947.285

Two recently-installed tombstones in the Ashmolean Rome Gallery: ANMichaelis.214 and AN1947.285


Here you can listen to Prof. Alison Cooley speaking with Dr Jane Masséglia about the two stones, the people they commemorate, and about the little surprise hidden in one of the inscriptions:


Freedmen and Friends – Podcast 5

Hear Prof. Alison Cooley and Dr Hannah Cornwell from the AshLI Project, talking about a tombstone which marked the plot of an entire Roman familia: spouses, freedmen and good friends, all together in the same burial:

Did the Romans believe in ghosts?

The haunted house…

It was a sprawling town house that anyone would have been proud to own. But every night, the sound of clanking chains and a terrifying vision of an old man, his shaggy hair crusted with filth, woke the inhabitants. With each visitation, their terror grew until, sick with sleeplessness, they abandoned the house. It was put up for sale, but no-one would go near it. Then, one day, a man arrived in town, a man famous for his rational mind. A man who didn’t believe in ghosts. Dr Llewelyn Morgan picks up the story with a recording he made especially for AshLI:

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The story of Athenodoros and the haunted house comes from the turn of the second century AD, in a letter from Pliny the Younger to his friend Sura (Pliny, Letters VII.27).

Spookily familiar

The basic story – a place is haunted by a ghost who can find no peace until its bones are found and laid to rest – is a very familiar one (The Woman in Black, Coraline, and Sleepy Hollow all rely on it). It’s also very ancient. In Homer’s Odyssey XI, Odysseus meets the ghost of his comrade Elpenor in Hades, and discovers that he’s been left behind on Circe’s island. Elpenor had rolled off the roof where he was sleeping and broken his neck, and needs a proper burial.

The many faces of the Roman ghost

In modern, Western culture, ghosts are often associated with this kind of unfinished business. Set against the Christian tradition of heaven and an appealing afterlife, ghosts often need to have a good reason to be hanging around on earth when they could be somewhere better. But the Romans didn’t have just one idea about ghosts. Some, like the old man in Pliny’s story, were lemures, angry or overlooked spirits, who could cause trouble for the living. They were honoured annually with a series of feast days in May. Not surprisingly, lemures mostly appear in Latin literature (e.g. Ovid’s Fasti 5), since they tend to make good stories. Others ghosts were members of the natural, and ever-increasing band of dead ancestors and close relatives, who functioned as guiding and protective forces in Roman daily life. These spirits, the manes, were imagined as being in or under the earth, and were celebrated with a nine-day festival, the Parentalia, in February, and were often described as gods (di). The distinction between gods and protective spirits wasn’t one which the Romans would have worried too much about.

‘Dis Manibus’

It’s the assembled ranks of this second type of ghost, the ancestor-spirit, which are extremely common in Latin inscriptions. Roman tombstones often open with two letters: DM, short for dis manibus – ‘To the spirits of the departed’. It’s an address to those who have gone before which alerts them that another spirit is on its way, and is commended to their care. Even if the rest of the inscription is broken off, worn away, or downright horrible, the opening letters DM mean that we can be sure we’re dealing with a tombstone, and not some other type of inscription.

Tombstone of Restitutus, 2nd-3rd century AD, Ashmolean Museum ANChandler.3.79

Tombstone of Restitutus, 2nd-3rd century AD, Ashmolean Museum ANChandler.3.79

If we’re really lucky, the stonecutter might have included a slightly longer abbreviation, like the DIIS (this time with double ‘i’) MANIB we see on this ash-urn currently on display in the Ashmolean’s Rome gallery:

Ash-urn of Cornelia Thalia, c. AD 50-100, Ashmolean Museum AN2007.63, Rome Gallery

Ash-urn of Cornelia Thalia, c. AD 50-100, Ashmolean Museum AN2007.63, Rome Gallery

A toast for a ghost

One of the ways that the Romans kept the di manes happy was by making offerings. A recently deceased relative and the rest of the di manes could be honoured by pouring libations or leaving food on or near the grave. One of the pieces that the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions Project hopes to put on display in 2015 is a remarkable tombstone for a woman named Livia Casta. In the middle of the stone is a relief carving of a Roman cup, pierced with four holes. The stone was originally set horizontally so that Livia Casta’s relatives could pour wine, honey and water offerings into the cup, which would drain through onto her ashes where she could enjoy it. Honouring the ghosts of dead relatives and the wider band of di manes was really a question of keeping them involved, and making sure they had their share of pleasures like food and drink.

Mensa sepulchralis of Livia Casta, AD 50-100, Ashmolean Museum ANChandler3.45

Mensa sepulchralis of Livia Casta, AD 50-100, Ashmolean Museum ANChandler3.45

Did the Romans believe in ghosts?

It’s always dangerous to make generalisations about what an entire culture believed. It’s tempting to use the evidence in literature and inscriptions to draw conclusions about what the Romans thought, but plenty of people read (and write) ghost stories without necessarily being convinced about the existence of ghosts, and plenty of people ask for things to be caved on tombstones because they’re traditional. Some Romans probably believed in ghosts, and some probably didn’t. But what’s very clear is that the Romans liked the idea of ghosts, and used them in various different ways: for managing luck, for keeping family memories alive and even, just like us, for telling scary stories.

A more detailed discussion of the Latin inscriptions shown here, with full bibliographic references, will appear in the new catalogue of the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions, which will be freely available online before 2016.

A Roman Centurion in London

The many faces, and hairdos, of Vivius Marcianus

Ashmolean ANChandler3.10 (RIB 17), currently on display in the Museum of London. Dowel-holes in surface related to later reuse as building material. (H. 209cm, W. 78cm, D. 27cm). 3rd century AD.


RescVivius.Marcianus - Cooley - overal croppedl-1ued by Wren

In 1669, a limestone funerary relief was found by Sir Christopher Wren, when the church of St Martin’s in Ludgate Hill, London was being rebuilt following the Great Fire of London in 1666. With help from then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, the tombstone was brought to Oxford for display outside the new Sheldonian Theatre, and eventually became part of the Ashmolean collection. Today is can be seen on loan at the Museum of London.

Vivius Marcianus - Cooley- inscr




Tricky TextVivius Marcianus inscr copy

The inscription tells us that it belonged to Vivius Marcianus, and was set up by his wife Ianuaria Martina.

  d(is) m(anibus) / Vivio ° Marci/ ano ° {ivy-leaf} leg(ionis)° II / Aug(ustae)° Ianuaria /5 Martina ° coniunx °/ pientissima °posu/it ° memoriam

‘To the spirits of the departed. Ianuaria Martina, most dutiful wife, set up the monument for Vivius Marcianus, of the 2nd Legion Augusta.’


In the words Marciano and coniunx, we see two examples of letters wrapped inside the C. In the words Martina and memoriam, we also find examples of ligatures, where two letters are stuck together: in the case of Martina, the ligature of the TI has led to many people to misread her name as Marina. The ivy-leaf in line 3 has also caused confusion and led some readers to insert extra letters or leave it out altogether.


The Many Faces of Vivius Marcianus

An image of Vivius Marcianus is shown at three-quarters life-size, standing inside an arched niche below the inscription. The surface of the relief is much worn, but we can see that he was shown wearing a short tunic, belt and cloak. In his left hand he holds what looks like a scroll, and his right hand holds a stick at this side. This confirms what the large size of the tombstone might have already suggested: that Vibius Marcianus was no ordinary soldier. The stick was the badge of office of a Roman centurion.

This interpretation of the damaged relief is based on what we, in 2014, know about the Roman Army and about Roman funerary art. But past studies of the relief haven’t always presented Vivius Marcianus in the same way. Here are just a few examples:


Prideaux 1676 Marmora Oxoniensia

Prideaux, 1676



In 1676, Humphrey Prideaux imagined Vivius Marcianus with long hair and a fringe, and (rather dangerously) holding a long pointed sword by its blade. His reconstruction was clearly influenced by seventeenth-century fashions, giving him a contemporary hairstyle and replacing the stick with a long, thin blade unlike any Roman gladius.




Thomas Gale

Gale, 1709


In 1709, Thomas Gale produced a very different reconstruction. This time Vivius Marcianus’ hair was short, and he was shown looking more poised and alert. But several details are missing and incorrect: the fall of the cloak behind, the belt, the scroll-like object in his left hand and the vertical stick in his right do not appear, suggesting he had not inspected the relief closely. In 1813, Thomas Pennant remarked how Vivius Marcianus had been ‘differently and faultily represented by Mr Gale.’


Thomas Allen's line drawing from History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark and Parts Adjacent, vol 1 1827

Allen, 1827




In 1827, Thomas Allen produced an illustration which restored the long cloak and belt, but showed the left hand empty. Rather than invent the hair and face, he chose to leave them blank. He offered a very impressionistic transcription of the Latin, with the words in line 5, Martina coniunx, almost unrecognisable.





In 1841, Charles Knight attempted his own version, drawing heavily on Prideaux’s early reconstruction, but now giving him a historical flavour with an old fashioned mop of curls. And the long sword has reappeared. The nineteenth-century readings of the relief are interesting because of the evident influence of contemporary ideas about Ancient Britain and Britons.


Many antiquarians had already tried to argue that Vivius Marcianus was a native Briton. Thomas Pennant, in 1790, even used the long hair that Prideaux had included in his reconstruction as proof that he was a soldier of the cohors Britanorum and that he was ‘dressed and armed in the manner of the country’. But in the nineteenth century, this interest in Marcianus’ Britishness had a slightly different flavour.


Line drawing of Vivius Marcianus from Knight 1841, following Pennant's description - Copy

Knight, 1841

Charles Knight quoted the 1813 description by George Alexander Cooke which had Vivius Marcianus having ‘a plaid flung over his breast’ and holding ‘a sword of vast length, like the claymore of the later Highlanders’. The Victorian enthusiasm for Scotland and romantic historical themes appears to have influenced both men’s vision of our Roman soldier. Despite his flamboyant illustration, Knight admitted ‘in truth nearly all the points of his attire and accoutrements are so uncertainly delineated on the mutilated stone that anything like a complete or consistent picture of the whole can only be made out by an exercise of fancy’.


JW Archer's 1852 watercolour BM AN00651893_001_l - Copy

Archer, 1852



Before photography, these kinds of drawings, accompanied by verbal descriptions, were the only way to share information about ancient objects. But it was not always easy to tell how much of any drawing was based on fact and how much conjecture.



Considering how strong a temptation there was to make a damaged stone look more attractive in illustrations, the watercolour painted by James Wykeham Archer in 1852 is especially interesting. Archer’s is the only drawing to include the holes, breaks and areas of wear, suggesting a largely reliable record of the condition of the stone in the mid-nineteenth century. Importantly, it looks very much like it does now. Without Archer’s drawing, we might have believed that Allen, Knight and the others were able to see details that we no longer can, and perhaps trusted their illustrations more than we should.



  • Allen, T. (1827) History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark and parts
    adjacent, Vol. 1 (London)
  • Cooke, G.T. (1813) Topographical and Statistical Description of the Country of Middlesex (London)
  • Gale, T. (1709) Antonini Iter Britanniarum (London)
  • Knight, C. (1841) London vol.2 (Charles Knight & Co.: London)
  • Pennant, T. (1790) Some Account Of London (London)
  • Prideaux, H. (1676) Marmora Oxoniensia ex Arundellianis (Oxford)