How to Read Latin Inscriptions

This week we had a lecture from our professor Alex Meyer on Latin epigraphy (which means inscriptions, from the Greek word for “written upon”). As a graduate student I have the good fortune of having already taken a course on Latin epigraphy (as it happens from Alex himself), and so the lecture served as a good reminder.

The beauty of Latin inscriptions is that they’re very formulaic, especially in their use of abbreviations. While the formula varies from type to type (say, from burial epitaphs to building commemorations) each category is internally consistent. For an example, let’s look at a burial epitaph I saw in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The letters are difficult to see in my picture, so I’ve included an illustration.

The tombstone itself. As you can see, being in the ground for 2000 years takes it toll.
Much more legible! If you can read Latin, that is.

The first two words, DIS M, are a variation of an extremely common phrase in burial inscriptions, the Roman equivalent of our RIP. It’s short for dis manibus, and means “to the immortal ghosts of the dead.” Next comes the deceased’s name, Nectovelius. What follows states that he was F[ILIUS] VINDICIS, or “son of Vindex.” Now comes the deceased’s age: 29 (AN[NORUM] IXXX). The next bit gives us a plausible reason for why he died as young as he did. STIP[ENDIORUM] VIIII states that Nectovelius had been receiving payment for military service for 9 years before his death, and had therefore served for 9 years. It is reasonable to assume that he died in combat, or from combat-related causes. NATIONIS BRIGANS tells us that Nectovelius came from the Brigantes, a large and important tribe in what is now northern England. The final phrase, MILITAVIT IN COH[ORTE] II THR[ACUM], tells us that Nectovelius served in a unit called the Second Cohort of Thracians (Thrace geographically corresponds to modern Bulgaria).

While this inscription doesn’t exactly reveal the entire life story of Nectovelius, it nevertheless imparts a great deal of information. From it we can learn, for instance, that a cohort named after and manned by Thracians contained a local British tribesman. However, the Roman military was a very practical institution, and it made much more sense to recruit locally instead of getting recruits from a place that was a 50 days’ march away. This is just one of countless ways epigraphy can help us understand the ancient world.

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