9 April 2018

Research: Roman Tombstones in Chester

Part of the "Rows", buildings with elevated walkways
Having never visited Chester, I’ve now been twice within six months. The city is renown for its medieval Rows, elevated walkways of merchants’ living and business premises dating from the early 1300s and often displaying parts of the original beams and wattle and daub internal construction. Still used as shops and eateries, these stand on the line of the thoroughfares which once led through the Roman fortress Deva Victrix

As in York, Eboracum, the fortress walls still stand, somewhat repaired over the centuries to maintain their defensive properties. They now keep a tight rectangular grip on the heart of the city, their lengths a testimony to the might and organisational skills of Rome in the 1st Century AD. 

It’s well over a year since The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy launched, but once bitten by a period’s research it doesn’t easily relinquish its hold.

On this occasion I’d come especially to visit the Grosvenor Museum, a splendidly ornate Victorian edifice built in 1885-6 to house the burgeoning collections of the Chester Archaeological Society, among others. I knew it had a “Stone Room” containing tombstones, or grave plaques, from the Roman period. I hadn’t been prepared for the number, nor for their state of preservation, though taking photographs in the low light of museums isn't always easy. Click the images to gain a larger view.

Sextus, son of Sextus

The repaired stone on the right commemorates Sextus, son of Sextus, possibly from a cavalry squadron attached to Legio XX, and shows him on horseback with a boy on foot carrying weapons. 

Above the picture is a triptych of his portrait flanked by lions about to bite caught rams. According to the museum's information board, lions were used to symbolise the sudden attack of stalking death.

Marcus and wife
Not all plaques were tooled with such artistry, nor were they all completed. This plaque is for a centurion, Marcus Aurelius Nepos, and his wife. 

He carries a vine staff in his right hand as a symbol of his rank, but he is shown bearded and wearing civilian clothing, so he'd probably retired from service.

His wife is shown much smaller as a sign of deference to him. She is wearing a mantle, carrying a cup, and lifting the hem of her overdress to show a skirt beneath - perhaps pointing to their relative wealth. However, there is no inscription for her, and that dedicated to her husband is cramped beneath his feet. Did funds run out? Did Marcus organise the carving of their dual commemoration while still alive and another hand part finished the job?

The museum uses this plaque in an interesting recording to give voice to the unnamed wife, and convey a sense of the time. 

Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta
Of course, we need to be reminded that Roman tombstones, or funerary plaques, were not raised bare. Earlier peoples believed in colour, and the Roman civilization was no exception.

Meet Caecilius Avitus, his plaque as it was unearthed, and the museum's replica as it would, or might, have looked. With its abbreviations completed, the inscription reads:

"To the spirits of the departed Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta, an optio of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix. Served 15 years lived 34 years. His heir had this stone made."

Emerita Augusta is now Merida in south-west Spain. Caecilius Avitus may not have had a long life, but his commemoration doubtless lives far beyond his imaginings.

Needless to say, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, is well worth a visit. It runs its entry on a donation basis.

All images are copyright to Linda Acaster.

See also: my post on Chester's unearthed Amphitheatre

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