One of the enduring fascinations of the Roman period is that the surviving literary evidence allows us to delve into the lives of individual people in a way that we simply cannot do in other eras. The works of great authors such as Suetonius, Plutarch, Tacitus and Cicero provide us with a deluge of colourful and characterful evidence of daily life and the social and political interactions between individuals.
Although Britain was only on the periphery of the Empire, a latecomer to the classical world and often derided as a barbarian land by Mediterraneans, literary evidence continues to illuminate our understanding. Our written sources for Britain are mostly not from the great authors, though they do mention Britain in their works, but from inscriptions such as tombstones and religious altars. One such altar inscription tells us of an important citizen of Roman Lincoln, living in the earlier 3rd Century AD.
Intriguingly the altar comes not from Britain at all, but from Bordeaux in south western France, its very findspot a testament to the international nature of Roman Lincoln. It was discovered in 1921 on Rue du Pont-de-la-Mousque during building works. Excavations unearthed large sections of the city wall which had been built in around AD300, and re-used the altar as convenient masonry in the process.
The altar is made of millstone grit, a stone from Yorkshire which stood out from the local Bordeaux limestone as much in the 20th Century as it must have done 1,600 years earlier. The crucial details are contained within the damaged pictorial frieze at the top and the block of surviving text beneath.
The inscription on the altar reads:
DEAE TVTELE BOVDIG
M AVR LVNARIS IIIIIII
VIR AVG COL EBOR ET
LIND PROV BRIT INF
ARAM QVAM VOVER
AB EBORACI AVECT
V S L M
PERPETVO ET CORNE
This is translated as 'In honour of the Goddess Tutela Boudiga, Marcus Aurelius Lunaris, Sevir Augustalis of the colonies of York and Lincoln, in the province of Lower Britain, set up the altar which he vowed on starting from York. Willingly and rightly did he fulfil his vow, in the consulship of Perpetuus and Cornelianus'.
The inscription provides us with a wealth of information about Roman religion, trade and political organisation. The circumstances in which the altar was set up are clear. Lunaris was to travel from York to Bordeaux, and wished for divine protection on his journey. To this end he made a vow to the Goddess Tutela Boudiga for safe passage, promising to set up an altar in her honour if she protected him – that altar of course being the object we are now discussing. His choice of deity is an interesting one. Tutela is a known deity in the Roman Empire, and although she appears in human form, she is the personification of the concept of protection or guardianship. By making his vow to 'Tutela Boudiga', Lunaris is making his vow to the spiritual guardian of the people of Bordeaux. That he would pray to the deity of his destination rather than a similar protective deity of York or a water deity such as Neptune suggests that he already possessed strong links with Bordeaux. The year in which Perpetuus and Cornelianus were consuls provides us with the wonderfully precise date in which Lunaris set up the altar - AD237.
At the top of the altar is a frieze, though sadly a damaged one, depicting Lunaris making his sacrifice to Tutela. The goddess sits in the centre, holding a cornucopia. To her right stands a bull led by a priest and to her left, standing over his altar, is Lunaris. Tutela is notably larger than the two humans beside her, as befits her divine status.
Lunaris was an important man in society, as he held a position as one of the 'Sevir Augustales' – the priests of the Imperial Cult. These priesthoods were established in major settlements to oversee the worship of the spirits of deified Emperors. One peculiarity of Roman priesthoods was that they were not dedicated positions, as a modern Christian vicar would be. Instead, priesthoods were held by wealthy citizens of a town in addition to their other business and social activities. Lunaris, therefore, was a wealthy man, probably a merchant, who had social standing in both the colonies of York and Lincoln – his business interests no doubt encompassing them both. His voyage to Bordeaux may well have been linked to his business, and perhaps suggests he was involved in the wine trade.
The discovery of the altar answered a question about the location of Lincoln within the political organisation of Roman Britain. Although the province of Britannia is often spoken about as a single entity throughout the Roman period, in fact the province was split into successively smaller sections on two occasions. In the very early years of the 3rd Century, likely within Lunaris' own lifetime, the province was divided into two in response to the attempt of the governor, Clodius Albinus, to become Emperor. Septimius Severus divided the province so that no single governor could control all of Britain's legions. The split divided the island into north and south halves, with the southern half ('Britannia Superior') governed from London and the northern half ('Britannia Inferior') governed from York. The exact borderline is unknown, as was what side of the divide Lincoln stood. The discovery of the Bordeaux altar confirmed that Lincoln sat within the territory of Britannia Inferior, with the boundary presumably not much further to the south.
The Bordeaux altar therefore stands as a wonderful example of how a simple inscription can shed light on not only an individual from the past but on how Roman society, religion and politics affected life in Roman Lincoln, and how international trade and communications were in the Roman world.
The images here are of a resin cast of the front of the altar, in the museum's collections. The original altar is in the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux.
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