A post from Shady Characters

Roman all over the place: a Shady Char­ac­ters field trip

This is the most recent in a series of three posts on Field Trips. Start at PART 1 or view ALL POSTS in the series.


Hadrian’s Wall is quite a thing. Its construction is linked to a visit to Britain, in 122 CE, of the Emperor Hadrian, although work may have been underway before then. Conventional wisdom says that Hadrian wanted to keep the restive Celts out of Roman Britain to the south; another interpretation is that the wall was a means to collect tolls and duties from whomever might have cause to pass through it, Celt or otherwise. Whatever the case, the finished wall was eighty miles long, running almost from coast to coast, and it became the abiding symbol of Roman rule in the island of Britain.1,2

Vindolanda is just a mile south of Hadrian’s Wall. It’s the site of a Roman auxiliary fort and an associated village, or vicus, both of which predated the wall but subsequently became part of its supporting infrastructure. The fort was rediscovered some time before 1702, which was the year that a doctor named Christopher Hunter3 described:

a square room, strongly vaulted above, and paved with large stones set in lime, and under this a lower room, whose roof was supported by rows of square pillars of about half a yard high: the upper room had […] two chimneys on each side of every corner or square [.]

All of which sounds exactly like the warm room, or tepidarium, of a Roman bathhouse, with a hypocaust below the floor and chimneys within the walls to convey hot air from the furnace.4

Despite the find, little happened in the way of excavations until the land on which the fort sat was acquired in 1814 by one Anthony Hedley, an Anglican priest and enthusiastic amateur antiquarian. Hedley’s purchase saved what remained of the fort from the stone-robbing and looting that blighted much of the rest of the wall, with Hedley himself rescuing a Roman gravestone from the attentions of an over-eager tenant farmer in 1818. Many more finds would follow and, since the 1930s, the site has been subject to near-continuous archaeological investigation.4

Today, Vindolanda is run by a charitable trust as combination of an open-air museum and an ongoing archaeological excavation.5 It’s a great place to visit if you’re in the vicinity — some of the nearby sites on Hadrian’s Wall itself have a more dramatic outlook, but the scale of the fort and vicus, along with a well-presented museum that houses nearly a century’s worth of archaeological finds, mean that Vindolanda more than holds its own.


On a recent visit, I couldn’t help but linger at a collection of Roman inscriptions — well, replica inscriptions, since the originals are in nearby Chesters Museum — originally discovered by Anthony Hedley himself. Together, they provide a fascinating snapshot of how stonemasons in Roman Britain approached writing and punctuation.

First up is the gravestone that Hedley found in 1818. It’s dated to between 43 to 410 CE, which is archaeology’s way of saying “we don’t know when it was made but we’re pretty sure it came from Roman-occupied Britain”,6 and it marks the death of one Cornelius Victor.

Reproduction of Roman gravestone at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman gravestone at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1713 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)

The inscription reads:

D(is) M(anibus)
Corn(elius) Victor s(ingularis) c(onsularis)
mil(itavit) ann(os) XXVI civ(is)
Pann(onius) fil(ius) Saturni-
ni p(rimi) p(ilaris) vix(it) an(nos) LV d(ies) XI
coniux procuravi(t)

Or, translated and with its abbreviations expanded,

To the spirits of the departed; Cornelius Victor, singularis consularis, served for 26 years, a Pannonian tribesman, son of Saturninus, a senior centurion, and lived for 55 years, 11 days. His wife had this set up.”7

All the usual quirks are there: uppercase letters only; dots between words; abbreviations for familiar phrases; too-long words broken across lines. It’s a time capsule of Roman writing customs.

With the gravestone are three altarpieces that all display the same traits:

Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1685 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1686 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1687 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)

Moreover, all three show a quirk of Roman numerals that I hadn’t previously thought much about. The inscription for the first, for example, reads as follows:

Genio
praetori
sacrum Pi-
tuanius Se-
cundus prae-
fectus coh(ortis) IIII
Gall(orum)

Or, translated,

Sacred to the Genius of the commandant’s house Pituanius Secundus, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, (set this up).8

The thing I found interesting is that the number four is rendered not as “IV”, as I had expected, but rather in the “IIII” style found on some clocks.* “IIII” is said to be additive and “IV” subtractive, but very little (that I can find) has been written about when or why the Romans switched from one to the other. The only real convention seems to have been that the additive notation was preferred for inscriptions, especially official ones.9 The colosseum, for example, used “IIII” rather than “IV” for some of its gates.10 Beyond that, the choice seems to have come down to taste and/or context, even within the same document.

I’d love to know if any readers can shed some light on this!


1.
David Breeze, “History of Hadrian’s Wall”
2.
Jarrett Lobell A, “The Wall at the End of the Empire”, Archaeology Magazine, May–2017. 
3.
Gordon Goodwin and F Horsman, “Hunter, Christopher (bap. 1675, D. 1757), Antiquary and Physician”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004. 
4.
Robin Birley, “Roman Researches from Camden to Anthony Hedley, John Clayton and Eric Birley”, Vindolanda : A Roman Frontier Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, 2009. 
5.
“History of the Trust”, The Vindolanda Trust
6.
“An Introduction To Roman Britain (AD 43–c.410)”
7.
“RIB 1713. Funerary Inscription for Cornelius Victor”, Roman Inscriptions of Britain
8.
“RIB 1685. Altar Dedicated to the Genius Praetori”, Roman Inscriptions of Britain
9.
Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, “Numbers, Roman”, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996, 1053. 
10.
Cycler48, “Colosseum”, Flickr, October–2012. 
*
It’s amazing the things you notice when writing a book about the pocket calculator

8 comments on “Roman all over the place: a Shady Char­ac­ters field trip

  1. Comment posted by Laurel Wilson on

    I can’t shed any light on the switch from IV to IIII, but I can add that iiii (lowercase) for 4 is extremely common in late medieval accounting.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Laurel — thanks for the comment. That’s interesting! I wonder if there’s any significance to lowercase vs. uppercase?

    2. Comment posted by Paolo on

      In the Colosseum’s picture linked in note 10, I read “LI” and “LII” not “IIII”.

      I knew the use of IIII in clocks is due to optimization in casting (maybe you wrote it in your book that I didn’t read, sorry).

      Other explanations are on Electric Time.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Paolo — thanks for the comment! On closer inspection, I think you’re right about the Colosseum gate numbering. You’ll have to trust me that “IIII” is used for gate number 4 :)

      Thanks for the link about clocks. Lots of plausible-sounding explanations there, although supporting evidence appears to be sparse.

  2. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    Notes about first inscription (https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/1713) that were not clarified by the (partial) translation:

    • s(ingularis) c(onsularis) – proconsular/governor’s [body]guard;
    • p(rimi) p(ilaris) – former commander of the first cohort/maniple [battalion] of the legion.
  3. Comment posted by Brian on

    I remember reading that the of the subtractive notation in Roman numerals only became standard in the Renaissance era. Its use was irregular even in the medieval era. Wikipedia notes that the Romans themselves used it irregularly, specifically citing how the 18th Ronan Legion wrote their own number as XIIX, and the 22nd Roman Legion wrote their number as IIXX — neither of which would be considered correct in the modern system.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — I hadn’t noticed that in the Wikipedia article! Thanks for mentioning it. I’m surprised no-one has managed to nail down the whats and the whys of this with a bit more clarity.

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