Rare ancient funerary plaque with corrections subject of new scholarly research

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Rare ancient funerary plaque with corrections subject of new scholarly research
Riccardo Bertolazzi describes the unpublished stone as having come from an Augustan-age underground columbarium (where cremated remains of pagan Romans were stored).

BOSTON, MASS.- A rare, marble memorial stone from first-century Rome, inscribed in Latin on each side more than a century apart, has drawn the attention of a classical scholar who finds the inscriptions, and especially the corrections chiseled into the text, extremely uncommon.

Writing in the latest issue of the Germany-based Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (Journal of Papyrology and Epigraphy), Riccardo Bertolazzi, an Italian-born classicist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, describes the unpublished stone as having come from an Augustan-age underground columbarium (where cremated remains of pagan Romans were stored). Such stones were usually inscribed on one side only, but the object of this study is "opisthographic," or two-sided.

In his article, "An Unpublished Opisthographic Funerary Plaque and Some Comments on the Mistakes of One of its Stonecutters," Bertolazzi identifies two clearly different inscriptions with different writing styles, underscoring what he believes is a one- to two-century time difference. "The different shapes of the letters incised on the obverse and the reverse of this artifact show that some time elapsed between the two engravings."

The earlier—first-century—inscription memorializes two women, possibly of the same household, but offers little additional information. In its brevity, it is a rare example. "To my knowledge, there is only one other known documented inscription with text that bears a close resemblance to the epitaph of Restuta and Faustina [the two women named]," Bertolazzi writes.

But what Bertolazzi found most interesting were the corrections on the reverse of the stone, which was repurposed a century or two later. The re-engraved efforts on the part of the stonecutter to cover up his mistakes are exceptional. "Such a meticulous attempt to correct an epigraphic text is not very common," Bertolazzi observes. The story that unfolds from the corrected text also provides a fascinating glimpse into early Roman life.

Translated into English, the text reads, "To the Manes of Cossutius Severus. To her well-deserving patron Cossutia Thallusa [made this sepulcher] in which two ossuary urns given as a gift by Tiberius Claudius Epitynchanus are [stored]."

After careful examination, Bertolazzi discovered that the first two lines had originally read, "To the Manes of both Cossutius Severus and Cossutia Thallusa, the wife . . ." The stonecutter hadn't finished the word "wife" before he realized he had made some mistakes and started to make corrections. The changes he made reflected his new knowledge that Thallusa was still alive, and not, in fact, the wife of Severus, but his slave. "Severus had manumitted Thallusa . . . and taken her as his quasi-marital partner," Bertolazzi writes. He clarifies that "The Manes" referred to in the text are the spirits of the relatives of the deceased. In the underworld, they were supposed to "welcome" the people who had died.

Bertolazzi makes the point that Romans were generally open to the idea of integrating former slaves into their society, regardless of their ethnic origin. "Thallusa bears a Greek personal name, but this doesn't necessarily imply that she was from Greece; sometimes we find slaves of African, Celtic, or even German origin with Greek names. Also, some famous Romans descended from freed slaves. One of these was the poet Horace."

Remarking on the provenance of the stone, Bertolazzi notes that it made its first appearance on the antiquities market in London in 1990, appearing at a Christie's auction. From there it was brought to North America (Sotheby's, 2002) and subsequently acquired by a private collector in Florida. Most recently it was acquired by Victor Gulotta, a Boston-area collector who has placed a number of his antiquities and manuscripts in museums around the world. A previous first-century Roman memorial tablet from his collection is now in the permanent collection of the RD Milns Antiquities Museum at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, where it was featured in the exhibition, "A Study in Stone: The History of Epigraphy."

"This plaque from the Victor Gulotta Collection is a valuable addition to the Roman inscriptions stored in North American collections," Bertolazzi writes. "Unpublished funerary plaques that turn up in US collections are exceedingly scarce, so this one is particularly welcome. I hope more private collectors decide to share their artifacts so they do not escape scholarly attention."

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