Christies of London will feature a 2,000-year-old Roman memorial tablet
at its July 3rd sale of antiquities. The plaque, which is inscribed in Latin on each side, is remarkable for the corrections chiseled into one of the inscriptions. It was recently the subject of a scholarly article and international news story. It is estimated to sell for £7,000-9,000 ($8,900-11,000).
Writing in a recent 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Bertolazzi, an Italian-born classicist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, describes the hitherto unpublished stone as having come from an Augustan-age underground columbarium (where cremated remains of pagan Romans were stored).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In his article, An Unpublished Opisthographic Funerary Plaque and Some Comments on the Mistakes of One of its Stonecutters, Bertolazzi identifies two clearly different inscriptions with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 artefact show that some time elapsed between the two engravings.
The earlierfirst-centuryinscription 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.
What intrigued Bertolazzi more than the uncommon two-sided inscriptions were the corrections on the reverse of the stone. 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, one that reveals the quasi-marital relationship between a master and his former slave.
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 hadnt 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 doesnt 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.
The tablet has been consigned by Victor Gulotta, a Boston-area collector who has placed a number of his antiquities and manuscripts in museums around the world. An earlier 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. The last unpublished funerary plaques that ended up in US collections appeared in the 1980s, so this one is particularly welcome. I hope more private collectors decide to share their artefacts so they do not escape scholarly attention.