Early Roman inscription found in Bulgaria

A biographical inscription of an ancient Roman soldier has been discovered at the archaeological site of Almus in the northwestern Bulgarian city of Lom. The fragment of a tombstone from the second half of the 1st century was unearthed in September. It is the earliest Roman inscription ever found in northwestern Bulgaria.

Originally the ancient Thracian settlement of Artanes on the banks of the Danube, the Roman town of Almus began as a military barracks and waystation on the Via Istrum, the Roman road built along the limes (the military frontier), in around 29 A.D. The stone fortress was built in the early 2nd century A.D. and then rebuilt and expanded into a pentagonal fortress covering 10 acres during the reigns of Diocletian (r. 284-305 A.D.) and Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 A.D.).

The tombstone therefore predates the construction of the big fort and its bigger successor. It is made of high quality marble and preserves part of five lines of text. Only the bottom of the letters of first line remain, but they are enough to identify the word “imaginifer,” the standard bearer entrusted with carrying the imago, a beaten metal portrait of the emperor. This was a position of great honor granted only to soldiers with the most distinguished records.

The second line — DEM DEC — confirms his military leadership role as DEC  was an abbreviation for decurion, the commander of a of a Roman cavalry squadron. It also could stand for decuria, one of a body of ten local magistrates akin to a town council, but given that he was an imaginifer, the military interpretation is the likeliest. Last year’s excavation at Almus discovered the remains of a cavalry barracks, and this year’s found the skeleton of a horse, so the fortress had cavalry garrisoned there.

The third line is VIX ANN, an abbreviation for “he lived years,” and fourth line completes it with XLIV, the Roman numeral for 44, meaning the man was 44 years old when he died. The fifth line is the name AMARANTVS. This was the person who erected the tombstone in honor of the deceased. It is a Greek name (meaning “unfading”), which in this context indicates he was a freedman of the decurion’s.

I am baffled by the interpretation of this inscription promoted by lead archaeologist Valeri Stoichkov from the Lom Museum of History.

Stoichkov has described the information revealed by the 1st century AD marble tombstone inscription as telling “a sad story”.

The prominent Roman man, the military veteran honored by the tombstone, served a total of 44 years in the Roman military – whereas the normal term of military service in the Roman Empire was 25 years.

The Roman military veteran in question was buried by his slave since he did not create a family and did not have any other heirs. The Roman military veteran thus most probably left all of his belongings to his freed slave. In gratitude for his freedom and the inheritance, the slave erected the tombstone as a monument to his former master, the lead archaeologist explains.

Unless there’s something I’m missing on that inscription, which is entirely possible as my understanding of Latin abbreviations is cobbled-together at best, the 44 years are specifically noted as his age, not his years in the legions. VIX is short for “vixit,” which means “he lived,” not he served or he fought or anything else that even hints at a military term. Besides, even if he had been allowed to re-enlist after the end of his 25-year term, there’s no way they would have fed and clothed his old ass for another two whole decades.

As for the freedman erecting the tombstone, that was a very common practice that says nothing at all about whether the deceased ever had a family. Many funerary inscriptions were commissioned by freedmen in gratitude for their former owners. The grizzled, lonely old soldier, denied a wife and kids by his hardest of hard service, leaving all he owned to his freedman who repaid him with a nice funerary inscription is pure fantasy.

12 thoughts on “Early Roman inscription found in Bulgaria

  1. Although I have spent nearly a quarter century in the more easterly part of Europe, I still often gag at the over-reliance on Romanticism.

    To quote Wikipedia: Neo-romanticism as well as Romanticism is considered in opposition to naturalism — indeed… naturalism is regarded as alien and even hostile (Dahlhaus 1979, 100). In the period following German unification in 1871, naturalism rejected Romantic literature as a misleading, idealistic distortion of reality. Naturalism in turn came to be regarded as incapable of filling the “void” of modern existence.

    I like balance, and so sometimes I find myself crying out for a bit of the ‘void of existence’ if it gives back an old soldier the possibility that he was married and had children.

    The thing is, what fabrication will our Valeri create if they find another chunk of the inscription, mentioning his wife, three daughters, cat, two hunting dogs and stable for four horses… 😉

  2. :boogie:

    DEM(?) DEC(URIO)
    VIX(IT) 44 ANNI (H?)

    He definitely has lived for 44 years, but what could the ‘H’ stand for? Maybe Amarantus’ first name? Is the ‘(T?)*AGINT*(?)’ bit part of the deceased’s name? The ‘DEM(?)’ possibly also?

    Indeed, the *AGINT* might also be part of the numeral of those years that the deceased actually served. And after all, is it really chiselled into stone that he actually owned a slave? Possibly it is.

    To give an example, DUODEVIGINTI ANNI would give 18 years of service, however, DUODEQUADRAGINTi would mean that he joined the army at a tender 6 years of age, while his real name might have been Democritus/ Δημόκριτος from Greece.

    Any other guesses, Folks?

  3. …OK… In the first chiselled line, I missed the “im-AGINI-fer” (image bearer), or would never have guessed it :chicken:

    –The image bearer’s cat, two hunting dogs and stable for four horses from Trevor —

  4. Just my 2 cents in it

    he definitely lived 44 years

    there is now way of telling if he was still in service at the moment of death they often started to enroll with 16-18+25 years of service 41-43. Cases of enrollment until 20 aren’t rare.

    So I would say the “military” situation is not clear. Might be he was a decurion

    what its puzzles me is the word DEM (Demetrius?)
    DEC can be also Decimus so the second line is the name of the guy: DEM DEC V? Demetrius Decimus V?

  5. You have hit on a very real problem, namely, the interjection of personal conjecture in the ‘translations’ and reconstructions of innocuous clues from antiquity.

  6. I have noticed in quite a few of your posts that the archeologist or historian does a lot of creative guessing. It does lead one to the thought that the more you repeat a lie, the more it becomes fact. Outside of that, I often think of the story behind the finds and think that someone should write a fictional story about the piece. Alas, it seems the professionals are already doing that!

  7. “DEMarchus DECurionum” would be the “Chief(tain) Decurio”, but I am unsure if that is a military rank that a Roman would have understood chiselled into a tombstone.

    Civic(!) Decurions, contrastingly, were powerful political figures at the local level and also supervised local tax collection –unsure, if they carried any “images”, but they are not to be confused with the military office of a ‘Decurio’.

    As far as the ‘H’ is concerned: H-S-E, H(ic) S(itus) E(st) = “Here lies”.

  8. You are absolutely right about Stoichkov (perhaps he was carried away or hurried into a statement).

    We may be missing two or three lines at the top of the plaque. It probably does not extend much to the right laterally since the sculptor seems to use his space luxuriously and the VIX ANN is followed in the next line by XLIV.

    The largely missing first word is almost certainly IMAGINIFER, as a close examination of the letter forms makes clear.

    DEC is followed by the beginnings of a V, so it is probably ‘DECVrio’; my best guess for DEM is ‘DEMerens’ or ‘DEMeritus’, meaning ‘honorary’.

    H (with lots of space after it) probably stands for ‘HERES’.

  9. I had similar ideas about the “(D)EM(eritus)”, but –as such– it might be some form of dialect, as the correct phrase would seemingly be “EMeritus” (i.e. without the D), but I do indeed agree that “(D)EM(eritus)” would make sense here, possibly more sense than DEM(archus).

    A “Demos” (or deme) functioned to some degree as a polis (state or city state) in miniature. In our slum, for instance, we would speak of “the Hood”.

    Each deme, however, had a “demarchos” who supervised its affairs, while various other civil, religious, and military functionaries existed in various demes or demoi. A military institution was definitely in place, and presumably there also was some kind of demos.

    Possibly, therefore, our “Decurio”, was a combination of a military and a municipal one.

    The Romans were rather good at integrating given structures in their acquired provinces into their own, and there also might have been a Greek influence before any Romans were there.

  10. DEM stands for eiusdem (also), so besides imaginifer he was “also a decurion” (probably military officer in turma, part of ala) or maginif[er /coh(ortis) – for example, eius]-
    dem. He lived (vix(it) ann(is) -unknown years, as this part is missing. In 1st c. AD his years of services should be written, so probably the missing part, after the years is mil(itavit) ann(is) and the years of service are indeed XLIV on the next line. After that is the typical formula of h(ic) [s(itus) e(st)] (he lays here). The name of the bottom is a slave name of
    Amarantus, who [lib(ertus) eius p(osuit)].
    So Stoichkov is probably right.

  11. [———]
    XLIV H(IC) [S(ITUS) E(ST)]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.