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Bill Thayer

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Prudence


[image ALT: A free-standing stone pedestal about 1 meter high, with an 8‑line Roman inscription on it. It is an inscription of Memmius Orfitus dedicated to the emperor Constantius II.]
Transcribed and expanded:
1
 
 
 
5
PROPAGATORI · IMPERII
ROMANI · D
omino · Nostro
FL
avio · IVLio · CONSTANTIO · MAXIMO
TOTO · ORBE · VICTORI · AC ·
TRIVMFATORI · SEMPER · AVG
usto ·
MEMMIVS · VITRASIVS · ORFITVS · V
ir · Clarissimus ·
ITERVM · PRAEF
ectus · VRBI · IVDex · SACrarum · COGNitionum
TERTIVM · D
evotus · Numini · MaiestatiQue · EIVS ·
Translated:

To him who has enlarged the Roman empire, our Master Flavius Julius Constantius, the Greatest, who conquers and triumphs over the entire world, Augustus.

His Excellency Memmius Vitrasius Orfitus, in his second term as Praefectus Urbi, in his third as high interrogating judge; devoted to the emperor's numen and majestas.

This dedicatory inscription (that almost certainly once supported a statue), still in situ in the Comitium in the Roman Forum, could not be more typical of Late Antiquity: the style of its lettering, for sure — quite handsome for the period — but mostly its overblown fawning rhetoric.

The emperor here is Constantius II, and to take it as it reads, we might expect him to be the mightiest hero since Alexander. He wasn't: "murderous coward" would be a better sum-up of the man. For details about his career, see the article at De Imperatoribus Romanis; the "enlargement" of the empire that starts off our inscription almost certainly refers to some very moderate successes on the Parthian frontier, for which Constantius celebrated a lavish triumph in A.D. 357, even bringing in an obelisk from Heliopolis and setting it up in the Circus Maximus — the largest obelisk in Rome. Our inscription thus dates to 357 or shortly after; Constantius died in 361.

As for Orfitus, he was the second most powerful man in the empire, right behind the emperor, having become praefectus urbi in 353. He had a distinguished career, so one is tempted to be disgusted with the man for what appears to be needlessly fulsome devotion to a mediocrity: but Orfitus was the grandfather of Symmachus, who would defend pagan religion in an increasingly Christian world; and the grandson had to get this from somewhere. In view of Constantius' propensity to wholesale slaughter, it may have been prudent after all to lie low and hope for better times.

In "high interrogating judge", high is an informal translation of mine for sacrarum, indicating that our man dealt in key cases at the imperial level, not your routine police blotter. For the technical meaning of cognitio, the best details I could find online are in this interesting page on Pontius Pilate, in connection of course with his cognitio of Jesus.


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Page updated: 14 Apr 01