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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Roman Era in Britain

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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 p136  Chapter VIII


Diversity of Funeral CustomsCremation and InhumationTombstones and their Inscriptions

Of the fixed remains of the Roman era in Britain, those which relate to the burial of the dead are the most numerous. Our archaeological literature teems with notices of their discovery, and as these casually meet the eyes of the readers, they give rise to an impression of bewildering diversity. It is only by the comparison of a large number of them that the diversity, although great, is seen to have a limit. But why the diversity at all? This suggests a number of interesting questions. How far are the differences contemporary — how far successive? To what extent are they due to local conditions, to the diverse religious beliefs of the time, and to foreign influences? Are the modes of burial substantially a legacy of the customs of pre-Roman natives, or a Roman importation? It is probable that all of these contributed to the complex, but it is hardly possible at present to assign their relative shares in bringing about the result.

Diversity of funerary customs, however, long preceded the Romans in the west. During the two or three centuries before the conquest, both cremation and simple inhumation were in vogue in England, the latter preponderating in the north and the former in the south. In Yorkshire, many skeletons of this period, laid in a contracted attitude or at full length, in cists, wooden coffins, or simply in graves, have been found, and some of them were remarkable for the wealth of associated objects. Of the many urn-fields in the south-eastern counties, one at  p137 Aylesbury​1 was notable. The cremated remains, all in earthen vessels, were in circular holes, unmarked by mounds; and with most were associated other vessels, several being bronze ewers and tankards, and these, as also the smaller objects, were of Late-Celtic type. In another urn-field, near Haslemere in Surrey,​2 the cineraries were generally accompanied with accessory vessels; but the pottery was of later type and assignable to the period of Roman influence immediately before the conquest. In both burial-grounds, many of the graves were arranged in 'family circles.'

The interments of Roman Britain are also of both kinds, burnt and unburnt, but the former predominate. They occur singly or in small groups near the houses of the time, and in large aggregates outside the town walls, clustering especially about the roads leading from the gates, as at Rome and Pompeii. The chief burial-ground at Colchester extended for about a mile on each side of the road which issued from the west gate. The cemeteries of York were also of great extent, and considerable numbers of interments have been found outside the walls of Viroconium, Verulamium, and Bath. Contrary to the early Roman laws which prohibited sepulture in towns, burials took place within the limits of Roman London and Caerwent, but apparently only few. The graves were mostly 'flat,' that is, they were not covered with mounds; but tumuli are known, and some of large size, as, for instance, one of a group of seven known as the Bartlow Hills, at Ashdon in Kent, and explored with remarkable results, was 147 ft. in diameter and 47 ft. high. The custom of pla­cing various objects, chiefly vessels of pottery and glass, with the dead, was as general as in previous times. Inscribed tombstones were common, but their absence or fewness in districts where suitable stone was not obtainable, renders it probable that wooden memorials were also used.

There is little doubt that in the earlier part of the era cremation was the prevailing, if not the sole, custom in this country. It was so in Italy; but by the beginning of the 5th century it was so completely a thing of the past, that Macrobius could learn nothing about it except from books. There is a consensus  p138 of opinion that it was supplanted by inhumation in Britain by the middle of the 4th century.

This is somewhat confirmed by the fact that in a group of burials, the interments are occasionally of one kind only. The larger and earlier burial-ground at Colchester, and that by the side of the Watling Street at Wroxeter, contained only burnt remains; and similar burial-grounds have been found at Swanmore in the Isle of Wight,​3 near Dover, by the side of the Roman road to Canterbury,​4 and at Witham in Essex and Larkfield near Maidstone.​5 On the other hand, two hundred graves opened in the Isle of Portland about 1850,​6 three hundred half-a‑mile east of Irchester, Northamptonshire, in 1873,​7 more than seventy on the north side of Great Chesterford, Essex,​8 and eleven at Chatham Lines in 1897,​9 yielded only unburnt interments.

In most aggregates of graves, there is a large preponderance of the one or the other, and sometimes their positions indicate their sequence. The excavation of a small burial-ground at Litlington, Royston, in 1821,​10 was specially interesting, as it proved that the burnt interments it contained were, with one exception, older than the unburnt. It was a rectangular walled space about 390 ft. long, and the burials were arranged in parallel rows. These originally consisted of burnt remains in urns, some of which were afterwards displaced and scattered, when the graves were dug for the unburnt corpses. The exception referred to, was a skeleton below an urn of burnt bones. That the enclosed space had been used for a long period was proved by the coins, and it is clear that during this interval cremation was supplanted by inhumation, but not suddenly, the skeleton followed by an urned interment implying an overlap.

This Litlington enclosure is interesting in other respects. Within two of the corners, the ground was burnt and covered with wood-ashes, and there is little doubt that the funeral piles were erected on these spots. Similar ustrina have been observed  p139 in other burial-grounds. But it was not unusual for the body to be burned over the grave. At Wroxeter, for instance, two or three interments were in large square pits, the sides and floors of which were excessively burnt and blackened with charcoal.​11 It is probable that we have at Litlington a villa burial-ground, as traces of apparently a large rural house of the time were noticed in the vicinity.

A smaller walled cemetery was examined at Lockham near Maidstone, in 1842.​12 The entrance appeared to be on the north-east side, where also were the remains of funeral fires. Six undisturbed interments were found, consisting of burnt bones in glass and earthenware vessels, with which were associated other vessels, several of bronze, and four iron lamps. Two of these interments were in built cists or vaults and two in large amphorae with the necks removed. The enclosure also contained the remains of a rectangular tomb-house, 14 ft. by 12 ft. 6 ins., and of another, circular, and 11 ft. 6 ins. in diameter. The latter was of peculiar interest. Above a plinth of pink cement was a stuccoed dado 2 ft. high, decorated in colours; and to judge from the vague description, the scheme consisted of small reddish-brown squares separated by broad bands of pale yellow on which were parallel groovings in red. Above this, the wall was painted green and ornamented with engaged columns and pilasters (presumably alternating) in red, each with a square blue base. The height of the structure and how treated above are matters of conjecture. No mention is made of a doorway, but as the north-east side was excessively ruined, it may have been on that side, and this applies equally to the rectangular tomb-house. Both had been rifled, but as a portion of a skeleton was found in the former, and the interior of the latter was large enough to contain a sarcophagus or coffin, we may conclude that the interments were unburnt.

At Holwood Hill, Kent,​13 near the remains of apparently a large house, were found a small rectangular tomb-house with an entrance in the west side, and containing a stone sarcophagus or coffin, two other coffins in graves, and a circular buttressed  p140 building, 30 ft. in diameter, with an entrance on the east. This structure had been painted red externally, and with various colours on the inner side. The interior had been rifled, but a single trench disclosed broken pottery and charcoal. Possibly this mausoleum contained burnt interments, but those of the coffins would certainly be unburnt. Similar large circular buildings have been noticed at Chedworth and at Wiggenhall in Sussex.


The general rule in the case of cremation was to place the burnt bones collected from the site of the pile or rogus in an earthen vessel. Vessels of various shapes and sizes were used for the purpose; but globose jars or ollae of the forms of C5, 9, and 11, Fig. 45, were so customary that these are popularly known as cinerary urns. They, however, were common domestic utensils of the time, and so far as is known no pottery was specially made for funerary purposes in this country. The vessels occasionally had lids, as H11, Fig. 50; more frequently a shallow saucer or dish, a piece of flat stone, or a tile, served as a cover. Less frequently glass vessels were used, especially the large square or cylindrical handled bottles, Fig. 52, A, C; and less frequently still the burnt bones were sealed up in cylindrical leaden receptacles or ossuaria, of which there are good examples in the British and York Museums.

As a rule, the cinerary with its contents was simply placed in a hole in the ground about 18 ins. or 2 ft. deep, with or without accessories, and was then buried. But frequently some sort of additional protection was devised. Occasionally the hole or grave was converted into a small vault by covering it with a large tile or stone. Or a cist was constructed in it of four tiles on their edges for the sides, and a fifth for the cover, of which several have been found at Colchester.​14 Or the receptacle was of masonry, as at Lockham. A more carefully made loculus was hewn out of a cubical block of stone with a flat stone for its cover, as one found at Carlisle,​15 within which was a square glass ampulla containing the human ashes, with an earthenware  p141 lamp in its mouth and small vessel by its side. A large cylindrical example from Harpenden, Hertfordshire, now in the British Museum,​16 rested upon, and was covered by, two oblong blocks of stone 5 ft. long, and contained a glass cinerary with four other vessels around it. Other examples of cylindrical loculi have been found, with circular slabs for their covers; and one at Cirencester​17 had for its cover a cylindrical block of the same size as the lower one, instead of a slab. Large amphorae with the necks broken off were occasionally used for the same purpose as at Holwood Hill, and others have been found at Colchester,​18 Lincoln, London, Hemel Hempstead, Stratford-Bow, and Hoo St. Werburgh.​19 Cists of a tent-like form constructed of roofing-tiles have been found at York and elsewhere. In these, two rows of the flat tiles (tegulae) were inclined against one another, roof-wise, the ridge being capped with the half-round tiles (imbrices), while a flat tile closed in each end. In one at York only burnt bones were found; in another were several vessels, one containing burnt bones, all resting on a tiled floor.20

The reader has already learned something of the objects — the 'grave-goods' — associated with cremated interments. Nowhere can these be better studied than in the Joslin Collection in the Colchester Museum. The 'finds' from each grave are grouped together. There are 123 groups, and nearly all relate to burnt interments. In the majority, the cineraries are earthen ollae; in several, small amphorae; and in one, a basin. Two are glass vessels — a two-handled jar with lid and a hexagonal bottle; one a cylindrical 'ossuary' of lead; and another, a wooden toilet or dressing-box with bronze fittings and lock. With the exception of several cists of tiles, the cineraries and their accessories were simply buried in the earth.

The accessories are extremely varied. Vessels of pottery are the most numerous; then follow in descending order, bracelets or bangles, necklaces and beads, glass vessels consisting mostly of the little bottles known as lachrymatories, lamps, brooches,  p142 pins, dice and counters used in games, finger- and ear-rings,º coins, dressing-boxes, mirrors, tweezers and nail-cleaners, charms or amulets, spindle-whorls, spear-heads, a buckle, clay figure of a bird, piece of bronze chain, nails of sandal, bronze ligula, and a few other single objects. These were mostly placed at the side of, or around, the cineraries, as in the Aylesford and Haslemere graves; but in more than a dozen burials, some were in the cineraries with the burnt bones, and these were mostly articles relating to personal attire and adornment which had passed through the fire with their owners.

Excluding the saucers and other shallow vessels used as covers for the cineraries, about 270 vessels of pottery are associated with 92 cremated interments in the collection, representing an average of nearly 3 to each, but the actual numbers range from 1 to 14, the prevailing numbers, however, being 2, 3, and 4. These vessels are of all shapes and wares, but are mostly of the smaller sizes. Of the glass vessels, 33 out of a total of about 40 are the so‑called 'tear-bottles' which probably contained balsams or aromatic unguents, and ten at least of them are described as 'fused,' indicating that they had passed through the fire. All the lamps are of earthenware, but their distribution is uneven, the 28 examples being associated with 17 interments, one of these having 6. All the objects relating to games, consisting of square dice and a larger number of 'counters' were found in one cinerary, and had been burnt. It will be noticed that most of the remaining objects related to the toilet. The sex and age of the dead are often indicated by the accompaniments. With women were buried bracelets, mirrors, dressing-boxes, and the like; and with infants, tetinae or feeding-bottles and small odds and ends which may have been their cherished playthings.

The Joslin Collection is so well representative of the generality of the cremated burials of the era, that further examples, with the exception of the remarkable burial-mounds at Ashdon in Essex, are unnecessary. Of these, six were explored between 1832 and 1840,​21 and each was found to cover a single cremated interment, deposited in a receptacle or tomb, and surrounded with a wealth of grave-goods. Under the largest mound were the remains of a  p143 wooden chest or tomb, 4 ft. 2 ins. by 3 ft. 8 ins., and 2 ft. high, containing the cinerary, a square-handled bottle of green glass, and the following objects: a bronze jug or ewer (Fig. 54, D), inlaid with silver and lying in a bronze patera; a richly enamelled globular bronze situla; a bronze lamp; two bronze bath strigils; a folding seat resembling a camp-stool of iron, with bronze ornaments and indications of a leather top; a narrow-necked glass flask stopped with some bituminous substance and containing a partly congealed oil floating on a sweet liquid with an apple-like odour; another smaller glass flask which had been stopped in a similar manner; a small square glass amphora containing decomposed vegetable matter; a tall square glass-handled bottle; and a small earthen vessel. Just outside the chest was a large earthen amphora containing earth, ashes, and fragments of burnt bones, apparently the final gatherings from the site of the funeral pile.

The other mounds were of smaller size, but their contents, although less elaborate, were similar. Four of the receptacles were of wood, and the remaining one was strongly constructed of tiles and closed in by larger tiles in overstepping courses. In four of these, the burnt bones were in glass vessels, and in one they formed a central heap. With three of these interments, were bronze ewers and paterae associated together as in the largest tumulus; and with all were glass and earthen vessels. Among the remaining accessories were four iron hanging lamps as at Lockham, the metal mountings and other remains of three dressing-boxes, a small wooden tankard with bronze fittings,​22 a small decayed basket, and a sponge. One of the glass flasks contained a fatty substance, and another traces of a liquid. In one of the wooden cists, the bronze vessels had been covered with a linen cloth, and the floor strewn with branches of box.

A similar association of a bronze ewer and patera has been observed in some other cremated interments, notably in one near Canterbury and in others at Medbourn in Leicestershire and Shefford in Bedfordshire. These vessels recall the ewer and patera so often carved on the altars (p127), and this suggests that they served a like purpose in the funeral ceremonies. We  p144 know from Roman writers that it was customary to pour or sprinkle wine on the pile and on the remains after the fire; and it may well have been that the utensils used for the purpose were often deposited in the tomb. Bronze vessels, it is true, are rarely found associated with the dead, but ordinary glass and earthen vessels may have been more generally used. It was also customary to scatter perfumes and odoriferous gums and spices on the pile, and it is by no means improbable that these were brought to it in the so‑called 'tear-bottles' and other small vessels so frequently found in the graves. Two of the five Bartlow Hills lamps retained remains of charred wicks showing that they had been placed in the tombs, lighted — another ancient and widespread custom, probably of Oriental origin, but apparently far from universal in this country. The three glass bottles containing vegetable liquids or their traces, apparently a mixture of honey and oil in one case, and a vessel containing fowls' bones, are of special interest, as very few deposits of like nature have been found elsewhere. Almost invariably the vessels, mostly of pottery, associated with Roman interments, whether burnt or unburnt, have supplied no clue whether they were placed in the tombs empty or otherwise. We know that it was a general practice almost everywhere in an early stage of culture to place foods and other things useful in life with the dead, either with a view of propitiating their ghosts or in some way of satisfying their wants. In our Roman era, the meaning of the custom may have been so far lost sight of that it was only represented by empty vessels as a rule. Food-stuffs under ordinary conditions would rapidly disappear by the ordinary processes of decay, but the exceptional instances cited above go far to show that the ancient usage was still in vogue. On the other hand, many objects of personal use, as brooches, rings, bracelets, and the like, were parts of the attire in which the deceased was burnt, and in the case of unburnt burials in which he or she was interred. Others again, as dressing-cases and their contents, mirrors, and children's toys, we may conceive to be treasured trinkets, deposited in the grave from no other motive than a loving regard for the dead. The branches of box in one of the Bartlow Hills tombs may also indicate a general custom, as leaves of the same plant have been  p145 found in a Chesterford burial, and the remains of foliage in several others.


Where Roman influence was strong, the dead body, when buried unburnt, was almost invariably laid at full length in the grave. To what extent the prehistoric custom of burying it in a contracted or flexed attitude passed into Roman times is uncertain. Lieut.-General Pitt-Rivers exhumed many contracted and extended skeletons about the sites of the Romano-British villages at Woodcutts, Rotherley, and Woodyates in Wiltshire,​23 but as these villages were any of pre-Roman origin it may well be that some of the burials were older than the conquest. Still, it is noteworthy that the few objects which were undoubtedly Roman, or had a Roman facies, were mostly associated with the extended skeletons. Seven or eight of the extended skeletons had hobnails about their feet, showing that they had been buried in their shoes or sandals, and presumably in their clothes as well. In the graves of about as many there were iron nails in positions to imply that they belonged to wooden coffins of which no other traces remained.​24 Vessels of pottery were few. With five of the seventeen Woodyates burials there were Roman coins, and three of these were found by the heads of the skeletons, leading the General to consider that, in accordance with a well-known Roman custom, each had been placed in the mouth of the deceased as a fee for Charon to ferry him across the Styx. Coins in similar positions have been found in graves elsewhere in this country, showing that the custom was observed; but, however common in Italy, it does not seem to have been general with us. The heads of the skeletons of these three villages pointed in various directions, some to the north, but more generally the extended skeletons lay in directions roughly east and west, with the heads mostly in the latter direction, and this appears to have been the prevailing orientation in Roman Britain.

 p146  Wooden coffins or chests were certainly in common use during the Roman era, as the frequent presence in the graves of not only nails, but of iron or bronze bindings, hinges, and other mountings, prove, but very few remain. A good example of a rectangular coffin was found at Stanley Grange, Derbyshire,​25 in 1903. It was constructed of oak boards which appeared to have been pegged together, as there were no nails or other metal details. The skeleton was extended at full length with the head to the east-north‑east, and on its right side was a small hexagonal bottle of glass. Occasionally a wooden coffin was enclosed in a cist constructed of flag-stones or tiles, and examples of both have been found at York.

Coffins hewn out of a single rock of stone were much used, especially where suitable stone was at hand, Bath stone being especially adapted for the purpose. These coffins are usually wedge-shaped; sometimes they approximate to the modern form, and rarely are rectangular. Occasionally they were rounded within at the head or the foot. They appear to have always had covers, flat, rounded, or slightly coped, and of a single piece or several. They were usually roughly hewn into shape and were intended to be buried; but occasionally they were carefully finished, with or without inscriptions, and more or less decorated, and these were certainly not buried.

A good example of the latter sort was found in the Green, Westminster Abbey, in 1869.​26 It was 7 ft. long, 2 ft. 5 ins. wide at the head, and 2 ft. at the foot, and 18 ins. high, and it had a coped cover. One side and the cover alone were ornamented, the former having an inscription to the deceased, and the latter a cross of a common type of the 11th or 12th century in relief. Apparently it originally occupied a recess, the cover and front alone being exposed to view. The Christian emblem indicates that it was re-used at the time it was carved. This was no uncommon practice, and Bede​27 records an instance. When the remains of St. Etheldreda, abbess of Ely, were translated to the new church in the 7th century, they were placed  p147 in a marble coffin most beautifully wrought, which was found outside an abandoned city called Grantecester. This 'abandoned city' was Roman, and there is no doubt that the coffin was from its cemetery.​a

Marble coffins, although frequent in Italy and Gaul, must have been rare in this country, for apparently there is no example in our collections. Still, several highly ornamented ones in stone are known, the finest, perhaps, being one in the British Museum from Haydon Square, London.​28 It would be better described as a coffer or sarcophagus than a coffin, for it is rectangular, with a coped cover. On the front is a large panel filled with a wavy godrooned pattern, with a central medallion containing the profile-bust of a boy in low relief, and on each end a basket of fruit, while the slopes of the cover have a handsome foliated design. The cover was originally fastened down by an iron strap or clamp at each end. This sarcophagus contained a leaden coffin in which were found the remains of a boy. As the back is quite plain, it evidently stood against a wall, perhaps the back of a small tomb-house, as those at Holwood and Lockham. Remains of these structures have also been found at York and elsewhere.

Lead coffins have been frequently found, but comparatively few have escaped the melting-pot. They were wedge-shaped or rectangular, and were usually made of a single sheet of lead with the corners so cut that when the sides and ends were beaten up, the cut edges either met or the one could be doubled over the other, the joints being fused or soldered. The covers overlapped the sides and were often made in the same manner. They were occasionally plain, but more often decorated. The decoration was simple and characteristic, consisting of straight beaded lines in relief, arranged in bold zigzags, saltires, or other rectangular figures, and the intervals often contained simple devices, of which the scallop was the most frequent. The ornamentation was effected by stamps which were pressed into the sand-bed on which the lead sheet was cast. There are fine examples in the Colchester and York Museums. A rectangular one found at Bexhill in 1871 had, in addition to the ordinary  p148 ornamentation, small reliefs of a lion, ewer, and Medusa's head repeated several times; and another found in the Kent Road, London, had figures of Minerva in its compartments. There are several instances of these coffins being enclosed in shells of stone or wood, and probably the latter was customary. Lead coffins are more frequent in the east and south-east than in the west.29

A remarkable burial-mound known as Eastlow Hill, containing a skeleton in a leaden coffin, was opened at Rougham in Kent, in 1844. The coffin, enclosed in a wooden shell, was in a tomb built in the form of a small house, 12 ft. long and 6 ft. 6 ins. wide, of masonry with a tiled roof, upon a concrete platform. The only object associated with the skeleton was a small coin near the head; but a small chamber at one end of the 'house' contained broken glass and other vessels.30

There was a curious custom both here on the Continent, of covering the corpse in the coffin with liquefied lime, or, according to other statements, plaster of Paris. The result is that the hardened material often retains a perfect impression of the body and its clothing, and actual portions of the latter are sometimes preserved. There are several examples of these calcareous fillings in the York Museum. One covered the body of a lady and her child, and the garment in which she was buried was of a velvety texture ornamented with crimson or purple stripes. Another indicates that the corpse was entirely covered with a coarse canvas. In another example, the body had been habited, the legs crossed, and the feet shod; and, upon the limy matrix being removed, the following objects were found above the left shoulder — a portion of a gold ring and two jet rings, two gold ear-rings, two bracelets, several bronze rings, and two bead necklaces. In another example, a young lady had been entirely enveloped in a coarse cloth, and deposited in a leaden coffin enclosed within a stone one, her head apparently resting on a pillow; the most interesting feature is that the calcareous environment preserved her coiffure intact. Her auburn hair  p149 had been slightly twisted and coiled at the back of the head in the circular fashion in vogue during the Constantine period, and secured by two jet pins.31


The tombstones, like the Roman altars, are 'good, bad, and indifferent.' Some found in the vicinity of the military centres are, we can well imagine, the products of men who were better soldiers than stone-cutters; others, notably at London and Colchester, were certainly made by skilled masons. Like the altars, too, they exhibit no Late-Celtic traits in their ornamentation. With few exceptions, they are, like our headstones, slabs of stone bearing on their fronts the epitaphs. The simplest are rectangular slabs, sometimes quite plain, but more often panelled in front; and the panel may be rectangular, or have a gabled head, in which case the head may be converted into a pediment by a horizontal line of moulding across its foot. There is a good London tombstone of the latter type in the British Museum in which the tympanum is ornamented with a trident and two dolphins, each external spandrel having a roundel. Another found at Great Chesters has the pediment of an unusual ogee outline and containing a two-handled vase.

More often the summit of the slab is shaped to the pediment, and most of finest tombstones are of this type. In these a definite architectural effect was often obtained by flanking the front with two pilasters. In another British Museum example, the pilasters are panelled and ornamented with floral scrolls, and have quasi-Corinthian capitals, the tympanum being filled with foliage. The pilasters are sometimes fluted, and occasionally they simulate engaged columns. The pediment is sometimes flanked with ornaments, and these are usually lions, as in tombstones at Wroxeter and Benwell, the latter having a curious rayed human head in the tympanum.

In the most elaborate tombstones, the panel or in lieu thereof a shallow round-headed niche or alcove contains a sculptured subject, the inscription being at the foot. There are several  p150 types of these sculptured stones. In the most frequent, the deceased is represented standing at full length. There is a notable example in the Colchester Museum (Fig. 39),​32 in which the deceased, a centurion of the Twentieth Legion, Marcus Favonius, is represented in military dress with his left hand on his sword and holding in his right the insignia of his office, a staff. This tombstone is specially interesting because it was found fallen over the lead ossuary which contained the ashes. Another fine example of the type was found at South Shields. It presents the deceased, a woman, seated, and apparently knitting, in an alcove, which is flanked with two panelled pilasters supporting an elaborate pediment (Fig. 39). Of much simpler character is the tombstone of a boy aged five years, found at Old Penrith. The figure of the deceased has a whip in one hand and in the other what seems to be a toy, and it occupies a deeply sunk panel. Occasionally there are two figures, as those of a centurion and his wife at Chester. A tombstone at York has four figures, those of a soldier, his wife, and his infant son and daughter.

[image ALT: missingALT]


Another type of these sculptured monuments presents a horseman riding over a fallen barbarian and often in the act of spearing him — a device of Greek origin and presumably confined to the graves of soldiers. There are several examples in the Chester Museum, and others have been found at Hexham, Wroxeter, Bath, Cirencester (Fig. 40), and elsewhere. A third type, known as that of the 'sepulchral banquet,' is of great antiquity and has an Eastern origin, and probably it originated in ancestor worship. The deceased is represented as reclining on a couch, with a small tripod table in front, and holding a goblet in the right hand; and there is usually a juvenile attendant before or behind the couch. There are several examples at Chester, others at Corbridge, York (Fig. 40), South Shields, and elsewhere.

[image ALT: Two carved Roman tombstones. The one on the left is vertical and rectangular, and depicts a horseman riding towards the right, in the act of spearing a man who has fallen under the horse; beneath the scene is a four-line inscription. The stone on the right is a fragment, the inscription beneath being mutilated; but the upper part is intact, and depicts a bearded man and a woman reclining on what appears to be an eating-couch, with a small three-legged table in front of it; a child stands to the left, at the foot of the couch. The tombstones are from Roman Britain.]


Sufficient has been said to give the reader a general idea of the funeral monuments of the era. The exceptions in this country are few. There are a few instances of memorials in the form of a pilaster or stele. One in the Guildhall Museum is a hexagonal pedestal inscribed to a lady, Claudia Martina, and it was probably  p151 surmounted with her statue, as a female head of stone was found with it. Others are mural tablets which were probably affixed to tomb-houses, and we have already described several carved and inscribed stone coffins which were evidently intended to be exposed, and thus to serve as the memorials of the dead. The sculptured subjects, instead of conforming to the three types given above, occasionally depict scenes from mythology or from daily life.

The epitaph generally records (1) the name of the deceased mostly with some brief particulars as to his or her station or condition; (2) the age at death, and, in the case of a soldier, the length of his service; and (3) the person or persons who raised the monument. It is usually prefaced with D. M., Dis Manibus, 'To the gods of the shades,' but probably it came to have no definite meaning and is best rendered, 'To the memory of.' It sometimes ends, especially in the earlier monuments, with H. S. E., Hic situs est, 'He or she lies here.' The name of the deceased is usually in the nominative, and when not so in the dative. More particulars, as a rule, are given of the soldier than the civilian. The length of his service is nearly always stated, and often his legion or cohort, his birthplace, and 'tribe,' and if an officer, his rank. The age is expressed by an abbreviation of vixit annos, as VIX. AN. XXIV, 'He lived twenty-four years,' or of annorum, as VIX. AN. XXXI., 'Thirty one years (of age)'; and the soldier's service by an abbreviation of stipendiorum, as STIP. XIII, 'He served thirteen (years).' If the heir erected the monument the formula is H. F. C., Heres faciendum curavit, 'His heir caused this to be made'; if a father did this — PATER F. C. The same may be expressed by F. for fecit or P. for posuit — thus VACIA SOROR F., 'The sister made this'; CAEC. MVSICVS LIB. EIVS P., 'Her freedman, Caecilius Musicus, placed this.'

The following examples will give the reader a general idea of the epitaphs of the era:—

At Chester — D. M. P. RVSTIO FABIA CRESCEN. BRIX. MIL. LEG. XX. V. V. AN. XXX STIP. X GROMA HERES FAC. C. "In memory of P. Rustius Crescens of the Fabian tribe from Brixia, a soldier of the Twentieth Legion, 'The Valerian and Victorious,' aged thirty years and served ten. Groma, his heir, had this (stone) made." (Brixia, now Brescia, in Italy.)

 p152  Cirencester — RVFVS SITA EQVES CHO.º VI TRACVM ANN. XL STIP. XXII HEREDES EXS TEST. F. CVRAVE. H. S. E. "Rufus Sita, horseman of the Sixth Cohort of Thracians, lived forty years and served twenty-two. His heirs, in accordance to his will, had this erected. He is laid here" (Fig. 40).

Great Chesters — DIS M. PERVICAE FILIA F. "In memory of Pervica. Her daughter erected this."

Silchester — MEMORIAE FL. VICTORINAE T. TAM. VICTOR CONIVNX POSVIT. "In memory. To Flavia Victorina, Titus Tamphilus (?) Victor, her husband, placed this."

York — D M SIMPLICIAE FLORENTINE ANIME INNOCENTISSIME QVE VIXIT MENSES DECEM FILICIVS SIMPLEX PATER FECIT LEG VI V. "To the divine shades. To Simplicia Florentina, a most innocent thing, who lived ten months. Filicius Simplex of the Sixth Legion, 'The Victorious,' the father, erected this."

Chesters — D. M. S. FABIE HONORATE FABIVS HONORATIVS TRIBVN. COH. I VANGION. ET AVRELIA EGLICIANE FECERVNT FILIE DVLCISSIMME.º "Sacred to the gods of the shades. To Fabia Honorata, Fabius Honoratius, tribune of the First Cohort of Vangiones, and Aurelia Egleciane, raised this to their daughter most sweet."

Housesteads — D. M. ANICIO INGENVO MEDICO ORDI COH. PRIMAE TVNGR. VIX. AN. XXV. "To the memory of Anicius Ingenuus, physician in ordinary to the First Cohort of Tungrians, lived twenty-five years."

The Author's Notes:

1 Archaeologia, LII, p315.

2 Proc. Soc. Ant. xxi, p217.

3 Brit. Arch. Assoc. xxiii, p213.

4 Arch. Jour. xvi, p297.

5 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, xvii, p94.

6 Arch. Jour. x, p60.

7 Vict. Hist. Northamp. i, 183.

8 Arch. Jour. xvii, p117.

9 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, xviii, p39.

10 Archaeologia, XXVI, p368.

11 Uriconium, p346.

12 Arch. Cantiana, lxii, p76.

13 Archaeologia, XXI, p336.

14 Brit. Arch. Assoc. v, p134.

15 Arch. Jour. xxi, p88.

16 Arch. Jour. ii, p251.

17 Brit. Arch. Assoc. iv, p70.

18 Ib. ii, p275.

19 Arch. Jour. II, p255; Archaeologia, XII, p108; XXVII, pp412, 434.

20 Archaeologia, II, p177; Arch. Jour. XXV, p294. Several have been recently found at Newstead.

21 Archaeologia, XXV, p1; XXVI, pp300, 462; XXVIII, p1; XXIX, p1.

22 The handles of similar tankards have been found at Caerwent and Newstead.

23 Excavations, i, p33; ii, p190; iii, p204.

24 Of eleven interments at Chatham, most yielded the large nails of wooden coffins, and five of the skeletons had hob-nails at the feet. Arch. Cantiana, xxiii, p14.

25 Derbyshire Arch. Jour. XXVI, p227. See also Arch. Jour. vi, p109; xii, p197; Brit. Arch. Jour. 1858, p336.

26 Arch. Jour. xxvii, p103.

27 Hist. Eccl. bk. IV, XIX.

28 Arch. Jour. x, p255; Price, Roman Antiquities, Mansion House, plate iv.

29 Arch. Jour. X, pp61, 255; XII, pp78, 283; XVII, p99; XX, p99. Brit. Arch. Jour. II, p297; XX, pp88, 200. Collect. Antiq. IV, p173. Archaeologia, XVII, p333; XXXI, p308.

30 Arch. Jour. lvii, p97.

31 Arch. Aelian. viii, 127.

32 Brit. Arch. Assoc. xxvi, pp26, 240.

Thayer's Notes:

a Some further details on St. Etheldreda's burial and translation are given in King's Cathedrals of England, pp231‑232, including Bede's text in a note).

b See also this better photograph — because more recent, in color, and larger — in which the Roman inscription is fully readable and its Palmyrene coda can be made out pretty well.

Page updated: 14 Dec 20