My Favourite Object
This week’s blog post is written by Clare Hall a professional anthropologist and academic.
Think of the Corinum Museum and think of Romans: the name says it all really. But my favourite thing in the collection is one of the youngest objects on display. The Alfred Powell Bowl is an extremely large piece of blue and white glazed earthenware depicting scenes of Cirencester. It was made in the 1920s by a celebrated and influential member of the Arts & Craft Movement.
I have made some earthenware pots, coiling clay into shapes and spinning a wheel as the wet mud flies all over my clothes. This limited experience has given me a great appreciation for the extraordinary technical skill needed to make such a large vessel. And then decorate it, by careful hand, in a glowing shade of blue. And fire it again. The shape reminds me of an 18th century Georgian punch bowl, when convivial groups of friends would gather together to drink punch, smoke and gossip. It is a bowl that by design harks back to a romantic past. But positioned right at the exit, in the last display case, I like stepping out of the museum and into the town where the four scenes painted on the bowl still exist and are part of daily life. I love that unbroken thread of continuity between past and present.
I moved to Cirencester 18 months ago from East Anglia. I love to explore the town and to get lost in the surrounding countryside, finding architectural treasures. I became a friend of the museum in my first week as I consider a good museum can make a significant contribution to the quality of life.
The Tombstone of Sextus Valerius Genialis: What Does it Tell us?
Upon entering Corinium Museum you will be struck by this superb example of a Roman cavalry tombstone. This find dates from the late 1st or beginning of the 2nd century (c.60 CE), and was unearthed in Watermoor, Cirencester in 1836. Particularly fascinating is its imposing scale and the breadth of detail present. The intricate craftsmanship alone points strongly to a man who was once a very important figure. It is one of only 50 such tombstones found throughout the whole of the Roman Empire.
Who was Genialis?
The inscription tells us that Genialis was from the Frisiavones tribe of Gallia Belgica. This province was situated in the north-eastern part of Roman Gaul, which is now Belgium. By this time the Roman army had become a melting pot of peoples from across the ever expanding empire. Genialis is depicted on horseback in extensive armour, in sharp contrast with a bearded naked figure, cowering beneath his horse’s hooves. The inscription is written in Latin but it commemorates a man who originated in a region that did not natively speak Latin. By the time of his death he clearly identified with the Roman Empire, not with the ‘barbarian’ beneath his horse’s feet. The irony being that his ancestors were once those on the receiving end of the spear.
How do we know he was an auxiliary soldier?
From the 1st century BCE, cavalrymen were provided from provinces outside of Italy. The inscription states that Genialis was part of the cavalry regiment of Thracians. Auxiliary soldiers were recruited from non-Roman tribes, and men such as Genialis would have provided support for the Roman legionaries. Therefore, Genialis was clearly not a legionary soldier.
What makes this tombstone unique?
This is a very well-crafted tombstone with an impressive level of detail. It would have cost a considerable sum of money to craft and most within Roman society would not have been able to afford it. The inscription states that Genialis served in the army for 20 years, by the time of his death at the age of 40 he must have been a man of considerable achievements. Additionally, the name Sextus Valerius Genialis provides key information of his social status. 3 names or tria nomina tell us that he was actually a Roman citizen. This was extremely uncommon as auxiliary soldiers at the time gained citizenship at the end of their 25 years of service. Instead, Genialis had become a Roman citizen, likely during active service. Born as one of many subjects of Roman imperialism, Genialis had carved out a supremely successful Roman military career and became Romanised in the process.
Written by Nicholas Jones BA (Hons) (First Class in History and Archaeology)
An Exciting Discovery by Kelly Daye
Kelly Daye is a student from Deer Park school who has spent the week with us here at the Corinium Museum on work experience. He has taken part in a variety of tasks throughout the week, one of which was to spend the day Resource Centre in Northleach, cataloguing and helping to identify pre-historic artefacts. At the Resource Centre, Kelly and James (Collections Officer at the Museum) came across quite a unique and spectacular artefact. Below is 15 year old Kelly’s impressive blog entry:
Whilst searching through a box of flint and pottery, our intention being to find an arrowhead or a knife; James and I came across a reasonably large rounded stone, which I had previously discarded due to its irrelevance to our search and also due to the angle it was initially at. Fortunately, James took the time to have a look at the stones shape and details and we were both especially excited when discovering what it really was!
Although it had unfortunately been broken into two smaller pieces, and not being in its entirety to begin with, it became clear that it was in fact a stone mace-head from the Neolithic period. A natural pebble which had been drilled into from opposite sides to create a hole in the centre in which a stick would be forced in and it would be used like a hammer. There is clear evidence on the stone’s surface that it had previously been used, such as the wearing on the nose, likely caused by repeatedly striking it against another object.
James, myself and the rest of the staff here at the Corinium Museum are still in debate as to whether the artefact should officially be named a mace or hammer, as there is actually no evidence to say it had been used in combat, whereas the wearing on the nose suggests it was likely used as a tool.
Be sure to keep an eye on the changes around the Museum over the next two years as once the pre-history gallery is updated you may well see this truly spectacular artefact on display, as it is the only one of its kind that the Museum owns.
Making Old Pots Do New Tricks
This month’s blog entry coincides with a new display at the Corinium Museum which looks at agriculture and food production.
Caitlin Greenwood is a current PhD student at the University of Bristol. She is working on extracting food residues from Roman pottery stored at Corinium Museum.
Brilliant historical food writer, Jean Anthelme Brillart-Savarin once said “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”. Food is not just the calories human beings need to survive, it’s also a way we express ourselves. Think about what you would and would not eat: many bugs are edible, would you eat them? What about dog meat? Horse meat? Cow meat? These ideas are defined by our cultural ideas about food (our foodways) rather than by what is biologically possible.
Food also tells us about boundaries, both within our society and without. In the first ever English dictionary Dr Johnson defined Oats as “A grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people”. You can feel the boundary there, can’t you? We only feed oats to our horses but those people are so poor or primitive or backwards that they eat oats. Similarly, the Roman geographer Strabo mocked the ancient Britons by saying that, though they had milk, they could not make cheese.
Finally, food is a really important part of how we relate to each other. Commensality, the act of sharing food and drink, is embedded in almost every human culture and is a major topic of study to anthropologists, social scientists and ethnographers. If you tell us how and with whom you eat, we can tell you what you are.
How does it work?
Organic residue analysis (ORA) works by extracting food residues from inside the matrix of pottery. Before the invention of glaze, pottery was not completely water (or food) proof, so during storage and especially cooking some of the molecules in the food migrate into the pot and stay there. These can be extracted from the pot fragment in the lab and then analysed. The most common molecules to survive are fats and oils (known as lipids in chemistry) because they are so water insoluble (Think about how much harder it is to clean a frying pan than a plate when you’ve run out of washing up liquid). By analysing these fats, we can say whether they were from plants, ruminant animals like cows or sheep, dairy fats from milk, cheese or butter, or non-ruminant animals like pigs. From one pot, this wouldn’t be very interesting but from 100 (or 700, which is my goal) we can hopefully start to see overall trends in diet that would otherwise be archaeologically invisible.
What will it tell us?
My hope is that by looking at a range of different sites, cities, farms, small towns and villas, over the whole of the Roman period emerging trends will allow us to know more about what life was really like for people in Roman Britain and what it meant to be a subject of the Roman Empire.
Watch this space for a later post about food in Roman Cirencester!
Medieval Manuscripts of Cirencester Abbey
Our guest blogger is Alan Welsford, a local resident who has been involved with the Abbey 900 display of manuscripts with us at the museum. Alan is responsible for the idea of bringing Alexendar Neckham further into the spotlight, and via this blog shows the importance of Cirencester, the Abbey, and the medieval manuscripts on display in the Museum until 21st May.
The Abbey 900 festival commemorates the foundation of Cirencester Abbey in 1117. As part of the Commemoration, Corinium Museum is displaying four medieval manuscripts from the Bodleian Library and Jesus College, Oxford, which were once held in the library of the Abbey of St Mary, Cirencester. The display was sponsored by Soroptimists International: Cirencester District and the transport of the manuscripts was sponsored by Tanners solicitors.
The Abbey was founded in 1117 by Henry I to replace the existing College of Secular Canons at Cirencester with a community of Augustinian Canons. Henry was following Papal preference in choosing the Augustinians to replace the resident secular Canons. The Augustinians differed from their predecessors in that they took the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience: they were known as Canons Regular – that is living under regulation. Each Augustinian community of Canons Regular developed their own precise Rule – the one for Cirencester is not known.
The first dozen or so Canons arrived in 1130 or 1131 from Merton Priory in Surrey, probably using the Anglo-Saxon minster for their church. The foundations of this minster were discovered during the excavations of the Abbey site and revealed the largest yet known Anglo-Saxon church in England as well as extensive foundations of the Abbey church and buildings. (Wilkinson D and McWhirr A. Cirencester : Anglo-Saxon church and medieval Abbey. Cirencester Excavations IV).
Abbot Serlo – the first Abbot of the Abbey
The first Abbot was Serlo whose Abbacy lasted from 1130/1 until 1147. Serlo was probably Dean of Old Sarum and had previously been a Canon of the Augustinian Priory at Merton. The final consecration of the great Abbey church did not happen until 1176 in the presence of four bishops and King Henry II. Work continued for many years to complete the church and provide the full complement of conventual buildings – cloisters, refectory, dormitories, an Abbot’s House and, from our point of view, most importantly, a scriptorium and a library.
The Canons maintained a daily round of religious services, the Opus Dei (The Work of God). These began at midnight with Matins and Lauds, Prime at 6am followed at 9am with Terce, then Sext at noon, None at 3pm, Vespers at 6pm and lastly Compline at bed-time, 9pm. Each developed around the psalms.
The Augustinians were a community of priests, who employed staff to care for the day to day work within the Abbey and had a concern for work in parishes, taking them outside their Abbey, differentiating them from Benedictine monks. At its foundation the Abbey was endowed with many parishes both close by and in more distant places and so had responsibilities for them. Cirencester was one of these and also Cheltenham. On display is the tomb-stone from the grave of one of the Priests serving Cheltenham church who was a member of the Council of Cirencester Abbey though not a member of the community proper.
The Augustinians had a greater emphasis on scholarship than the Benedictines. Augustinian life outside their Abbey brought the Canons into contact with the changes in society stemming from economic developments and new intellectual stimulation. These two factors were to be of some consequence both to Cirencester Abbey and the Church more widely.
Little is known about the Canons who were at Cirencester beyond the Abbots whose roles in securing the influence of the Abbey locally, nationally and beyond are known from the Cartulary and documents preserved in national archives. Some Canons are known only as names which appear in the Ex Libris entries in manuscripts. However, there are some whose names and works establish Cirencester Abbey as a monastery with formidable scholars during the so-called Twelfth Century Renaissance (see Swanson R.N. The twelfth-century renaissance. Manchester University Press. 1999.)
Canon Jocelyn and the first known instance of the idea of zero
One of the scholars at Cirencester was Canon Jocelyn who was probably amongst the Canons of Merton whom Serlo chose to accompany him to set up the Abbey. At Hereford Cathedral Library is a collection of books which belonged to Canon Jocelyn known by its incipit or title: “While some are considering the theory of multiplication and division.” Within this volume is Jocelyn’s copy of De Abaco (On the Abacus) by Gerlandus (c1080). It may be that Canon Jocelyn’s interest in numbers and calculation stemmed from the problems the Church had in determining the correct date for Easter Day – the compotus – and the use of number to elucidate theological issues. It was thought that 1x1x1=1 gave an intuitive understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. There are nine known medieval copies of Gerlandus: what is especially interesting about Jocelyn’s copy is that it contains a verse for remembering the “new” Hindu-Arabic numerals that we use today. And not only that: it is the only copy which includes “zipos” or zero, which has led to the claim that Jocelyn is the first person known by name to have understood the importance of zero in the new mathematics. At that time Cirencester was in the Diocese of Worcester which was a centre of Arabic studies translating Arabic and Greek texts into Latin. Augustinian Canons had great freedom of movement and so we can wonder if Jocelyn met with other scholars in Worcester Priory (now the Cathedral).
Robert of Cricklade
Another scholar in the earlier days of Cirencester Abbey and whose name we know was Robert of Cricklade. Educated in Cricklade, Robert became a master in the Schools at Oxford which had emerged in the late 11th century, though not yet a University. He entered Cirencester Abbey before 1139 and whilst there wrote his “De connubio Iacob (On the marriage of Jacob). What may have been his own copy survives in Hereford Cathedral Library (Ms P.iv.8.). This work is an allegory on the story of Jacob, one of the Patriarchs in the Old Testament. Robert was amongst the scholars who appreciated the need to examine the Bible in the light of the emerging Aristotelian approach of questioning received opinion. He learned Hebrew which was important in another of his works amongst Cirencester manuscripts now in Hereford (O.iii.10) –Homilie super Ezechielem (Homlies/Sermons on the Book Ezekiel) which shows his knowledge of Hebrew. But this was written after he had moved to be Prior at St. Frideswide’s, Oxford (now Christ Church). Andrew Dunning, in his blog for the British Library, draws attention to Robert’s insistence on the importance of scholarly writing. “Even after Robert’s death (between 1174 and 1180), his work at Oxford and Cirencester inspired the work of the famous Alexander Neckham (1157–1217)”.
Enter Alexander Neckham
Alexander Neckham was born in St. Albans in 1157 of aristocratic parents on the same day as Richard the Lionheart was born in Windsor. As was customary at that time, the Royal baby was immediately fostered onto a nursing mother – Alexander’s mother, Hodierna (it is probable that Hodierna Knoyle (now West Knoyle) in Wiltshire is connected to the family.) Hodierna must have known the great Eleanor of Aquitaine. There is evidence that Hodierna had favour with the Royal Family as she received a substantial pension from Henry I which was still being paid to her by King John. So it is reasonable to suppose that Alexander also had Royal favour, which was important when King John was levying severe taxes, including on Abbeys, to fund his conflicts with France: Cirencester Abbey seems to have been excused.
Neckham was educated at the school at St. Alban’s, one of the oldest of all schools, founded in 948. Later Neckham was himself a Master at St Alban’s and he also taught at Dunstable, Bedfordshire, which was under the control of St Alban’s Abbey. By 1180 he was in Paris, “at this time the goal of all students in the arts and theology” (Hunt R. W. (M. Gibson ed) The Schools and the Cloister. Clarendon Press. 1984)
At some point the young Alexander agreed with fellow students that they should eventually enter into monastic life. The received attitude to theological study was to interpret the Church’s teaching in the light of thought rather than observation. It was the re-discovery of the Greek classics via the Arab world and translations into Latin that stimulated the Twelfth Century Renaissance. This movement followed Aristotle: Neckham calls him “the great, the most acute Aristotle, the most excellent philosopher, the guide, the head and honour of the world”. But Aristotle was a pagan and there is a hint that Neckham was uncertain of how the Church would react to this new approach and in his Commentary on Ecclesiastes he suggests that these books should be studied discreetly.
By 1185 Neckham had secured the post of Master at the school in St. Albans. To obtain this position he had written to Abbot Garinus who replied in a pun on Neckham’s name : Si bonus es uenias; si nequam, nequamquam : If you are a good man, come: if worthless, by no means.
It was during this period in his life that he wrote two works revising fables : Novus Esopus (Aesop) and Novus Avianus ( a Latin writer c 400 AD). In lessons on rhetoric schoolboys were required to analyse fables, giving them a moral interpretation and create their own. One of Neckham’s own is included in his Novus Esopus. “A gnat settled on the horn of a bull, and sat there a long time. Just as he was about to fly off, he made a buzzing noise and enquired of the bull if he would like him to go. The bull replied, ‘I did not know you had come, and I shall not miss you when you go away’.”
It was also at this time that he wrote De nominibus utensilibus (On the names of useful things) for his students (see Bodleian Digby 37 on display).
Neckham entered Cirencester Abbey between 1197 and 1202. Had he become tired of the need to attract scholars? Masters at the centres of higher learning needed entrepreneurial endeavour to earn their living: pupils brought fees. On the other hand, it was a common decision at that time to enter a monastery late in academic life to have time to consolidate one’s studies. Some of his academic colleagues tried to dissuade him from fulfilling his youthful pledge to enter a monastery: “But he became like a deaf man and heard not the sounds of the world.” Peter of Blois, Archdeacon of London and one of his friends, congratulated him on his decision. However, we should not think of Alexander as a dour ascetic. He had a reputation for making jokes including practical jokes. When he was once asked to keep a sermon short he made it just one sentence long. He also liked to have a glass of wine, which he tells us is to be preferred over beer, beside him while he wrote. Why did Neckham choose Cirencester Abbey? Perhaps because he knew of it from conversation with Robert of Cricklade in the Augustinian House in Oxford. It has been suggested that he knew that Cirencester Abbey had an excellent Library such as a scholar would need. The medieval emphasis on the importance of books is summed up in the aphorism: “A cloister without books is as a castle without an armoury.” The value set on books is clear from such curses as this: “For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not this book to its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy and all his members be blasted. Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink in dissolution. Then, let book worms gnaw his entrails and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of hell consume him – for ever.”
During his early years at Cirencester Abbey Neckham is referred to as “Master Alexander” which may mean that he continued his work as teacher in the post of Headmaster of the Abbey School.
Amongst the books Neckham would have found in the Abbey Library was De templo (On the Temple) (see Jesus College 52 on display)
It was also in his time as Canon/ Master Alexander that he wrote De rerum naturis (On things in nature).
Subjects covered in this and others of his works included astronomy. “The sun is a hundred and sixty times and a fraction larger than the earth”. Neckham also wrote about plants including herbs which were the foundation of medieval medicine and grown in the Abbey garden. Both Herbals and Bestiaries were available at this time but Neckham seems to have implemented the new approach to scholarship and, from actual observation rather than received opinion, corrected many errors even omitting some of the more fantastical notions of such writers as Gerald of Wales (1188). He also suggested that gardeners should try to see if they could get plants to grow, another indication of Neckham’s encouragement of an inquisitive mind.
In 1213 Neckham produced Laus sapientie divine (The praise of divine wisdom) a versified version of De naturis rerum which shows his continued interest in scientific matters including the stars and the elements. Three years later, shortly before he died, Neckam wrote Suppletio defectum (Supplying defects or ammendments …to Laus sapientie divine) in which he writes about birds and other animals and gives descriptions of trees, herbs and other plants. Here he also reveals that the concern over the calculation of the date for Easter was still current : there are still, he says, “manifest errors in the vulgar compotus”. “The love of knowledge” he writes “is naturally implanted in the human mind. Hence it aspires to an understanding of it. It seeks out the cause of things,” (Hunt op cit) reminding us of Neckham’s involvement in the Twelfth Century Renaissance and the new theological thinking.
Neckham was elected Abbot in 1213 in the presence of King John. He already had experience in the administration of his Abbey as he had been appointed by the Bishop of Worcester to oversee Abbot Richard under whose Abbacy a Visitation by the Bishop and the Archbishop had revealed mal-administration. Neckham was also an ecclesiastical judge and appointed as a papal judge. In civil matters he acted for King John in examining the rights of the Augustinian Priory of Kenilworth. During 1208-1214 England was placed under interdict by the Pope Innocent III when King John refused to accept the Pope’s nomination of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. An Interdict had great effect on the Church and the People : public services were banned, the appointment of new bishops suspended. It is mark of Neckham’s reputation that he, along with his friend Peter of Blois and others, was used by the King to negotiate with the Pope. Royal records of King John’s reign include: “May 1213 – Henricus de Alemannia – 15 pence for taking some letters to Alexander at Cirencester.”
It was during Neckham’s time as Abbot that the Abbey regained some of its lost rights in the Seven Hundreds (the extensive area in the Cotswolds over which the Abbey had gained control) and also obtained the right to an annual market over the eight days of All Saintstide. It is not surprising that administrative concerns meant that Neckham’s scholarly output now fell away. And yet it was as late as 1213/5 that he wrote his major theological work Speculum Speculationum (Mirror of speculations) set out in four books. The main thrust of Book One is to address the Cathar Heresy. In Book Four he discusses the subjects of grace and free will. One writer (R.M.Thomson, who edited a translation of the work) suggests that, relieved of educational demands, Neckham became ever more discursive in his writing, revealing his interest in both Platonic thought as well as his beloved Aristotle: it was not until Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) that the conflict between Plato’s philosophy and Aristotle’s was considered resolved.
Neckham also wrote in verse which was part of the 12th century interest in language stemming from the development in Latin scholarship. “Words and their meanings – and implications – were basic to any attempt to comprehend the world.” (Swanson R.N. The twelfth-century renaissance. University of Manchester Press. 1999)
Towards the end of his life he wrote Corrogationes novi Promethei (New Teachings of Prometheus) a long and uncompleted work.
The first part is concerned with the Monastic life. “The Abbot must be the teacher by precept and example. He must not be too anxious to fill the chests with gold.” Did the experienced Abbot Neckham, one wonders, accept the need for an appropriate level of concern to secure sufficient gold? In Part Two he writes of the need to avoid vices – which include becoming gloomy and the excessive use of candles, presumably for personal light rather than in the church. In the Third Part, Neckham writes of the ages of Man. “It ends”, writes Hunt (op cit) , “with an elegy on the loss of youth.”
1215 is one of the most famous dates in history as the year of Magna Carta but for the ordinary Christian person at that time, 1215 was of much more importance as the date of the 4th Lateran Council in Rome. It was at this Council that many matters were decided which impinged on the ordinary person’s life: the requirement to accept various doctrines, including Transubstantiation developed from Plato’s notion of essence and accidence, and other dogmas and to observe certain practices such receiving Communion at least once a year after Confession. It is indicative of Neckham’s academic standing that he was summoned to attend the 4th Lateran Council and an indication of his favour with King John that the King ordered the Bailiffs of Dover to provide Alexander with a properly equipped and staffed ship for the voyage. However, it seems likely that Neckham did not attend the Council as he wrote to the Bishop of Worcester that he was too ill to undertake such a journey.
“Through his prolific writing in many fields, his teaching at several educational levels, and his active participation in monastic life as well as royal and ecclesiastical service, Alexander Neckham was important in transmitting and transforming the widening intellectual interests of the twelfth century into their scholastic form of the late medieval period.” (The Middle Ages : Dictionary of World Biography: Volume 2. Edited by Frank N Magill Routledge and Salem Press Inc 1998).
Alexander Neckham died at Kempsey in Worcestershire, a Manor of the Bishop of Worcester, in 1217 – which means we not only commemorate 900 years since the founding of the Abbey but also remember the death of its most famous Abbot, 800 years ago.
Neckham was buried in Worcester Priory, now the Cathedral, where a brass plaque in his memory can be found, most appropriately, in the cloister. In translation it reads:
Wisdom suffers an eclipse. A sun is buried, which, while it lived, every branch of learning flourished. Neckham is dissolved into ashes. Had he one heir on this earth, his death would be less cause for tears.
My name is Nadia Williamson, I am from Cirencester Kingshill School and am currently visiting the museum as work experience.
My favourite artefact at the Museum is probably the Hunting Dogs Mosaic, which dates from the second century AD. It was originally composed of aquatic imagery however was later remodelled, possibly due to the collapse of part of the floor and now includes the hunting dogs and other unrelated patterns.
In 1849, the mosaic was discovered under Dyer Street along with the Seasons mosaic, inspiring the creation of the first museum. In the centre, three dogs focus in on their prey, the largest dog wears a collar and two smaller dogs stand beside him. It is difficult to tell what animal they are hunting as this part of the mosaic is incomplete and has been patched with plain tesserae.
The semicircles on either side contain a mythical marine creature – a sea-leopard and a winged sea-griffin – chasing a dolphin.
In one of the corner compartments, a detailed representation of Medusa can be seen. Snakes with red crests and tongues come out from her hair and two are knotted neatly beneath her chin. Medusa was often in mosaic floors as it was believed that anyone who saw her head would be turned to stone, therefore she ensured that any evil entering the home was rendered harmless.
Another head which appears on the mosaic is a male head with seaweed as a beard. The coloured band around his face has crab’s claws at its base. The description was created using tiny tesserae and made of materials such as red glass and onyx. This head represents the god of the sea, it is unusual to find Medusa and The God of the sea in the same mosaic.
The mosaic is unusual as there is no clear theme, the hunting dog’s scene in the centre does not fit the aquatic idea around the outside. There are no figures in the bottom corners of the mosaic, which is also an unusual feature of the mosaic.
The reason I like this mosaic is because the detail they put into the design shows how important these mosaics were in the Roman era and how much time went into creating them.
Hi! I’m Emily, a Museum Studies M.A. student at the University of Leicester. As part of my course, I’m doing a summer work placement here at the Corinium Museum. My background is in Latin and Roman culture. While I’m here I’ll be doing a series of blog posts looking in closer detail at interesting features, themes, and ideas drawn from my explorations of the Corinium Museum’s collections. Enjoy!
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO International Literacy Day, so this week I decided to look into literacy through time, and how this theme is represented in the Corinium Museum collections.
The earliest origins of writing as a form of communication are believed to come from the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia, and date to the late fourth millennium BC. Administrators in the city began to record accounts of the city’s food supplies by marking symbols into clay tablets. Similar techniques might have developed at around the same time in Syria and Turkey, although definitive evidence of this has yet to be found.
The first symbols that could be considered a type of alphabet originated in Ancient Egypt. By 2700 BC twenty-two characters had been developed which represented common syllables.
Sometime before the 8th century BC the Phoenicians developed a script which represented sounds, and had very few characters. This meant that it could be used to record several languages, and was relatively easy for traders to learn. The Phoenicians were advanced sea traders, and as a result this alphabet spread across the Mediterranean.
In Ancient Greece it was adapted to also contain vowels, creating the first true alphabet. A variant of the Greek alphabet developed into the Latin alphabet, which is used in England today, and spread through trade and the expansion of the Roman Empire.
The earliest writing in the Corinium Museum collection can be found on the Bodvoc coin, an Iron Age gold coin from the Dubonii tribe. On one side is inscribed the Ancient British name BODVOC in Latin script, and on the reverse is depicted a triple-tailed horse and eight-spoked wheel. The coin was found near Chipping Campden in 1981. This would have been a very valuable item, and it seems likely that at this stage literacy in Britain was confined to the elite of society.
In Roman Britain literacy seems to have been more widespread. Latin inscriptions are commonly found on monuments, tombstones, and even everyday objects like this brooch which reads ‘UTERE FELIX’, ‘use this happily’. Whether the craftsman who made the brooch was able to read and write, or whether they were copying a pattern cannot be certain. However, writing is so common on Roman artefacts that it makes sense to assume that a relatively substantial proportion of the population had some level of literacy.
Literary sources tell us that wealthy Roman children were taught to read and write at home by their parents or by slaves who were bought specifically to fulfil the role of a tutor. Older boys would then receive further education at school, when a teacher would deliver lessons to a group, probably in the marketplace (forum). These wealthy boys would be taught literature, history, mathematics, philosophy, and the skills they would need to be successful businessmen and politicians. Some wealthy girls would continue to be educated at home by tutors and their mothers.
The Romans taught children to write using wax tablets and styluses. Letters could be scratched into the soft wax with the pointed end of a stylus, and erased with the flat end. This method was far less expensive than the use of ink and parchment. A fragment of a wooden wax tablet was excavated in Cirencester in 1990, and is a remarkable survival. It is also surprising that the tablet was made out of oak, while other examples have used pine or fir.
Whether poorer Roman people and Romano-British people would have been literate, and the levels of their literacy, is strongly debated. Graffiti found throughout Rome and Pompeii suggests that large proportions of the population had some ability to read and write, although spelling and grammar mistakes are common. The large number of letters found at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall, suggest that there was a high level of literacy among the soldiers in the Roman army and their families.
At Cirencester excavations in Victoria Road in 1868 uncovered a section of wall plaster that reveals a Latin acrostic. In this word puzzle the word ‘TENET’ forms the shape of a cross, and the letters rearrange into the Alpha and Omega (A and O, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and a symbol of Christianity) and the phrase ‘PATER NOSTER’, meaning ‘Our Father’, the opening words of the Christian Lord’s Prayer. This clever puzzle was carved by hand into decorated plaster. This demonstrates some literacy on the part of the person responsible for the markings. The plasterwork, however, suggests that the find came from a relatively wealthy household.
Literacy levels seem to have declined after the departure of the Romans from Britain. Between 878 and 892 King Alfred the Great embarked upon an initiative to improve literacy levels for all. There is little evidence of how he went about implementing these reforms, and most successes seem to have taken place in religious institutions, rather than among common people.
It seems to have remained the case throughout the Medieval period that literacy was reserved for the rich and religious classes of society. The Corinium Museum, for example, is home to a Medieval silver-gilt pendant inscribed with the names of the Biblical Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
Historical literacy levels are very difficult to measure. For the most part it seems that, in England, the working classes had little or no ability to read and write until some level of schooling became compulsory for all children in the late nineteenth century. Until this period, many people were even unable to write their own names, and many wedding certificates, birth certificates, and death certificates are signed with the letter ‘X’ instead.
When schooling did become compulsory, children would first learn to write using equipment which is very similar to the wax tablets used in Ancient Rome; a slate and chalk. Like the wax tablets, these tools were inexpensive, and the writing could easily be erased and corrected. There are many examples in the Corinium Museum’s social history collection.
After this point in history, working class voices and stories begin to be better represented in the Corinium Museum collections. Many documents such as letters, receipts, and posters have survived which give insight into the daily lives of the people who lived in Gloucestershire. This is partly due to the fact that in the twentieth century these objects began to be valued as historical evidence, when in previous generations they might have been discarded. However, is it also a sign that working class people were reading and writing in their daily lives, and were leaving behind a written record of their existence in a way which they never had before.
This diary, written in 1925 in an old receipt book, was found hidden behind a beam in a building in Cricklade Street, Cirencester. It was written by Nellie, a young woman who was living and working in Cirencester, and the entries detail her tumultuous relationship with her fiancé, the 35 year old Arthur. Writing was an important part of Nellie’s life, not only because she kept a series of diaries (some of which she destroyed, fearing that her family might discover them while she was away working in Great Yarmouth), but also because letters were her only way of communicating with Arthur whenever one of them had to work in another part of the country.
Writing, however, was not so important to Arthur, much to Nellie’s disappointment. She complained ‘And then came the time when I thought he never cared a rap, He was up Miserden, & I asked to write twice or three times a week, & he never used to trouble to answer. I used to cry nights over that. And then there was that awful row, when I thought that I was going to lose him. I shall never forget that never. I was bound to write to him & tell him that I couldn’t live without him & that I worshiped him for the better far better than anybody else in the whole world. But it showed what stuff he was made of, because he still stuck to me.’
Finally, while searching through the collections I stumbled upon this letter. It caught my attention for the sole reason that it was written on today’s date, September 8th! It was sent from India, and the first four sides, addressed to ‘My dear Jess’, describe a cholera outbreak. The next eight sides are dated January and February 1913 and describe life in India. This perhaps means that the earlier part was written in 1912, in which case today is this letter’s 104th birthday!
Surveys of literacy levels in the UK have been taking place since 1948. Research carried out in 1997 found that overall literacy levels had changed little since 1948, with middling and high achieving students faring very well in comparison to international studies, but with large proportions of the population struggling. It found that, while few of Britain’s school-leavers could be described as illiterate, many lacked the levels of literacy necessary for success in adult life and work. According to the National Literacy Trust, around 16% of adults in the UK are ‘functionally illiterate’, meaning that ‘they would not pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old’. UNESCO is working to improve literacy rates among children and adults worldwide, and 8th September is a day for celebrating successes and campaigning for future progress!
Imagine what your life would be like if you couldn’t read or write. You’d miss out on these blog posts, and wouldn’t that be a shame?!
The Corinium Museum’s social history collection contains many charming mementos from Gloucestershire’s schools. These objects have the ability both to highlight how much has changed about education and childhood, and how much remains the same!
This well-used exercise book contains the schoolwork done by Hannah Builder between 1798 and 1801. While the work inside is very neat and precise, the cover tells a different story with its doodled names, scribbles, and tally marks. A familiar sight on many a school book today!
This sampler was made as a schoolroom exercise in 1881 by S. Buttle. The alphabet is embroidered on it twice, alongside the numbers one to ten, the date, and Buttle’s name. Samplers were originally used by craftsmen and women to record embroidery patterns, effects, and experiments as a reference tool for their later work. Some of the earliest known samplers date to the 14th century! Samplers were soon recognised as a useful teaching tool. S. Buttle’s sampler would have served as a literacy, numeracy, sewing, and handwriting exercise, all in one!
One recurring theme in the social history collection, and in most people’s memories of their time at school, is school uniforms. Of particular note is the Powell’s School uniform. The Powell’s School was founded in 1876, when the 1714 Blue School for Boys merged with the 1722 Yellow School for Girls. The above photograph shows schoolchildren wearing the traditional uniform when it was originally in use. The photograph below, however, shows a more recent generation of Powell’s School students dressing up in reconstructed versions of the uniform!
The traditional Powell’s School uniform was so iconic that a miniature version was even made for this mid-19th Century wax doll!
Standards of dress and behaviour were certainly stricter than they are today, as can be seen in this photograph of a very smart and serious class of pupils at the Chipping Campden Grammar School. The school was founded in 1440, and girls were first admitted in 1906. From the fashion of clothing, it seems this photograph must have been taken fairly soon afterwards! Chipping Campden School became a comprehensive in 1965.
Although ‘back to school’ time is often met with dread by children (and teachers!) across the country, it should be remembered that, in amongst all the rules and formal education, school time can be a lot of fun! This group, again from Powell’s school, are in costume for a performance of Sleeping Beauty!
If you’re going back to school soon, we at the Corinium Museum wish you luck in the new academic year, and hope your class is as happy as this group in the playground at Down Ampney School seem to be!
Photos like these can bring back fond schoolyard memories for decades to come! So keep hold of them, and please write dates on the back!
A phoenix is a mythical creature originating from several cultures. In Greek and Roman tales phoenixes gave off light, lived in the Arabian desert, and feasted on balsam and frankincense. These birds lived for five hundred years at a time, and when one died a new bird would emerge from its body. In Persian mythology the phoenix is said to burst into flames at the end of its life, and rise again from the ashes. Most recently the image of the phoenix was popularised in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series through Professor Dumbledore’s companion Fawkes the Phoenix.
Phoenixes have appeared as a symbol of Cirencester since at least the seventeenth century, and now lend their image not only to Cirencester’s annual music festival, but also to several local businesses, and the Cirencester Town Council’s crest. (Note also the Jupiter column capital, on display at the Corinium Museum).
It is uncertain how the phoenix came to be associated with Cirencester. It might have been in reference to Elizabeth I, who adopted the symbol of the phoenix to celebrate her recovery from smallpox. Alternatively, the phoenix could symbolise Cirencester’s recovery after it was sacked by the Saxons in 577 AD.
There are several representations of phoenixes in the Corinium Museum’s collections, although the vast majority of them predate the town’s association with the bird. The Roman Emperor Constans, who reigned from 337-350 AD, used the symbol of the phoenix on much of his coinage. Constans, the son of the Emperor Constantine, inherited a third of the Roman Empire upon the death of his father. The other two thirds were given over to his two brothers. His brother Constantine II inherited Spain, Gaul, and Britain, but was defeated when he tried to take over Constans’ share in Italy, giving Constans control of Britain. Constans visited the isles in 342 AD and was the last legitimate Roman Emperor to do so.
The coin above was minted in Trier, and depicts the Emperor Constans on the face with the description D(OMINUS) N(OSTER) CONSTANS P(IUS) F(ELIX) AUG(USTUS), which translates to ‘Our Lord, Constans, dutiful and wise, Augustus’. On the reverse is a phoenix standing on a pyre, giving off rays of light, with the message FEL(ICIUM) TEMP(ORUM) REPARATIO, which means ‘Restoration of happy times’. It was found on the site of a Romano-British settlement in Kingscote, Gloucestershire, in 1973-75.
This coin, found at Claydon Pike, Gloucestershire, in 1981-1984, also depicts Constans and comes from the FEL TEMP REPARATIO series. On the reverse of coins of this design, however, Constans is depicted standing on a ship holding a phoenix atop a globe. It has been suggested that this image commemorates Constans’ sea voyage when he visited Britain.
Phoenixes next appear in the Corinium Museum collection on trade tokens, like this copper alloy Cirencester farthing from 1668. In the seventeenth century people needed coinage which was smaller in value than a penny. However, no values that low were being officially minted. An act of parliament in 1649 allowed certain towns, and eventually certain merchants, to produce tokens worth a half or quarter penny. These tokens cost very little to make, meaning that merchants were making a profit by producing them. As a result the practice was ended by Charles II in 1672, and farthings began to be produced as official coinage.
The phoenix continued to be associated with commerce in Cirencester, and was carved above the first floor windows of the Corn Hall Buildings, built in 1863 on the site of the old wool market. The Corn Hall was built during a period when Cirencester’s previously prosperous wool industry had gone into decline, and marks a shift towards the farming of crops alongside livestock in Gloucestershire.
For the most part, any later occurrences of the phoenix image in the collections are linked to local businesses, such as these bottles marked Cirencester Brewery Ltd (above), or are souvenirs of visits to the town, such as this postcard and ceramic candle holder (below).
The phoenix, therefore, has been an important symbol for centuries in Cirencester, and it still remains a prominent image around the town, in local businesses, and even on the Mayor’s Chain. While you’re enjoying the Phoenix Festival this weekend, spare a thought for what the phoenix means to Cirencester, and what it might mean in the future!
Since around 5000 B.C. gold has been used to create accessories and objects that symbolise wealth, status, and elegance across the world. Some of Britain’s earliest gold artefacts date to the Early Bronze Age, such as the Ringlemere Cup (1700-1500 B.C.) and the Rillaton Cup (1800-1600 B.C.), both of which are at the British Museum.
The Corinium Museum is also home to some fine examples of early gold objects. The Poulton Hoard, discovered in 2004 and 2005 in the village of Poulton, near Cirencester, dates to around 1300-1100 B.C. and consists of 67 gold and bronze artefacts. These were gold finger rings, torc fragments, and penannular (open) rings, and bronze tools which could have been used to shape, decorate, and cut the gold. This combination of objects suggests that bronze tools were used in early gold-working, and the hoard could be interpreted as a Bronze Age goldsmith’s standard trade tools. Many of these objects were unfinished or appear to have been deliberately broken before they were buried.
There are also two other Bronze Age gold objects on display in the museum’s Prehistory Gallery which were not part of hoards, but which are nevertheless beautiful and fascinating artefacts. One of these objects is a penannular ring which serves no obvious function. Rings of this type are sometimes called a ‘tress-ring’, believed to be some kind of jewellery, possibly for locks of hair, or ‘ring-money’, following the theory that they were worn on clothing or tied together and used as an early form of currency. The other object is a rare Bronze Age gold bead, found in Coberley in 2011 and acquired by the Corinium Museum in 2014. The bead was rolled into shape from a sheet of gold.
The skill with which objects such as these were made reveals that, although metalworking and goldsmithing were still in their infancy, Bronze Age craftsmen were highly capable and skilled in their handling of gold.
There are relatively few gold objects in the Roman collection. However, the Roman invasion of Britain brought with it the industrial mining and production of gold. Bronze Age gold extraction near Pumsaint in Carmarthenshire is believed to have been capitalised upon by the Romans in around 74 A.D., who established the only recognised gold mine in Britain. On display at the Corinium Museum are several gold earrings, decorated with agate, pearl and turquoise, and gold rings, one of which shows two clasped hands, symbolising marriage.
In recent years the Anglo-Saxon period has become well-known for its fine gold artefacts, thanks to the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009, consisting of over 3,500 objects, making it ‘the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found, anywhere in the world’. All of these objects were connected in some way to warfare.
The Corinium Museum’s Anglo-Saxon gold, however, reveals more personal connections between these riches and the individuals who treasured them. On display are three ornate gold disc pendants, and a garnet and gold pendant which was originally part of a necklace with glass and agate beads. Two of these gold discs were found in burials. One, decorated with garnet (left), was buried with a 35-40 year old woman who was also laid to rest with a weaving batten. Another, decorated with glass (right), was found in the grave of a small child. Its decorative features are well-worn, leading to the suggestion that it might have been passed down between generations of the child’s family. The context of these finds show not only that they symbolised wealth and status, but that they might also have had some emotional and sentimental importance to these individuals or to their mourning loved ones.
In 879 A.D. the Viking ‘Great Army’ travelled across the Cotswolds and settled for a year in Cirencester. Although there is little physical evidence of these events, the Corinium Museum is home to a few objects which show Viking influence, including a plaited gold ring dating to the 10th century, and an 8th-11th Century decorated gold button. These are very finely made and decorated, in keeping with the high quality of Viking craftsmanship.
In the Medieval period Cirencester had a prosperous wool trade, and in 1402 the Cambini of Florence wrote that Cirencester had the best wool market because it had an exchange for Florentine gold coins. The Corinium Museum collection includes a 13th century gold brooch showing a rampant lion, and a gold quarter noble coin from the reign of Edward III (1327-77).
The final gallery in the Corinium Museum addresses Cirencester and Gloucestershire’s role in the English Civil Wars (1642-1651). In this gallery is the Weston-sub-Edge Hoard, a collection of 307 silver coins and 2 gold coins which were found in 1981 under the floorboards of the ‘Hall of Friendship’ village hall in Weston-sub-Edge, which had been a barn at the time of the Civil Wars. The coins had been hidden in a custom-made lead pipe, and were accompanied by a note which read ‘hoard is £18’. The most recent coins in the hoard date to 1642. The hoard is a sign of how the turbulence and unrest of this period impacted individuals, and offers a very human connection to a defining moment in history.
The 1996 Treasure Act means that ‘all finders of gold and silver objects, and groups of coins from the same finds, over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report such items’. Reporting historical finds ensures that their significance can be better understood, that the finds and the findspots can be protected, and that further investigation can be undertaken if necessary. Detailed advice is available on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website.
Gold has been highly valued in Britain for thousands of years. Let’s hope Team GB can bring home some more!
In celebration of the 2016 Olympics kicking off tomorrow evening, this week we’re taking a brief break from the archaeology, and dipping into Cirencester’s sporting history!
As far as claims to Olympic fame go, Cirencester is the birthplace of gold medallist and world record breaking athlete David Hemery. Hemery’s family moved between the UK and the USA for his father’s work, and he graduated from Boston University. He won the 120yd hurdles at the 1966 Commonwealth Games, and successfully defended his title at the 1970 Commonwealth Games. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico he won the 400m hurdles and broke the world record with a time of 48.12 seconds. In 2012 he told the Independent that, until he spoke to a BBC reporter after the race, ‘I didn’t know I had won, let alone beaten the world record’. His victory prompted the notorious comment “Who cares who’s third? It doesn’t matter” from BBC commentator David Coleman (a comment which was revealed to be even more regrettable considering the athlete in third place was Hemery’s British teammate John Sherwood). Hemery was named Sports Personality of the Year for 1968 and pursued a career in sports politics. He went on to become President of UK Athletics and Vice-Chairman of the British Olympic Association. Hemery completed the London Marathon (at a walk due to a leg injury) in 2015 to raise money for his charity, 21st Century Legacy.
Among the Corinium Museum’s social history collections, currently in storage, are various objects relating to some more modest sporting moments.
These ladies, for example, are competing in an egg and spoon race at Bledington Sports Day in 1909.
This is an old receipt book containing ‘football notes’ relating to the 1922-3 season of Cirencester Victoria Football Club, and the photo below shows members of the same club in 1920-21.
The collection also houses several tongue-in-cheek memorial cards, such as this one which mourns Sheffield’s loss against Swindon.
These photos of the Cheltenham Races in March 1928 are just one page in a photo album of pictures taken by W. Dennis Moss of the Beaufort Polo Club.
The Corinium Museum also has this photo of Prince Charles playing polo in Cirencester Park on the 8th June 1977.
Finally, the stores are also home to this commemorative ‘Seta Pura’ Olympic silk handkerchief (which I was holding upside-down…oops). This object has no known date, but is nevertheless a charming trinket from Cirencester’s sporting past! Where might your 2016 Olympics memorabilia be in twenty years? Enjoy the games!
I’m going on holiday next week, so there won’t be a blog post. Back on 18th August!
Appearance was hugely important to the Romans, and much time and energy was invested into presenting themselves in a way which would best reflect their wealth and status. This preoccupation with appearances is evidenced through lavishly decorated Roman houses, ostentatious monuments, and even grandiose triumphal processions.
On a day to day basis, however, how a Roman man or woman styled and maintained their hair was one of the strongest indicators of their place in society. Fashions spread across the Roman Empire, and the haircare industry boomed.
Wealthy women’s hair was tended to by slaves, who themselves had their hair cut short to reflect their lower status. It is common to see women having their hair tended to by slaves depicted on gravestones, symbolising the woman’s wealth, status, and beauty in life. In sculpture, women are most often depicted with long hair and a centre parting (which was not typically worn by Roman men). Roman women’s hair would most often have been carefully controlled with hairpins, nets, and scarves. The comic poet Ovid wrote in his scandalous Ars Amatoria that women should loosen their hair if they wish to attract men. Loose hair on women was associated with loose morals. This was not the case for young girls, however, who regularly wore their hair loose.
For more elaborate hairstyles, like that worn by this Mother Goddess (on display at the Corinium Museum), Roman women commonly wore wigs made out of human hair. Black hair from India and blond hair from Germany were particularly popular. While the Indian hair was probably traded, the blond German hair was taken as a spoil of war, at least in the early Imperial period. These wigs could be sewn into a woman’s real hair, helping to create more volume and height for dramatic hairstyles. Alternatively hair could be supported and structured with shaped hairpieces, sometimes made out of fabric which had been stiffened in a curve with beeswax or resin.
Large eyebrows which met in the middle were also considered to be an attractive feature for Roman women, and women would often use soot to achieve that ‘on fleek’ monobrowed look. The Corinium Museum has two Roman eyebrow combs on display!
Hair was equally as important to men as to women. Most Roman men kept their hair relatively short as a sign of dignity and control. Politicians used artistic depictions of their hair to send a political message about how they viewed themselves, and how they wished their leadership to be perceived. Pompey the Great, a distinguished Roman general and ‘frenemy’ of Julius Caesar, had himself depicted in statuary wearing a hairstyle associated with Alexander the Great, with a lock of hair brushed back from the forehead (called an anastole). This was a statement of his political importance, wealth, his successes in expanding the Roman Empire.
Baldness was ridiculed in Roman poetry and mentioned as a cause of concern to the Emperor Domitian by the Roman historian Suetonius, but was nevertheless as sign of distinction, wisdom, and virtue in artistic depictions of important citizens and philosophers. According to Suetonius, Julius Caesar combed his hair forwards to try to cover his receding hairline. Men also curled and dyed their hair to try to preserve the image of youth.
For the vast majority of Roman history, it was popular for men to be clean-shaven. Beards were seen as a sign of a low status. Indeed, the word ‘barbarian’ comes from the Latin barba, meaning ‘beard’. In Roman comedy plays, the masks worn by actors playing cunning slaves are also bearded, and these slaves might have originally come from ‘barbarian’ tribes living on the fringes of the Roman Empire. This changed shortly before the rule of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), when beards became popular among elite young men and in the Roman army. Hadrian was the first Roman emperor to wear a beard, possibly as a symbol of his love of Greek culture or because of his family’s military background. In later periods beards went in and out of fashion.
Suetonius wrote that Julius Caesar used to have his stray hairs plucked out. Indeed, this was probably not uncommon. The Roman author and politician Seneca wrote a letter to his friend Lucilius complaining about the noise from the public baths above which he lived, including the screams of men having their armpit-hair plucked and the plucker drumming up more customers. Tweezers are often found on Roman sites, and the Corinium museum has several examples on display!
Be it a bob, beehive, or ombre, a handlebar moustache, mullet, or man-bun, hair says a lot about an individual’s personality, knowledge of fashion, and social status. The literary, archaeological, and artistic evidence available to us of Roman hair care fashions give us a tantalizing insight into this visual cultural language, how it reflects social and political values and changes, and the everyday routines of people living two thousand years ago.
Dolphins, like those seen on the Venus Mosaic found at Kingscote in Gloucestershire, are a fairly popular image in Roman art. They have a rich background in Greek and Roman mythology, literature, and folklore. They were often included in sculptures to improve the stability of the main figures!
Dolphins are featured in many Greek and Roman myths. Here, they are symbols of romance, illustrating the theme established by the depiction of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, in the central roundel of the mosaic. The presence of these dolphins alongside Venus also serves as a reminder of the myth that Venus was born from the sea, famously depicted in Botticelli’s late fifteenth century painting ‘The Birth of Venus’.
Their association with Venus is by no means their only significance in Greek and Roman mythology. In the sixth/seventh century B.C. ‘Homeric Hymns’, Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine and Theatre (who later became Bacchus in Roman mythology), was kidnapped by pirates. He turned into a lion to punish the kidnappers and, terrified, they jumped overboard. When they hit the water, Dionysus turned them into dolphins. The ‘Homeric Hymns’ also describe Apollo, a Greek and Roman God, turning into a dolphin to guide a ship into harbour. Another myth tells that Apollo’s son, Eikadios, was shipwrecked and carried to shore by a dolphin. This is one of many myths about dolphins rescuing drowming men, or bringing bodies back to shore for burial.
Dolphins are also often associated with minor sea deities. The Roman author Statius wrote in his first century A.D. epic poem ‘Achilleid’ that the sea-nymph Thetis rode a chariot through the sea that was pulled by two dolphins. Similarly, Philostratus’ ‘Imagines’describes a scene in which the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus falls in love with the sea-nymph Galatea while she is riding four dolphins.
Many dolphin stories can also be found in Greek and Roman folklore from small coastal towns. In the first century A.D. Pliny the Elder recorded in his ‘Natural History’ the story of a young Roman boy who befriended a dolphin. Every day when the boy needed to cross the bay to get to school, he would call on his dolphin friend to carry him across the water. A second century A.D. story tells the tale of an elderly couple who rescued a young, injured dolphin and trained it to catch fish for them.
Images and stories about dolphins spread across the Roman Empire, and even made it to Gloucestershire! Come and see the Kingscote Venus Mosaic and its dolphins on display at the Corinium Museum.