Chester’s role as an important Roman military headquarters surrounded by a growing settlement, known as Deva, is very well understood, but there is not a great deal to see on the ground. This means that Chester’s Roman legacy is largely preserved in excavated archaeological remains, some of which are on display in local museum spaces. There is a small gallery of Roman objects in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester showing a wide variety of artefact types, from elite pottery to drainage pipes, but to display some of the large number of Chester tombstones, a special exhibition space was was created for them in a dedicated room in the museum, showing them off to great effect.
The display opens with a Roman style couch under a canopy, setting the scene for a walk down a path between the tombstones, emulating one of the Roman roads heading out of Deva. The walls behind the tombstones capture the sense of the surrounding landscape, part military installation, part civilian settlement, and part rural vistas. The tombstones are organized either side of the “road,” each one facing out towards the visitor. Low level information boards, great for wheelchair users and children, show useful illustrations of key examples, together with translations of the texts.
In the discussion of tombstones below, each example is accompanied by an RIB (Roman Inscriptions of Britain) number. Each inscription in Britain has been given a unique number. When I was at university studying the Antonine Wall, the Roman Inscriptions In Britain were recorded in print, but this was obviously the sort of content that was best suited to a database, and one of the best online resources for Roman Britain is Roman Inscriptions in Britain online. As a resource it has been developed and expanded, and the user interface is excellent. If you want to know more about any of the tomb stones mentioned below, this is a great place to start, with translations, illustrations and further references all available.
Burials and memorials
The Romans disposed of their dead in a variety of ways that included both inhumation (deposition in the ground) and cremation. Wealthier Roman inhumation burials in Britain were traditionally accompanied by this sort of memorial, and might include tomb stones and commemorative slabs. In terms of how they were used, tombstones are much like the grave stones and chest-like tombs found in Christian churchyard cemeteries today, but dedicated to different deities and with far more elaborate scenes depicting the owners of the graves engaged in activities that showed them in activities that they enjoyed, or which highlighted particular qualities.
Collectively, these memorials are a useful source of information about Roman life and death in Britain, but individual memorials also have the potential to tell their own stories about the owners, the way in which the owners wanted to be remembered and the ideas with which they wanted to be associated. Although the Grosvenor Museum’s display primarily features tombstones, there are some altars too. Altars could be found in similar contexts, but might also be found in homes, public buildings and at religious sites. The above example from the museum’s exhibit, RIB 3149, was found in a room behind the amphitheatre arena’s wall during excavations in 1966, and reads, in translation, “To the goddess Nemesis, (from) Sextius Marcianus, centurion, in consequence of a vision.”
The area around the fortress was under military control and the location of the cemeteries was decided by the Praefectus castorum (camp prefect), who decided where civilian quarters and various facilities were to be located. Roman law was very strict on the matter of refusing burial with in urban and residential areas. Roman cemeteries were built outside towns and cities, and depending on the size of the urban centre there might be a number of them. The earliest tombstones and altars were erected along the sides of roads, but more formal cemeteries would have been established over time. These will have been destroyed as Chester spread out in all directions during subsequent centuries. Most of the stones in the museum, sculpted or inscribed, or both, had therefore originally come from one or more Roman cemeteries, and were probably dumped somewhere together to make space for urban spread.
One cemetery was revealed during rescue excavations carried out between 1912 and 1917 by Professor Robert Newstead. It was located at Infirmary Field to the west of the fortress, the site of a planned new wing for Chester Royal Infirmary. The presence of a possible cemetery had been known since the mid 19th century due to the discovery of burials adjacent to the Infirmary in 1858 and 1863. During his excavations Newstead found that the cemetery contained men, women and children who, judging from the objects in graves, were both military and civilian.
The tombstones in the walls
The high sandstone walls that surround the city of Chester were originally established in the Roman period, but were built upon in subsequent periods to repair damage and to raise the overall height of the walls. There are only a few places where Roman phases can be clearly identified with confidence, such as that shown on the right. The repair of the walls over time incorporated both newly quarried stone, and whatever stone was lying around from earlier collapses.
Although tombstones and altars are known from various locations around Chester, most of the Chester tomb stones in the Grosvenor display are from a cache found incorporated into the Chester city walls, completely divorced from their original funerary context, but would once have come from one or more cemeteries. The re-use of ancient building materials is common the world over. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Horemheb re-used painted blocks from palace buildings of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten as rubble fill to create the thick walls of his monumental gateway at the temple of Karnak on the Nile. In both the Chester and Karnak cases, these items used as building materials have enormous historical value to us today as information about the past, but were simply unwanted rubbish when they were employed as building materials.
In 1883 the Chester City Surveyor Mr Matthew Jones was overseeing repairs to a section of the lower courses of stonework in the walls and the fill behind them near to Morgan’s Mount. As they prepared the site for the work he realized that he was looking at pieces of Roman stonework and that one was clearly part of a tomb stone, and he retrieved what he could see. Although no further investigations were carried out in1883, further repair work was required in 1887 between Northgate and the King Charles Tower, this time rather more extensive, and more Roman funerary pieces were found. Again, they had been used to repair the lower courses of the wall. So many were found this time that it was decided to extend the work and locate more of Chester’s Roman heritage. The Chester Archaeological Society, founded in 1849 (and still going strong today), was brought in to supervise the investigation of the wall to the west of the Northgate between 1890 and 1892. Taking all the finds from 1883, 1887 and the 1890-92 excavations, more than 150 stones were found, of which the Grosvenor exhibit is a tiny sample showing some of the best of the examples.
Key features of tombstones
The earliest tombstones and altars known from Chester date to the 1st century. For example, the tombstone of Flavius Callimorphus showing him with his son or nephew Serapion (aged 42 and 3 ½ years old respectively) was discovered at the Roodee in 1874, in situ over a grave, and was erected by Flavius’s brother Thesaeus (RIB 558). These are Greek names which may indicate that they were freedman and/or traders who had settled in Chester. Flavius is shown reclining on a funeral couch, and the elaborate nature of the decoration indicates that this was a wealthy family. Within the grave were two skeletons accompanied by a gold ring and a coin of the emperor Domition, dating to the latter half of the 1st Century A.D. Callimorphus and Serapion, the former lying on a couch with the latter in his arms, shown in the photograph to the left. On a small table in the foreground is a bird, which is a metaphor for the journey into the afterlife. Next to the table is an amphora that may or may not suggest that Callimorphus was an importer of wine. Although it is speculation that he was a wine importer, the family names indicate that they were of eastern Mediterranean origin, where Greek was preferred to Latin, and could well have been traders who settled locally. The name Serapion is of particular interest, as it refers to the god Serapis, who was venerated during the Ptolemaic (Greek) and subsequent Roman occupation of ancient Egypt.
Amongst other Roman finds, a 2nd Century A.D. stone altar was found in lower Watergate Street when Georgian terraces were built in 1778. It was dedicated to Fortuna Redux (Fortune, who brings travellers home safely, including soldiers and traders) and gods of healing and health Aesculapius and Salus. It was raised by freedmen and slaves of a Roman imperial legate, perhaps a provincial governor, who has the longest recorded name in Roman Britain: Titus Pomponius Mamilianus Rufus Antistianus Funisulanus Vettonianus. This is the only example shown here not on display in the Grosvenor Museum. It is now in the British Museum (BM 1836,0805.1; RIB 445)
Nearly all the memorials on display in the Grosvenor are made of red sandstone. The quality of the stone chosen was important, both for engraving scenes and text, and for durability. The raw material selected was not the most locally available sandstone, but according to Wilding was sourced some 8 miles away where better quality red sandstone was available.
The stones would originally have been brightly painted, which is a strange thought. A cemetery would have been a colourful place, new memorials brighter than older ones, creating a dazzling visual spectacle. At the entrance to the Grosvenor Museum exhibit there is a facsimile of one of the Chester grave stones showing how it might have looked in full colour, and when compared with the original unpainted version that is also on display, it is a completely different entity. It shows an optio (junior officer who was an accountant-adminstrator, second in command to a centurion) called Caecilius Avitus, wearing a cloak, a staff of office, a legionary sword and a writing tablet (RIB 492). It is like seeing the Lady Chapel in Chester Cathedral, painted to show how it would have looked in the Medieval period, or the glorious 17th century decoration of Rug Chapel at Corwen, near Llangollen, both of which are similar eye-openers, revising how we look at past objects and architecture. To modern eyes, so accustomed to seeing the past in subtle monochrome, the bright paintwork of Caecilius’s tombstone is almost shocking, but Roman life was anything but dull, either at work or at play, and the colours of the stones reflected this multi-hued existence.
Between the moment of death and the burial itself there were ceremonies, rituals and processions that marked the transition from this world to the next. For the very rich, this could be ostentatious and elaborate, involving music and theatrical performances, but for the poor it was a much more mundane affair. Often a Roman might provide for their funeral in his or her will, but if not the responsibility fell to the person who inherited the rest of the property of the deceased. When the deceased was buried, graves could be visited by the living, and at the end of February during the Feralia festival offerings were made to dead ancestors at their graves.
Popular themes on the Chester tombstones are dedications to certain deities, symbolism surrounding the afterlife and depictions of the deceased lying along a banqueting couch. Reclining on a couch was a popular eating position used by wealthy Romans, and the couch represents a banquet in the afterlife, indicating eternal wellbeing. Some objects in scenes may hint at the profession of the deceased. Where an inscription is included, in Latin, the names can give an indication of the origins of the individual.
Text on tombstones is always highly abbreviated, which would not have been a problem for literate contemporaries (or for researchers today) because the abbreviations were standardized and the texts were highly formulaic. Many of the inscriptions begin DM, standing for Dis Manibus (To the spirits of the departed), and finish HFC, standing for Heres Faciendum Curavit (the heir had the stone made). The heir often adds his or her name and relationship to the deceased. Between these topping and tailing devices there may be additional information about who died including, for example, the name of the deceased, the age at which they died, who erected the stone in their honour, the place from which the person originated, the role that the person performed, a legion or auxiliary unit in which a soldier served and the number of years for which he served.
The Grosvenor Museum tombstones
Showing some of these features is a woman reclining on a couch, framed within two columns and an arch. She is shown in the photograph immediately above. Her name is Curatia Dinysia (perhaps a mason’s error for the name Dionysia), holding a drinking cup, with a three-legged table in the foreground (RIB 562). Sadly the head and face are damaged. She sits between two garlands or swags of ivy leaves, sacred to the deity Bacchus, each of which supports a dove, signifying the release of the soul. Above this scene, incorporated into the architecture of the arch, are two tritons (half men, half fish, like male mermaids, but sometimes shown with horse forelegs) blowing trumpets, representing the journey to the Isles of the Blessed where Bacchus resided. The drinking cup, probably filled with wine, may also reference Bacchus. As with Calimporphus and Serapion, the name Dionysia is thought to be Greek. The inscription reads, in translation, “To the spirits of the departed, Curatia Dinysia lived 40 years; her heir had this erected.”
Another woman is shown on a very worn tombstone, also cleverly recreated by illustrator Dai Owen (RIB 568). The woman’s name is damaged, but ends “-mina” She reclines on the banqueting couch with the familiar three-legged table in the foreground, a drinking cup in hand and a ring on the little finger of her left hand. Most remarkably, behind her, on the the high-backed couch, is a giant sea shell flanked by dolphins, again a reference to her journey to the Isles of the Blessed. Only part of the inscription has survived, with the DM of Dis Manibus (to the spirits of the departed) legend just beneath the three-legged table, and the end of the lady’s name just below that at far right.
Tombstones featuring women are usually found in this sort of military context, where many were wives, (more rarely mothers or daughters) of soldiers, and could communicate their own status alongside their husband’s, making statements about their own identity. It is good to have these as they are a distinct minority. Allason-Jones, for example, estimates that inscriptions dedicated to women make up only around 10% of the total inscriptions found in Roman Britain. These represent only the middle and upper echelons of those living in Roman areas. As with low status men, those women who could not afford any form of memorial have been lost.
The auxiliary cavalryman (equitis) Aurelius Lucius, who has a Latin name, but was probably not of pure Roman origins is an interesting case (RIB 552). Aurelius is shown with a moustache, beard and big hair. Again, he is reclining on a couch, and like Curatia Dionysia, he holds a drinking cup in one hand, whilst in the other he holds a scroll of paper that represents his will. Behind his legs are his plumed helmet and the top of his sword, and in the foreground is a small three-legged table and a boy holding a detached head. Auxiliaries were often recruited from conquered lands and were not Roman citizens. After 25 years in service they could apply for Roman citizenship. The uncharacteristic hair and the severed head, perhaps a war trophy, may refer to a background from one of these conquered regions, but Aurelius also chose to depict himself in a traditional Roman pose, with a traditional Latin inscription. Perhaps he had become a citizen, incorporating his career as a foreign cavalryman but opting for a Roman afterlife.
One of the most remarkable of the Grosvenor’s tombstones is this rider on a horse carrying a flying standard. It is thought to represent a a Sarmatian from an area now occupied by southern Ukraine and northern Romania. The Sarmatians were nomadic hunters and pastoralists, excellent horse breeders and riders and formidable warriors. No inscription survives, but he was almost certainly an auxiliary, as the Sarmatians were conquered in AD 175, and some are known to have been present in Britain. Although none are known from Chester, there were Sarmatians in a regiment deployed at Ribchester in Lancashire, and it is not unlikely that a detachment of that regiment was present in Chester when this individual died. The tall helmet is distinctive, and he holds a standard which he holds in both hands. If he was indeed Sarmatian, this would have been topped with a fearsome dragon’s head with brightly coloured fabric flying to its rear. When wind ran through the dragon’s jaws at speed, it made a terrifying noise to put fear into the hearts of the enemy. His sword is in its scabbard at his side.
Another cavalryman is depicted on a scene that has lost its inscription, other than the letters DM (Dis Manibus) (RIB 550). It is very worn, and the top of the head and the hand (and whatever it is holding) are missing but the scene is full of energy. The horse, with its bridle and a blanket serving as a saddle clearly visible, is galloping with its mane blown back, and the rider’s legs hold tightly to its flanks. The rider’s right arm is raised above his head, probably holding a spear, whilst his left hand, hidden from view, holds the rein or the bridle. Trodden beneath the hooves of the horse is a naked victim who lies gripping a six-sided shield that has demonstrably failed to protect him.
A rather more domestic scene is provided by Marcus Aurelius Nepos and his wife. The stone is right at the rear of the exhibit, and the inscription is difficult to see (it was not particularly clearly engraved in the first place) and is confined to the left, beneath the figure of Marcus Aurelius, centurion of the XXth Legion Valera Victrix, who died aged 50 years old. There is a space beneath the figure of his wife for an inscription, but for reasons unknown this was never added. As it was she who commissioned the stone, she was clearly still alive when the carving was made and may have left the space for an inscription of her own when she herself died, but perhaps she died elsewhere. Marcus Aurelius is bearded, carrying a staff and has a prominent belt, a cloak over his shoulders with a small brooch attached. His wife is holding a cup, and lefts the hem of her dress with one hand to reveal the skirt beneath. Not visible in the photograph is an engraving on the side that shows a mason’s hammer and set square and the words SVB ASCIA D[edicatum], meaning “dedicated under the axe,” perhaps a formula to deter vandals. The tombstone dates to the 3rd century AD.
The tombstones with elaborate or contained scenes are plentiful, but are still a minority in the context of British funerary memorials, representing only the most wealthy purchasers. Some tombstones merely showed a little decorative work to accompany the text. This example (RIB 560), although still very fine, was provided with ornamental features but no elaborate scene. It was dedicated by a master to three young slaves. It reads, in translation, “To the spirits of the departed, Atilianus and Antiatilianus, 10 years old; and Protus, 12 years old. Pompeius Optatus their master had this made.” It is possible that the 10 year olds were twins. Although the thought of slavery always sits uncomfortably in today’s world, it should not be forgotten that in a period when slavery was the norm, it was by no means uncommon for masters and slaves to develop relationships of mutual affection and respect. Perhaps that is what we are seeing here.
The tombstones described above represent only the majority of the total number of engraved stones preserved from Chester. Of those that were not tombstones, some were pieces of altars and others were fragments of bigger pieces of architecture, many of which also came out the 19th century excavations in the Chester walls, some showing Roman deities. They are out of the scope of this post but, do watch out for those too in the display if you visit the museum.
The tombstones are particularly evocative and hopefully the small sample provided here gives an idea of what sort of themes were common, and how people like to have themselves depicted. Death in the Roman empire was an integral part of a soldier’s life, and in the military life of Chester, death had its own role and its own places, with its own objects and iconography. Most of the individuals represented here were of relatively high status, except for the slaves of their master Pompeius Optatus, but they came from a variety of backgrounds, all either stationed here or drawn here for commercial reasons by the military stronghold, and it is good to be able to see some of the variety that made up Deva society.
For those who are interested in seeing something of Rome under foot in Chester, to supplement what can be found in museums, there are a number of guided tours available (some lead by Roman Centurions!). If you prefer a self-guided tour, the Royal Geographic Society’s “Discovering Britain” website provides one, which can be downloaded as a a PDF or as an app for your mobile device: https://www.discoveringbritain.org/activities/north-west-england/trails/chester-trail.html.
Those that were of particular use for this post are shown in bold
Books and papers
Allason-Jones, L. 2012. Chapter 34, Women in Roman Britain. In (eds.) James, S.L. and Dillon, S. A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Wiley
Bell, C.E. 2020. Investigating the Autonomy of Power: Epigraphy of Women in Roman Britain. Dissertation Submitted for the Master’s Degree in Archaeology, University of Liverpool
Brock, E. P Loftus. 1888) The age of the walls of Chester, with references to recent discussions; The discussion on the above paper; Mr Brock’s reply to the various speakers. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p. 40-97.
Cox, E.W. 1891. Notes on the sculptures of the Roman monuments recently found in Chester. The Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vols.43044, 1891-92, p.91-102
Eckardt, H. 2014. Objects and Identities. Roman Britain and the North-Western Provinces. Oxford University Press
de Gray Birch, W. 1888. Notes on a sculptured stone recently found in the North Wall of the city of Chester. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p. 25-39.
de Grey Birch, W. 1888. The inscribed Roman stones recently found at Chester, during the second series of repairs to the North Wall. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, vol.2, p. 98-131.
Grosvenor Museum 2010. A Guide to Roman Stones at the Grosvenor Museum Chester. Illustrations by Dai Owen.
Henig, M. 2002. Tales from the Tomb. In (ed.) Carrington, P. Deva Victrix; Roman Chester Re-Assessed papers from a weekend conference held at Chester College 3-5 September 1999. Chester Archaeology
Jones, I. Matthews. 1888. Official report on the discoveries of Roman remains at Chester, during the first repairs to the North Wall, in 1887. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p. 1-10.
Mason, D.J.P. 2007 (2nd edition). Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus
Thompson Watkin, W. T. 1888. The Roman inscriptions discovered at Chester, during the first repairs to the North Wall, in 1887. Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 2. Vol 2, p.11-24.
Wilding, R. 2006. Graham Webster Gallery of Roman Stones at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester: Explore the Hidden Mysteries of the ‘lost’ Roman Gravestones.
Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB)
Chester Archaeological Society
Professor Robert Newstead F. R. S. Lecture given to Chester Archaeological Society, 5th December 2009. By Elizabeth Royles, Keeper of Early History, Grosvenor Museum
You can decode tombstones at the Roman Baths, Bath
“Sarmatian.” The Editors of Encyclopaedia, 29 Mar. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sarmatian