Chester’s collection of Roman gravestones

Chester is not a city I know particularly well. We had a couple of nights here on a narrow boat when we were young and in love – I remember going to early Communion in the Cathedral, and taking the boat down the staircase locks at the end of a long day. I’ve changed trains here on a few occasions since, but haven’t visited the Cathedral for years. On Saturday 26 January we drove across and met our friends Jeremy, Sue and Ella. The girls went shopping – Jeremy and I did the museum and a church.

I wanted to go to Grosvenor Museum – – as they had a exhibition entitled ‘Dead Normal’, exploring the ways different cultures and communities have tried to make sense of the end of life. There was another entitled ‘Memento Mori’ which had a collection of images showing how Cheshire had commemorated its dead. Both interesting little exhibitions – and the Art galley was a lovely place to sit and contemplate.

I enjoyed the Roman galleries most. In one is an extensive collection of gravestones (or should I write ‘memorial stones’?) which were discovered during repair work to the city walls which started in 1883. The City Surveyor, Mr I. Matthews Jones, was overseeing work on a length of the Wall near to the tower known  as Morgan’s Mount. He noticed that fragments of Roman stonework were packed into the fill of the lower courses of the walls, and rescued them – we should be very grateful to him.

Caecilius Avitus, an Optio (a junior officer, next in rank to a centurion). He is dressed in a heavy cloak, wears his sword, carries his staff of office and writing tablets. We rarely see these stones in the colours they must have been.

This stone shows Sextus, son of Sextus and shows him on horseback – he may have been a member of a small cavalry squadron attached to the legion, based here in Chester. The boy walking next to him, carrying a shield, might be a captive slave – I wonder what sort of life he lived. There is a portrait of Sextus at the top, and on either side are the heads of two lions – lions are commonly shown on Roman stones because they symbolise the suddenness by which life can be turned into death.

This is the lower part of the tombstone of a man who died in a shipwreck. The inscription reads “… optiois:ad:spem ordinis;>:Lvcili ingenvi:qvi navfragio:perit; S : E” which means “… optio ad spem ordinis in the century of Lucilius Ingenuus, who died by shipwreck. He is buried …”. An optio ad spem ordinis was an optio who was designated for promotion to the rank of centurion. The last section of the inscription would usually read “H.S.E” which stands for ‘hic situs est’, ‘he is buried here.’ On this stone the H has been missed off indicating that the body was never recovered from the sea to be given a proper funeral. I appreciated the lesson in Roman abbreviations, and wondered who mourned the Optio enough to erect a stone to him – and grieve that they had not got his body.

This stone shows a Roman cavalryman on horseback trampling a naked barbarian. The cavalryman is wearing a long shirt of chain mail, and the barbarian is clutching a six-sided shield.

This is a Sarmatian cavalryman – they were a nomadic people who lived north of the River Danube in the area that is now southern Ukraine and northern Romania. The horseman is show wearing a tall conical helmet, his cloak streams behind him and his sword scabbard can be seen at his side. He is carrying a dragon’s head standard of which only the tail survives on this damaged stone. The dragon’s head was designed to make a horrible noise as the wind rushed through it when the soldier raced into battle. We heard one of these at an English Heritage display at Corbridge years ago – quite fascinating. I did a bit of researching – “Corbridge trumpet” found me brass bands in Northumberland, but “Corbridge Roman trumpet” got me a carnyx – have a google and you can listen to one being played.

Two stones show banquet scenes in the afterlife. On the left a man and his son are together. The deceased man was called Flavius Callimorphus and his son was called Serapion. They are reclining on a couch next to a three-legged table and a large wine amphora. The stone was discovered in 1874 not too far from the museum. It was found with two skeletons – I wondered if they reburied them, or if they’re in a box somewhere. On the right, and giving a view of the gallery, this lady is called Curatia Dionysia.

This stone shows a centurion called Marcus Aurelius Nepos and his wife. She is shown much smaller than him and her name has not been inscribed. The Centurion has a vine staff in his right hand, which is the symbol of his rank. He is bearded and wears a heavy cloak, she wears a mantle and is lifting the hem of her overdress to show the skirt beneath. A space was left for epitaph to be carved, but it was never done. The caption panel had a drawing of the two, and there was a video playing nearby of her talking about her husband, how she loved and missed him. It was quite moving – reminded us that these are not just stones, they are memorials to ordinary people, people who loved and lost.

A few other Roman things worth photoing. I wonder how many pigs of lead were transported from the Peak District south through my parish to the rest of the Roman Empire.

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