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D(is) M(anibus)- “To the Spirits of the Departed” – Interpreting the Tombstone: a response to the Yorkshire Museum’s Roman Exhibition, by Hannah Lucas, English Literature student at the University of York

We recently welcomed English Literature students from the University of York to the Yorkshire Museum for a tour of our Roman galleries. Following the visit, Hannah Lucas wrote this blog exploring how ancient literature can change our understanding of objects.

I must admit, I can’t say I’ve ever really wondered about Romano-British burial practices following the Roman Invasion…until now. According to my research, it seems that the tombstones of the period have been subject to some intense and truly fascinating – if not slightly morbid – scrutiny.

It’s a particularly dull day in York, formerly Eboracum, when I encounter such a tombstone in the Yorkshire Museum’s fascinating Roman York exhibition. Found in 1861 between Mill Mount and Scarcroft Road, standing at around three feet in height, it is a striking dedication to the dead. Its still-legible inscription is extensive, and I was startled to find such a surprisingly tender evocation of familial love on this rather imposing slab of stone. Unfortunately, only a fragment of the tombstone survives. Depicting thirteen-year-old Corellia Optata, its fully formed magnificence is merely alluded to by the monument’s pair of feet, carved in relief.

Considering such an impressive tombstone, perhaps even reverent in its full form, we can infer that Corellia Optata came from a rather well-to-do family. The use of gristone, a material local to the area, does not suggest the extra investment that, for example, a marble monument would require. However, the sheer size and extravagance of the tombstone, especially for a child so young, does indicate a family of middle class status or above. In fact, Geoff Adams and Rebecca Tobler, in their examination of ‘Romano-British Tombstones Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD’, suggest that

“It was much rarer to commemorate a child in this fashion than to honour an adult…there was less inclination among the population to commemorate children with a stone tombstone”

Retrospectively, this is not merely an evocative example of a Romano-British tombstone, but a rare one at that.

Such rarity is telling: the tombstone indicates a doting father. The inscription is one of beauty; a final message to a beloved daughter, now at rest. However, there is more to it than what initially meets the eye. Why?

It’s written in dactylic hexameter.

(This is the point where classicists get really excited)

Dactylic hexameter: the metre of the Epic. Ever heard of Homer? It’s what he used. To put it simply, it’s very famous. And very Greek.

The inscription’s call to the ‘mysterious spirits who dwell in Pluto’s Acherusian realms’ also heavily alludes to Greek Mythology and its lakes of the Underworld. Pluto, however, is the Roman God of the Underworld. The tombstone thus culminates as a fascinating fusion of Greek and Roman culture, notably reminiscent of a Roman fascination with their predecessors. And in York too, a place that never beheld the presence of the Greeks; it seems the captivation with ancient culture knew no geographical bounds.  As Virgil pays homage to Homer – his Aeneid responds to his predecessor’s Odyssey – a Roman tombstone, found in York, calls back to Ancient Greece.

However, this is no fan-fiction. Nor is it a simple outpouring of grief. Instead, Adams and Tobler suggest that:

“When this kind of tombstone is erected, the intention is likely to, in part, immortalise the dedicator as well as the deceased”

In retrospect, the tombstone is an intentional, public form of commemoration that acts to celebrate the dedicator just as much as it memorialises unfortunate Corellia. In this case, it is Quintus Corellius Fortis, ‘a pitiable victim of unfair hope’. A ‘pitiable victim’ indeed, Fortis utilises the verse form of epic, thus inserting himself alongside some of the greatest Greek heroes known to mythology, including the likes of Odysseus and Achilles. Quintus Corellius Fortis is undoubtedly mourning; he joins “the surprising number of fathers dedicating tombstones to their daughters”. But he’s also showing off.

And that’s not all. I was also told by a member of the Museum’s staff that tombstones like these were thought to be pre-made and produced by the multiple. A symbol of public recognition, and a fill-in-the-blank, if you like. Ironically, it’s not particularly reminiscent of Greek epic.

In any case, the tombstone provides us with a fascinating view of Romano-British life and their preoccupation with Ancient Greece. As an English Literature student, reading Roman texts like the poetry of Catullus and Lucian’s A True History – which respond to Greek writers like Sappho and Plato –  it’s a very tangible example of a merging of two different worlds. The exhibition is well worth a visit.

Further Reading

Adams, Geoff W, and Rebecca Tobler. Romano-British Tombstones Between the 1st and 3rd Centuries AD: Epigraphy, Gender and Familial Relations. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports Ltd, 2007.

Encyclopedia Mythica. “Acherusia”. Pantheon. 06/09/1998. Web. Acherusia | Facts, Information, and Mythology (pantheon.org). Last accessed 17/03/23.

My Yorkshire Dales. “Gritstone”. Web. Gritstone | Rocks | My Yorkshire Dales last accessed 17/03/23.

Roman Inscriptions of Britain. “RIB 684. Funerary Inscription for Corellia Optata”. 11/10/22. Web. RIB 684. Funerary inscription for Corellia Optata | Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Last accessed 17/03/23.