The Language of Roman Funerary Monuments: Translating One of Our Oldest Collection Items

Marble memorial tablet. The oldest item in the Australian Library of Art collection.

Hand engraved tablet in Roman upper-case letters. Dating from 150-200 A.D. according to Certificate of Authenticity by Charles Ede Ltd, London, 1987.

The Australian Library of Art, part of State Library of Queensland’s collections, contains a multitude of fascinating and rare objects. A significant collection within the Australian Library of Art is that of the History and Art of the Book, containing items that reflect major shifts in written communication and printing throughout world history.  

One such item, for which there is limited information, is the "marble memorial tablet". This tablet, measuring 22 centimetres high and 25 centimetres long, is inscribed with Latin script and dates to approximately 150-200 CE. 

This tablet has remained untranslated within our records, despite its many viewings by the public and by those within the library itself. The translation of monuments from the classical Roman period poses a unique set of hurdles to the enterprising translator, but with a little know-how and background, one can begin to understand the message committed to stone.  

The transcribed original reads as follows:  







Though this inscription may look like a randomly selected handful of letters, it is possible to detangle the rich meaning that is packed into every line of this short inscription.  


The most prominent indication of this stone tablet's purpose is contained in its very first line.  

Though the letters "D.M." may seem like nothing more than an odd abbreviation, someone familiar with Roman antiquity would recognise this acronym for an almost ubiquitous marker of a gravesite.  'D.M.' is a common abbreviation of the phrase "Dis Manibus", translating quite literally to "To the hands of Dis".  

Dis, or Dis Pater, was the name of the Roman god of the underworld, also known as Pluto or Rex Infernus. The Roman Empire maintained an extensive pantheon of gods and goddesses that could be easily mapped onto their Greek counterparts, and their beliefs in an underworld with various regions segregated on the basis of how one behaved during life were commonplace. As such, it became common practice in Latin-speaking cultures to decorate one's tombstone with this familiar phrase. Alternative translations, of equal validity, will interpret the phrase as "Dis manibus" wherein the word Manibus is instead referring to the Manes, a kind of ancestral spirit or underworld ghost, allowing the translation to equate loosely to "To the spirits of the Dead". 

Dedicator vs. Dedicatee: Who is Who? 

It is important to note that Latin, as a language, behaves very differently from English. In fact, despite the prominent use of Latin-based words in English, the classical language’s grammar has more in common with modern French, Italian, and Spanish.  

One of the most important differences to be aware of is that words will often have a standard ‘root’ form and will change their endings according to set patterns. These changes can indicate things like direction, what the subject and the object of a sentence is, and even things like ownership. This can get very complicated very quickly, since a single noun word in Latin can have as many as 11 different forms, all with slightly different meanings, whilst a verb can take on as many as 138 different permutations!  

Despite the somewhat overwhelming nature of this language, there are several grammatical rules followed by Latin funerary monuments that allow the translator to determine not only the full name of the person from a handful of letters, but also the name of the person who commissioned the tablet on their behalf. This tablet follows a familiar pattern to that noted in the American Journal of Archaeology (Vol. 96, No.1, Jan. 1992, pp. 71-100), wherein the name of the person being commemorated has been placed in the “dative” tense, a grammatical word form that indicates something is being given to, or is for a person, whilst the name of the person who commissioned the memorial is in the nominative. This means that, despite our own modern assumptions of such things, the first and most prominent name displayed at the top of the tablet is not, in fact, the person it is dedicated to at all.  


 In the case of this inscription, P. is an abbreviation of the popular Roman name "Publius", whilst the second name and third name are maintained in full. It is commonplace in Latin monuments for the letter "U" to be exchanged for the letter "V" purely as a matter of ease for the stonemason. Therefore, the first full name on this tablet is "Publius Aelius Arbylus".  


The person to whom the tablet is dedicated, one Nummiae Doridi, would be written in contemporary English (or the Latin nominative form) as "Nummia Doridia". Women in the classical Roman Empire were often given their father's names with a simple switch from a masculine ending to the feminine ending, and names in classical Rome could communicate a wide range of unique meaning to those within society. An example of this is best seen in the naming patterns of freedmen and freedwomen, who would take the name of their former owner as a sign of respect and an indication of their earned freedom.  

Though “Nummia” may seem like an odd name to us in the present, it is a wonderful indication of this woman’s patrilineage, as her father’s name would almost certainly have been “Nummius”. It is from this cultural pattern that names like Lucius and Lucia, Julius and Julia, and Marcus and Marcia emerged and have remained virtually unchanged within common western naming conventions. For other names, the feminine name has been maintained whilst the masculine equivalent has fallen from use or been altered, such as Caecilius and Caecilia, now more recognisable as the names Cecil and Cecilia.  

 But why did Publius commission this memorial for Nummia? The answer lies in the lines below.  


The first indicator of Publius's connection to Nummia is the use of the word "COIVCI", or coiuci. In this particular circumstance, the word translates quite literally to mean "married", though in conjunction with "benemeren," which is a shortened version of the word "benemerenti", it means "a marriage well deserving of praise" or more precisely, "a wife well deserving".   



 The final lines of this monument are another example of commonplace idioms represented in funerary monuments across the entirety of the Roman Empire. The 'F' stands for 'fecit', which translates to "he made this", whilst the continued phrase 'sibi et suis posterisque eorum' translates inexactly to mean "for herself and for their own posterity".   

 As such, without further ado, this long-held collection item translates to mean:  

To the ancestral spirits of the dead, 
Publius Aelius Arbylus 
For Nummia Doridia 
his well-deserving wife  
Made [this plaque] for herself and  
for their own posterity. 

This item can be viewed, alongside all manner of other literary treasures, in the Australian Library of Art Showcase at State Library of Queensland.  

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