Skills not to be taken for granted: Latin inscriptions

When you look at the Pantheon, one of the many things that inevitably jumps out at you is the inscription:


I like to use this inscription as an example for my students in discussing why private Romans built monumental architecture — prestige. Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulship (27 BC), built the Pantheon. It’s there for all to see (NB: current building actually Hadrianic, c. 120).

The Pantheon

M Agrippa made this (no he didn’t)

My first few days in Rome, I took my ability to read this and other inscriptions for granted. And, boy, is Rome full of inscriptions! Almost every monument and church in this city has a Latin inscription on it. If my ‘Latin Is All Around Us‘ post is true of Edinburgh, it is far truer of Rome (unsurprisingly!). Plus, if you know your abbrevs (I know some, at least), you can read tombstones and whatnot in the museums. Bonus.

The Wednesday of my first week in Rome I had the great fortune to meet up with a friend I’d not seen in at least 8 years (Let’s call him ‘Vince’). It was a glorious reunion! We dined together, we laughed together, we looked at the Pantheon together. We walked around with his school group he was chaperoning together.

And it was during this that I realised the specialness of my skill.

In Rome, a degree or two in Classics become eminently useful.

The Pantheon, which I explained to them, was not all to see. In front of Sant’Ignazio, I (“Mr Mireau’s Friend”) was able to tell them that it was a church in honour of St Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), built by a particular Cardinal in a particular year. At the Trevi Fountain, I was able to tell people which Popes were involved in its construction and that the water came from a spring.

Trevi Fountain

Failed to get the inscription, but here’s the Trevi Fountain

I realised that I had a special skill! One of the other teachers noted to the school group that my inscription-reading skillz are the result of studying! Wow, what treasures lie in store for Albertans who learn Latin!

And there are treasures. This skill taught me that the Column of M Aurelius was restored by a Pope. In the Capitoline Museums, whilst reading inscriptions I found a statue base erected by the Late Antique polytheist senator and orator Symmachus. I have noted the dates and builders/restorers of many of Rome’s monuments — chiefly popes (PONTIFEX MAXIMUS), usually Renaissance through 18th century. According to an inscription at the Vatican Library, Benedict XVI in year VI of his pontificate did the refurbishing.

It helped me realise that this in St Peter’s Basilica is in honour of Jacobites:

What lovely angels!

‘To James III / Son of James II King of Great Britain / To Charles Edward / and Henry Decanus (Dean?) of the Cardinal Fathers / Sons of James III / Last of the royal branch of Stuart / in the year 1819’

And so forth.

I like that in Rome, I’m something special. And my Classics degrees are really, truly useful.


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