Let’s face it, the average person in Roman Britain wasn’t sat around in a toga in an expensively decorated villa reading the works of Virgil. The level of knowledge of classical literature and mythology in the province is a fascinating subject though, as we get occasional tantalising glimpses of a level of education and understanding that might be considered above average.
There are two example of this from Lincolnshire that I would like to highlight here, expressed through two very different objects – a knife handle and a funerary inscription.
Knife handle from Irnham
This knife handle was discovered at Irnham, southeast of Grantham, and recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is copper alloy and is the handle of a folding knife, the iron blade of which no longer survives but is evidenced by a groove in the back of the handle.
The handle depicts two wrestling figures, one holding the other from behind in a bear hug and lifting his feet off the ground. Although this may be simply interpreted as a human wrestling match, the depiction matches a mythological tale, and is believed to depict the meeting between the legendary hero Hercules and the giant Antaeus.
The story of Hercules’ encounter with Antaeus is actually a very minor element of his famous 12 Labours, which makes it even more remarkable to be found depicted on a knife handle in Lincolnshire.
The tale is recounted by a number of Greek and Roman authors, particularly in the Library of Apollodorus (2.5.11) and by Lucan in his Pharsalia (4.588-655). I won’t repeat them word for word here, but you can use the links to see the original sources. The essence of the story is that Hercules was attempting to complete his 11th Labour – stealing apples from the Garden of the Hesperides – but did not know where to find it. He eventually found himself in Libya, in the lands of the giant Antaeus, who forced strangers to wrestle with him to the death. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Hercules engaged in the wrestling match, defeating Antaeus numerous times. Each time he threw his defeated foe to the ground, however, Antaeus would rise up again, his strength restored. Antaeus was a son of Poseidon, god the oceans and Gaia, the earth. Each time he was defeated his mother would return his strength to him. Hercules, realising this, eventually killed Antaeus by holding him off the ground and crushing him. It is this that we see depicted on the Irnham knife handle – Hercules lifting the giant off the ground and squeezing him to death.
The scene is only known in one other place in Britain, a mosaic pavement from Bramdean villa in Hampshire. The original is now sadly lost but survives in a 19th Century drawing by John Lickman. In that depiction, Gaia can be seen sat by her son, helplessly watching his defeat.
Despite being a minor episode in Hercules’ adventures, the story of the wrestling match remained one depicted in art throughout the centuries. Before we leave this object, I have to share the image below of a sculpture by Bartolomeo Ammannati, dated 1558-9, and now in the Medici Villa della Petraia, north of Florence, taken by me on a visit there a few years ago.
Our second Lincolnshire object is a stone funerary inscription, discovered before 1909 on Eastgate in Lincoln and no doubt originally from a cemetery alongside the Roman road heading out of the upper east gate. Sadly now fragmentary, the inscription offers us another glimpse of local familiarity with classical mythology.
The fragmentary inscription reads:
[… v]ixit dulcissima pro-
[les …]sa est conpare Ditis
[… postqua]m est ablata repente
[… d]o[l]ui tua fata
[vixit a]n(nos) VIIII
This has been reconstructed as ‘… she lived a sweetest [child, torn away no less suddenly] than the partner of Dis; … after she was carried away suddenly … I have mourned thy fate … [lived] 9 years’.
We have here then the tombstone of a nine year old girl, mourned intensely by her parents. The reference they have used to express their grief, though, is unique in Britain as they have compared their loss to that of Ceres (Demeter in Greek), the goddess of agriculture and the seasons whose daughter Proserpina (Persephone in Greek) was abducted to live as the Queen of the Underworld. Proserpina’s husband was Pluto, the Roman equivalent of Hades, god of the underworld. He was more commonly referred to in the Roman world as Dis, and it is by this name that he appears in this inscription. Proserpina returned to her mother for two seasons of the year, during which her happiness allowed the world to blossom and flourish (Spring and Summer). The seasons in which she was forced to return to the Underworld, Autumn and Winter, saw Ceres’ grief bringing cold and depression to the world.
In this inscription, then, we see grieving parents, living in Lincoln in the remote province of Britain, referencing their grief in terms of the passing of the seasons (and in this we can see references to cycles of life and death) and of the sudden anguish of Ceres having her own daughter torn away from her. It is a powerful comparison today, just as it must have been for anyone pausing to read the inscription in its original context in the cemetery.
These examples serve to remind us that, although in many ways Roman Britain did not experience the full flourishing of classical culture, there were clearly individuals whose knowledge and understanding of classical mythology and literature may have been greater than we assume.
Witts, P. 2010. Mosaics in Roman Britain: Stories in Stone. History Press