Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.10

C. W. Grocock (ed.), Inscriptions of Roman Britain. 5th edition, fully revised. Lactor 4.   London:  The London Association of Classical Teachers, 2017.  Pp. 206.  ISBN 9780903625395.  £14.00.  

Reviewed by Duncan B. Campbell, Glasgow (

For almost 50 years, “Lactor 4” has provided a useful anthology of Roman inscriptions relating to the province of Britannia. The original selection of 247 texts made by Mark Greenstock, a Classics teacher at Harrow School, in consultation with Professor Sheppard Frere (whose Britannia: a history of Roman Britain the collection was meant to accompany), was revised by Drs. Valerie Maxfield and Brian Dobson in 1995, with the addition of around 30 new texts and a new section on writing tablets, and again in 2006, bringing the total to 290. Each entry was accompanied by the Latin text, an English translation, and a short note on the content. The book was divided into nine sections, some chronological and some thematic, making it an ideal teaching tool and a handy anthology.

Now, with this new edition, the latest editor, Christopher Grocock, Head of Classics at Bedales School, has taken the volume in a new direction. The content has ballooned to 376 entries (including 24 of the writing tablets from the Bloomberg site in London, many of them one-liners), while the page count has been kept to a minimum by omitting the Latin texts and presenting only translations.1 Denying the reader sight of the original texts is undoubtedly the most disappointing aspect of the book. Some of the introductory material is thus made superfluous, such as the observations on the lettering found on inscriptions (e.g. “Greek letters are less uniformly capital”), and it is surely otiose to inform the reader that “stops are occasionally introduced in mid-word” when there is no indication of this in the individual entries. Nor is the new six-page essay “From inscription to translation – some examples” (22-27) a substitute, as the four “example” line drawings are hardly representative of Roman inscriptions.2

Grocock opens the volume with a new essay on “The source-value of inscriptions” (11-16), expanding upon Frere’s original page-long contribution but losing, in the process, some of the clarity Frere brought to the topic. Similarly, Grocock has heavily edited the “Notes on Roman epigraphy” (17-21) originally contributed by A.L.F. Rivet, but not always successfully.3 And although Michael Crawford’s “Note on Roman Coinage” and John Mann’s “Note on Religion” are still included, Colin Haselgrove’s “Note on British Coinage” has now been replaced by Grocock’s own “Coinage in Pre-Roman Iron Age Britain” (33-34).

Grocock’s redesign has produced a slight disconnect between the introductory material and the individual inscriptions. As an example, for evidence of the formula VETUSTATE DILAPSIS, “collapsed through age” (17), readers are directed to item D10 (RIB 1234), but the translation there reads “fallen in through age” and the accompanying note informs us that “the description ‘collapsed through old age’ is not uncommon”; readers may assume, incorrectly, that these three different phrases represent three different Latin formulas.4 Similarly, we are informed that the same item (RIB 1234) carries the formula A SOLO RESTITVIT, “rebuilt from ground level” (17), but the translation of D10 reads “restored from ground-level”. Without ready access to the original Latin, more care needs to be taken with the English translations.

Admittedly, Grocock has already replied to this criticism in his Preface, where he claims that “any reader wishing to access the original inscriptional material now has ready access to it via the internet” (9). Of course, such “ready access” to the material requires ready access to the internet, and abdicating control of the primary material to the web sites in question may have unfortunate consequences.5 One of these consequences can be illustrated by item H35, a stilus tablet from London (AE 2003, 1016), which reproduces Roger Tomlin’s translation of his reading of the text in Britannia 34 (2005), p. 45. However, readers who follow the link to the Clauss-Slaby database will find, not Tomlin’s version of the text, but that of Giuseppe Camodeca, with its radically different final section.6

Another unwelcome consequence can be illustrated by item D14 (RIB 1337), an early third-century dedicatory slab whose current whereabouts are unknown. The translation states that the inscription was set up by “the Fortunate First Cavalry Regiment of Asturians, when … M(…) was prefect”, but the note informs readers that “the letters near the end may give a possible extra title of the unit, perhaps ‘praetorian’ rather than the name of a prefect”. This is all very confusing. How can “when … M(…) was prefect” be mistaken for “praetorian”? Only readers who access the Roman Inscriptions of Britain web site will realize that the main text, lying within a panel, ends with ALA I ASTO, and that there has been some debate over the interpretation of what Grocock has called “the letters near the end”, which are actually two sets of letters located outside the panel, at bottom left (M) and bottom right (PRA) of the slab. William Horsley, who evidently saw the inscription prior to 1732, thought that the text referred to Felix alae I Asto[ru]m pra(efectus) (“Felix, prefect of the First Cavalry Regiment of Asturians”), whereas R.P. Wright, preparing the text for The Roman Inscriptions of Britain (1965), read FELIX ALA I ASTO(rum) (“the fortunate First Cavalry Regiment of Asturians”), followed by [..]M, PRA(efecto), which he believed were “the initials of the prefect”. Meanwhile, the Clauss-Slaby database suggests that it may read FELIX ALA I ASTO[RU]M BR(itannica). None of this is clear from Grocock’s entry.

Most of the notes that accompany each item have been carried over from the previous edition, where they served the quite different purpose of elucidating the Latin text, without which they often become rather arcane. For example, what are readers to make of the information that, on RIB 1147 (item C23), “the mason incorrectly inscribed ANIONINO, LOLII and VRBIC·I”, without knowing what the mason ought to have inscribed? The problem with item D28 (RIB 1465), a broken and defaced building inscription to Elagabalus and Severus Alexander, is more complex. The translation bestows the title “most noble Caesar, partner of empire” on the latter, while the note informs us that the illegible space after this title “may have indicated the building which was restored, though Mann suggests imper[i et sacerdoti(i) consors], ‘partner of empire and priesthood’”. However, no trace of “partner of empire” survives on the stone, so it should at least be bracketed in Grocock’s translation, while it has, for a long time, been known (from an ever-growing corpus of military diplomas) that Severus Alexander’s title was, in fact, nobilissimus Caesar imperii et sacerdotis (e.g. AE 1964, 269), the precise significance of which is still disputed.7 Newly added notes are often problematic as well. For example, the note to item F7 (Bloomberg writing tablet no. 18) claims that “the addressee was scr[iba] tr[ibuni] mil[itum]”, from which readers will naturally assume that this is the text that appears on the tablet, whereas it actually reads INO+SCRIXIPLARIO. Readers will require access to Tomlin’s reasoning (in Roman London’s first voices (2016), p. 94) to understand how he arrived at the translation “to […]inus, ?secretary of tribunician rank”.

The bibliography is largely as it stood in the 2006 edition, so readers will not be entirely up-to-date with developments. For example, the last word on the debate over Hadrian’s expeditio Britannica (ILS 2735; item C16) now belongs to A.R. Birley.8 Nor is the volume entirely error-free. Besides occasional typographic errors (e.g. p. 83, “through” for “though”; p. 143, “note note that”) or cross-referencing errors (e.g. note to C35, where “see above under no. 61” should be a reference to C34), there are also errors of content. For example, item B17 (the “Bossington lead pig”) is RIB 2404.3, not 2404.2, as stated, and the genitive case C N[i]pi Asca[ni] should not be translated “Under G. Nipius Ascanius”; item J57, a curse tablet from Bath (AE 1982, 667) is not written “from left to right, with the sequence of letters reversed from beginning to end” (27), but rather (as can be seen from Fig. 4) from right to left and from bottom to top; item H40, a writing tablet from Wales (AE 2004, 852), is described as “the only will to have survived outside Egypt” (143), but we are informed that item G31 (Bloomberg writing tablet no. 48) “appears to be a will” (122). It is not clear why the splendid tombstone of the cavalryman Insus (RIB 3185 = AE 2006, 750) is tucked away in the “Civilian Life and Economic Activity” section as item H36(ii), and if the editor’s overriding purpose was to save space, why is AE 2000, 842a (the word MATERNE scratched on a samian bowl) included twice, as items C32 and H7?


1.   Coin legends are still quoted in full.
2.   The four examples are: the text portion of the tombstone of the centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis (RIB 200), unfortunately cropped too tightly so that readers will look in vain for “the I at the end of FAVONI [which] is the extended right-hand upright of the N”; one of the altars from the Mithraeum at Carrawburgh (RIB 1545); a writing tablet from London (AE 2003, 1016); and a curse tablet from Bath (AE 1982, 667).
3.   The re-ordering of Rivet’s four sections means that the cross-reference to “3(g) above” should be to “1(g) above”. The addition of a reference to impressions made on clay items (prior to firing) by “stamps [which] might be of clay, wood or metal”, is accompanied by a cross-reference to RIB 2446.1-4, which are stone oculists’ stamps for use on cakes of medicament. Rivet’s reference to VI IGNIS EXUSTUM as a reason for rebuilding work has regrettably been removed, although item D4 (RIB 730) is a wonderful example of the vulnerability of bathhouses in this regard. The paragraph on “military diplomas” does not take account of Paul Holder’s Roman Military Diplomas V (2006), where readers will find another interesting example relating to Britain (AE 1997, 1001 = RMD V 420, from Ravenglass). And some of the cross-references in this section are incorrect: the example of a religious dedication relating to a temple (RIB 91) is illustrated by fig. 9, not fig. 6, as stated; the example of ligatured letters (RIB 1060) is illustrated by fig. 8, not fig. 5, as stated.
4.   A cross-reference to items D28 (RIB 1465), D39 (RIB 605), and J50 (RIB 3001) could usefully have been inserted, as they convey the same message.
5.   When the reviewer attempted to access item D5 (RIB 3215) through the recommended online resources, the bare Latin text can certainly be found in the Clauss-Slaby database, but there is no indication of the many and curious ligatures on the original stone, and the hyperlink to the associated illustrative material was not functioning. This inscription is not yet available on the Roman Inscriptions of Britain web site (cited by Grocock), but it can be accessed via the Heidelberg Epigraphic Database if the reader happens to know the relevant code. It should be noted that the Lactor translation is based on the reading published in Journal of Roman Studies 51 (1961), 192 (AE 1962, 260), where the word at the end of line 8 was read as CENTURIAS (“barrack-blocks”), and not RIB 3215, where the word is read as CENTURIAM (“barrack-block”).
6.   G. Camodeca, “Cura secunda della tabula cerata Londinese con la compravendita della puella Fortunata”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 157 (2006), 225-230 (AE 2005, 893).
7.   Most recently, W. Eck, “Ein neues Militärdiplom für die misenische Flotte und Severus Alexanders Rechtsstellung im J. 221/222”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 108 (1995), 15-34.
8.   A.R. Birley, “Two governors of Dacia Superior and Britain”, in V. Iliescu, D. Nedu & A. Barbos (eds.), Graecia, Roma, Barbaricum. In memoriam Vasile Lica (Galati 2014), 241-259.

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