A Lost Inscription from Castlecary on the Antonine Wall

By Keppie, Lawrence | Acta Classica, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

A Lost Inscription from Castlecary on the Antonine Wall


Keppie, Lawrence, Acta Classica


A surge in antiquarian activity along the line of the Roman frontier in Central Scotland between the Forth and the Clyde in the half century from 1680 onwards resulted in a fivefold increase in the meagre number of inscribed stones hitherto recovered along its line and at its forts. Those which found their way to the University of Glasgow are still preserved there, in its Hunterian Museum. (1) On the other hand, some of those which came into the hands of local landowners soon disappeared from view. (2) One such stone was first mentioned by the physician Dr Christopher Irvine in his Historiae Scoticae Nomenclatura (Name-list of Scottish History), published in 1682. (3) Irvine, Historiographer Royal for Scotland under King Charles II, was an authoritative witness: he had travelled along the Antonine Wall several times, and noted its forts in due sequence, categorising them as 'Great Forts', 'Forts' and 'Small Forts'. (4) The Historiae Scoticae Nomenclatura comprised an alphabetical list of proper names associated with Scotland's history, with explanations in English. The Roman world, including its provinces, tribes, kings and emperors, featured strongly.

One entry, sandwiched between two geographical names, was entitled Legio Praetenta Britannis, the 'legion which protected the Britons', which Irvine defined as 'A Roman legion that keept Guard upon the Roman Wall to defend their Province.' (5) The Latin heading comes from the poet Claudian and refers to events in Britain in AD 402, during the closing years of Roman occupation; the words constitute the second half of a dactylic hexameter. (6) Irvine added a commentary on the Roman army.

   These Legions were not only compos'd of Italians, but also of
   diverse other Nations; yea of the Brittons themselves, as is seen
   by an Ancient Stone, dig'd out of the ruins of Severus Wall, and
   keept in Combernald by the Right Honourable the Earl of Wigtoun.

The Antonine Wall was believed by many at this time to have been built under the emperor Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century AD. By 'Combernald' Irvine means Cumbernauld Castle which lies two kilometres south of the Wall. (7) Irvine gives the text of the 'Ancient Stone' as follows:

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

MATRIBUS.

MILITES.

VEXILIO.

LEGION XXV.

BRITTONNUM.

V.S.L.L.M.

This, the only inscribed stone mentioned by Irvine in the Nomenclatura, was an altar dedicated to the Matres (Mother Goddesses). Irvine's version can be translated as 'To the Mothers, soldiers of a detachment of the Twenty-fifth Legion of Britons willingly gladly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.' Irvine has, as we shall see, retained the original line-divisions.

We could easily suppose that Irvine had seen the stone at Cumbernauld Castle while traversing the Wall in or before 1682. However, another scholar had become aware of the inscription at much the same date, and may have alerted Irvine to it. This was Sir Robert Sibbald, a fellow physician, doyen of Scottish studies at the end of the 17th century, into whose hands Irvine's papers fell. In 1683 Sibbald was composing entries for his projected Atlas Scoticus which, in the end, remained unpublished. (8) His surviving manuscript features a drawing of this stone (Fig. 2), with the associated statement regarding the Antonine Wall that

   From there the Dyke goeth directly to the Forest of Combernald, and
   there is ane great Fort and a great building called Castle Kery.
   (9) Near to this was a stone found with this Figure and
   inscription, which was taken of by the Earle of Perth Lord High
   Chancelor of Scotland, from whom I had a copie of it. (10)

The Jacobite Fourth Earl of Perth was Sibbald's aristocratic patron; how the Earl came to learn of the stone is unexplained.

The elongated drawing shows triple roundels on the front of the capital, with a rectangular panel below containing one line of the inscription; the shaft bore five more lines and was demarcated from the base by plain mouldings. …

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