Ancient Stories: Neptune & Oceanus

For our first week celebrating the North East Festival of Languages, we are exploring the gods and goddesses brought to Britannia (Britain) by the Romans.

Over 100 years ago when the Victorians were building a new bridge across the River Tyne, they found a very watery Roman surprise: two altars. An altar is a special stone that Romans used to give thank-you gifts to their gods. But how did these two altars end up in the river?

We know that the Romans built a bridge across the River Tyne around AD122, near to the site of the modern-day Swing Bridge. They called it Pons Aelius – and this became the name of the nearby fort and small settlement. The word Pons in Latin means ‘bridge’, and the word Aelius is the family name of the Emperor Hadrian – who would go on to do a lot of building in the region!

So let’s take a closer look at the writing on the first of these two altars, and see what they can tell us about the Romans in and around Pons Aelius. The language of the Roman Empire was Latin, and although it isn’t spoken anymore lots of people still study it today. The Roman alphabet was very similar to ours, so it can be a little easier for us to read compared to other ancient languages. The only differences are the Romans didn’t have the letters J, U, or W – so instead of J, you’ll find an I, and instead of U/W you’ll always find a V. SVPER!

Carving inscriptions into stone was expensive work. You can see from this altar how the Romans tried to get around that problem by shortening words, sometimes down to just one letter. These abbreviations became very common for writing messages on stone and are found all over the Roman Empire – this tells us that it was a common system of communicating which lots of people would have understood. Can you think of any abbreviations you use as part of your daily life?

The writing along the top of this altar – NEPTVNO – tells us that it has been built for Neptune, one of the Roman gods. But the Latin name for Neptune is Neptunus, so why does this have an O at the end instead?

Latin is an inflected language. This means that the endings of a word change depending on how they are being used in a sentence – including nouns and names. Different endings on nouns and names are called cases.

On altars like this one, we usually get the name of the god or goddess it is being built for – but instead of adding the word to or for, the Romans change the ending of the name. By taking off the ‘-us‘ and adding an ‘-o‘, it now means: To Neptune. This is called the dative case. We’ll see it again – lots!

Neptune was the Roman god of freshwater (things like streams, rivers, lakes) and the sea. If you look closely at the pictures carved on the altar, you can see they are linked to Neptune’s role: there is a small dolphin curling around a trident. These symbols appear on lots of ancient Roman objects, sometimes even with Neptune himself:

Now we know who this altar is for, our next question is: who built it? This is where our abbreviations get a little trickier! Let’s take a closer look at the letters..

This inscription is a good example of everyone making mistakes – because our letter-cutter has accidentally ran out of room when carving it! The word after NEPTVNO should be LEG – if you take a sneak peek at our second altar, you’ll see it along the top – but as you can see here, we only have LE. Whoops!

LEG is the abbreviation for LEGIO. This is the Latin word for an important part of the Roman army: a legion. A legion was a group of around 4,000 – 6,000 soldiers. This tells us that the altar was set up by Roman soldiers.

Each legion had a number and name, and there were around 30 legions spread around the Roman Empire – including here in Britannia. Can you see any Roman numerals in this altar, which can help us identify the number of this legion?

You can see VI on one side of the trident… and then another VI on the other side! So which number do we use? Luckily, our letter-cutter has realised this is a bit confusing. He’s added a line over the first VI (helpfully called an overline) to let us know we are supposed to read these letters as numbers. Need some help decoding your Roman numerals? We have a handy guide to your I, II, IIIs right here:

If we add this numeral to what we know so far, we end up with LEGIO VI = Legion 6. Remember, legions usually have a number and a name: this is where our second VI comes in. This is an abbreviation of the Latin word VICTRIX, the name of the 6th Legion. This is a good choice for a legion, as it means ‘Victorious!’

You can see we still have two letters left: P on one side, and F on the other. These are common abbreviations for dedications by soldiers, and stand for the Latin words PIA (loyal) and FIDELIS (faithful). These were added to the name of the legion as a special honour when they had shown great loyalty to the Empire through their actions. So now we have worked out exactly who has set this altar up: The 6th Legion Victrix, Loyal and Faithful.

The 6th Legion came to Britannia during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, travelling here from Germania (Germany) to provide reinforcements to the forces already stationed in the far North. But legionary soldiers weren’t just skilled at fighting, they were also able to build useful things like roads, forts, bridges, and walls. The 6th Legion built their bridge over the River Tyne in around 122AD, leaving this special gift to Neptune to thank him for looking after them on their long voyage here, and perhaps to also ask him to keep an eye on their new bridge. They were certainly kept busy while they were here – they even helped build Hadrian’s Wall!

Now it’s over to you for the second altar! Using what we’ve seen so far, can you work out how to decode the message on this one? There’s a worksheet below to help – we’d love to see how you get on!


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