Ancient Stories: Brigantia


Let’s take a closer look at the message left for Brigantia, our Romano-British goddess in the North!

In our last entry we gave you another challenge: transcribing the message left on an altar from Arbeia. Did you identify all the letters? Recording the inscription is an important step before translating it – it helps us see the separate words, as well as identify any problems like broken pieces or missing letters. Luckily for us, this time our altar isn’t damaged! So let’s take a look at what it says:

Keep reading to find out

The person who has written this inscription has left us something very helpful: dots! Latin inscriptions usually don’t have punctuation, and words can run over several lines. By marking the spaces in between words for us, we’ve got a little less decoding to do – we can see immediately record the words:

DEAE BRIGANTIAE SACRUM CONGENNCUS V.S.L.M.

On the altars to Oceanus and Neptune, we saw that the name of the god was listed first. In Latin, the word for a god is deus. The word for a goddess is dea.

Can you see any names at the start of this inscription?

DEAE BRIGANTIAE SACRUM CONGENNCUS V.S.L.M.

You might notice the word for goddess first this time – deae – followed by the name of the goddess – Brigantiae. But why the -ae ending instead of -a? Just like our Oceanus and Neptune altars, the name of the goddess is put in the dative case which adds the meaning to/for. But as these words are feminine, and end in -a instead of -us, they need a different ending:

So our first two words tell us that this is altar is dedicated to the goddess Brigantia! Brigantia is an interesting goddess, as she is not Roman – instead, she is a native goddess of Britannia. So why are the Romans dedicating an altar to her, in Latin? Read through the worksheet below to find out more:

We know who the altar is for – but who has set it up, and why?

DEAE BRIGANTIAE SACRUM CONGENNCUS V.S.L.M.

The next word on our inscription is sacrum. This is a little Latin word meaning ‘sacred’ – this refers to the altar itself, the special gift being set up for the goddess.

DEAE BRIGANTIAE SACRUM CONGENNCUS V.S.L.M.

Next we have another name. It ends in -us, telling us it is the name of the person who has set up the altar: a man called Congennicus. This name isn’t recorded anywhere else in the Roman Empire. What do you think this tells us?

Congennicus was a Celtic name. The letter-cutter has tried to write this unusual-sounding name in a Roman way on the stone – perhaps this is why the ‘i’ goes missing! It is interesting that this man has decided to worship a native goddess in a Roman way: setting up a Roman altar and writing an inscription in Latin. The Celts would not have worshipped their own gods and goddesses this way. Why do you think Congennicus has decided to do this?

For the final part of our inscription, we have an abbreviation!

DEAE BRIGANTIAE SACRUM CONGENNCUS V.S.L.M.

Last week we looked at altars to the Roman gods Oceanus and Neptune, and talked about how the Romans would leave gifts like this to their gods to say thank you for their help. This became such a common activity that it soon had its own special abbreviation – V.S.L.M. – which letter-cutters could add to an inscription to explain what it was for. This was especially handy when working with limited space on a stone, and it allowed more information to be recorded about the person setting up the dedication. But what is it short for?

When we expand out the letters, we get:

This little phrase is used in inscriptions all over the Roman world. When translated, it means ‘willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow’. A vow is like a promise: Congennicus must have promised to dedicate an altar to Brigantia if she helped him with something. Now that she has given her help, Congennicus has to keep his side of the bargain and leave her the thank-you gift he promised. This type of exchange was so common in Roman religion it had its own abbreviation!

When we put it all together, our altar says:

SACRED TO THE GODDESS BRIGANTIA, CONGENNICUS WILLINGLY AND DESERVEDLY KEPT HIS PROMISE

A special Romano-British gift. Phew! That was a tough one! If you’d like to review what the inscription says again, this short video will talk you through the meaning of each section:


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