Ancient Stories: Aurelia Aureliana

It’s about time we met another woman from the furthest edges of the Roman Empire – and as we saw already with Regina, the key type of evidence we have for women in Roman Britain is their tombstones. Cheery! This time we’ve chosen one of our favourite tombstones on display at the Great North Museum – a large carved monument belonging to a woman called Aurelia Aureliana.

We’re off on a bit of an expedition to discover more about Aurelia, heading out to the western end of the wall. Aurelia’s tombstone may be in Newcastle now, but she has come all the way from Luguvalium (Carlisle) where she was excavated in 1829. Aurelia lived some time around the mid-3rd century AD – remember that Hadrian ordered the building of the wall in AD122, so it – and the Romans! – had been around in Britannia for a good while by the time of Aurelia’s life. You’ll notice that we have a very different style of tombstone to Regina. What features do you notice this time – and what clues do you get already about Aurelia?

You can see pretty quickly that Aurelia’s tombstone is not quite as expertly carved as Regina’s. It is a little more rough around the edges. But like Regina, we have a depiction of Aurelia herself which gives us a few interesting clues:

Aurelia Aureliana

Aurelia is definitely dressed for British weather! You can see she is bundled up warm in something called a Gallic coat. This was an item of clothing worn by both men and women, though men would have worn a shorter version which reached the knees. The coat is baggy and unfitted, and isn’t usually worn with a belt. She also has a smaller cloak with tassels draped over her shoulder. And rather than elaborate sandals, Aurelia wears some sensible plain boots. Looks pretty cosy for those chilly days on Hadrian’s Wall!

Aurelia may not have the same fancy jewellery as Regina, but she is holding something intriguing: a bunch of poppies. But why?

For the Greeks and the Romans, the poppy symbolised sleep and death. In mythology, it was a symbol of the two twin brothers Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Thanatos, the god of death. Poppies were offered as gifts to the dead, and sometimes appear on the tombstones as a sign of eternal sleep. Can you think of any flowers that have special meaning in our own modern world?

Now let’s look at our inscription. You can see it is in the same position as we had on Regina’s tombstone, underneath the figure, and if you look closely you’ll see the letters are a little bit uneven:

The diamond-shaped Os are one of the clues that Aurelia lived in the 3rd century AD

Immediately we see a key abbreviation returning: DM. This is one of our funerary abbreviations – that just means it is something we see a lot on tombstones and graves. You’ll remember from Regina’s tombstone that DM is short for Dis Manibus, and it tells us the dedication is being made to the Manes, protective spirits of the dead.

Next we can see AUR AURELIA, an abbreviated form of her name: Aurelia Aureliana.

Helpfully the writer of our inscription has decided to use a verb to make the next part of the message clearer – we are told that Aurelia VIXSIT ANNOS XXXXI: she lived for 41 years.

Next we are given the unabbreviated name of the person who set up the inscription, ULPIUS APOLINARIS: Ulpius Apolinaris. Easy!

But what is his relationship to Aurelia? We get another useful statement with a verb which tells us: CONIUGI CARISSIME POSUIT. Our verb is the very final word, posuit, and it simply means ‘he placed’ or ‘he set up’. The dative coniugi, tells us he set it up for his wife. And the emphasis from carissime, a superlative of the adjective carus (beloved, dear) meaning very dearest, gives us a glimpse of the affection and love between husband and wife.

So when we put that all back together, we get:

To the spirits of the dead
Aurelia Aureliana lived 41 years
Ulpius Apolinaris set this up for his dearly beloved wife

There are of course lots of questions we don’t know the answer to about Aurelia – was she a freedwoman, like Regina? Did she come from Britannia or has she travelled from somewhere else in the Empire? We can’t find these things out from our tombstone this time. But we do know at least that Aurelia was here in the northern reaches of Britannia, and lived – for her time – a fairly long life. Make sure to say salve to Aurelia next time you’re in the Great North Museum!


One response to “Ancient Stories: Aurelia Aureliana”

  1. Geoffrey Tobin Avatar

    Aurelia’s husband’s name Ulpius Apolinaris suggests a relationship to Marcus Ulpius Apollinaris who was Praefectus Castrorum of XIII Gemini at Apulum in Dacia at some time between 117 and 180. (See

    What makes their marriage intriguing is that in the 460s Sidonius Apollinaris was a close friend of the Romano-British king ‘Riothamus’ who was contemporary with (or identical to?) Ambrosius Aurelianus.

    Even curiouser, men of the FitzRandolph and Randoll families, two related lines of male-line descendants of the Breton ducal family of the House of Rennes, whose 11th century exploits inspired the Arthurian legends of the 12th century, have the 12th century Y-DNA mutation R1b-U152-FGC41936 and close variants, which most likely derives from ancient Latium.


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