Monday, 14 April 2008

To the Mother Goddesses

Roman altar from ManchesterA new Roman inscription turned up in Manchester (England) this month. Before you get too excited, there were no traces of paint on the inscription (as far as I know): the red lettering is mine, to make it easier to read.

The inscription is a Roman altar, set up by a man called Aelius Victor (whose name occupies lines 5 and 6). Altars were part and parcel of the Roman religious mindset. They were designed as small, free-standing, squared-off columns, some three, four or five feet tall (1.0-1.5 m), with a shallow depression on top. Here the dedicator would offer his or her offering.

I vow to thee ...

The altar itself represents a personal contract between the dedicator (in this case, Aelius Victor) and the deity or deities whom he had invoked. Usually, the dedicator requested some favour of the gods -- safe passage, perhaps, or a successful crop -- and promised to set up an altar in gratitude for a favourable outcome.

The abbreviation on the last line -- V.S.L.L.M. -- is commonly found on altars, and indicates that the dedicator votum solvit laetus libens merito ("fulfilled his vow gladly, willingly and deservedly"). Aelius Victor was thanking the gods for whatever favour he had requested, and was keeping his end of the bargain by setting up the promised altar.

In fact, he was thanking goddesses, for the altar was erected Deabus Matribus Hananeftis et Ollototis ("To the Mother Goddesses Hananeftae and Ollototae"). The Ollototae are previously known from Roman Britain. They are thought to be Germanic goddesses whose name means "of all folk", and their function was presumably a protective one. But exactly why Aelius Victor might have sought their aid remains a mystery.

(I confess that I have never heard of the Hananeftae. Please leave a comment if you can shed any light on them.)


  1. The restless activity of Hadrian was not less remarkable when compared with the gentle repose of Antoninus Pius...

    Your quotation, Sire, inspired me to re-read a little more from Gibbon:

    From Decline and Fall Vol1, Chapter 3 (Bury's edition):

    Although Pius had two sons, [50] he preferred the welfare of Rome to the interest of his family, gave his daughter Faustina in marriage to young Marcus, obtained from the senate the tribunitian and proconsular powers, and, with a noble disdain, or rather ignorance, of jealousy, associated him [Marcus Aurelius?] to all the labours of government...

    [50]Without the help of medals and inscriptions, we should be ignorant of this fact, so honourable to the memory of Pius. [But see Hist. Aug. iii. i. 7. We have their names from coins.]

    Text from

    The editorial comment refers to this passage in Historia Augusta's life of your august self by the supposed Julius Capitolinus

    5 Julia Fadilla was his mother's daughter, 6 his stepfather being Julius Lupus, a man of consular rank. 7 His father-in‑law was Annius Verus4 and his wife Annia Faustina5, who bore him two sons6 and two daughters, of whom the elder7 was married to Lamia Silanus and the younger8 to Marcus Antoninus.

    Text from*.html

    But I would still like to know, Sire, about the "medals and inscriptions" and "coins" which Gibbon and Bury respectively, it seems, believed had preserved the memory of your two sons.

    I find some coins of your son Galerius Antoninus on this site:

    I suppose they were commemorative of a lad who had died before you had been adopted or succeeded, if the Greek inscription includes your venerated surname "Pius"


    Perhaps I answered some of my own questions but it is an honour to read your site, Sire.

  2. "it is an honour to read your site, Sire."
    I am indeed grateful for your kind words, Anonymous.

    I found your comment so interesting that I felt it merited a new post.

  3. The altar has now been published in Britannia 40 (2009) p. 315 as inscription no. 3. The editors note that it is barely 1m tall. They also note that the Matres Hananeftae (or Annaneptae) are known in Cologne and Wissen, where personnel of the 30th Legion erected dedications.