Phallus Saxa Loquuntur: Ancient Roman Insult Excavated In Northumberland

(C) The Vindolanda Charitable Trust

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

An archeological excavation at Vindolanda in Northumberland revealed again the notion that once an insult or offense is written into the public forum it can never be successfully retracted, often coming back to haunt despite efforts to bury the story.

The subject of this Roman insult, Secundinus, must have been so infamous of a cad to have invited such scorn from a nemesis; the latter resolved to carve into rock the insult “SECVNDINVS CACOR” along with a very prominent phallus.

The artifact was discovered at the Vindolanda site, where a third century Roman fort and settlement has provided science and historians a treasure trove of useful examples depicting the life of the soldiery and ordinary people of that time. The venue is part of the Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Site. Volunteer Dylan Herbert made this discovery on May 19th.

According to specialists in Roman epigraphy, Drs Alexander Meyer, Alex Mullen, and Roger Tomlin, the insult translates as a mangled version of Secundinus cacator: “Secundinus, the shi**er”

Of course, nobody presently knows of the writer or of the underlying controversy leading up to the carving of the phallus and insult to Secundinus. Yet this is unfortunately what remains seventeen to eighteen hundred years later–the only faint spark evidencing the entirety of Secundinus’ life on this world. It’s a bit pitiful I might say, though if he truly was so wicked a man, he most decidedly got what he deserved.

The epigraph illustrates the fact that over nearly two millennia, society and technology might change but people remain essentially the same. Here a Roman was so determined to publicly defame Secundinus, that he would spend considerable time, perhaps an hour or more, carefully carving this epithet into rock, especially to the depths needed to prominently circumscribe the phallus to drive home the insult. (And to undoubtedly then post the stone in some prominent place for as many passers by as possible to take notice) We have a different approach today. We simply spend fifteen seconds typing “Sam the Bullsh***er” accompanied by an emoticon of a phallus. Social media outlets then broadcast the affront to hundreds, thousands or even millions.

Yet our Roman clearly wins the prize for crafting the more formidable insult. Far too many individuals today spend a full day acting as trolls; spewing out dozens of ephemeral insults as tweets and web log comments that in sum serve only to dilute their significance due to their volume and rather boring repetition.  The Roman in this case might have been vulgar, but you have to admit he commanded more significance and value in this singular delivery. Rocks speak louder than bits, bytes, or nibbles.

I doubt very much some future archaeologist will 1800 years from now dig up a social media outfit’s server farm in what was the Silicon Valley and exhume an encrypted hard drive array containing the Linear A equivalent of today.  If it is in fact translatable the Exabytes of tweets and insults will be none more valuable or important than each of the Ostraca (Broken Pottery Pieces) piled to monumental heights within the trash dumps of large Roman cities–yes each might be ancient but certainly not particularly interesting. I don’t think we will find many profane tweets preserved in future exhibits.

Secundinus might have received satisfaction during his lifetime if this stone of insult was taken down and perhaps buried from public view. Yet this possibility was certain to have been undone millennia later with the same rock moved to a museum and his soul humiliated by countless visitors lining up to relive his vilification…over and over and over.

By Darren Smith

Source: Vindolanda Charitible Trust

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