Community, COVID and Tombstones

Last month, as we in NSW Australia sat in a surreal state of supposed ‘post-lockdown’, I attended the PhD welcome for the Macquarie Arts faculty. This virtual meet and greet involved the usual welcome messages by the Arts HDR Dean and helpful housekeeping by the ever amazing professional staff. However, the most engaging part was a stimulating discussion about why we research and what our value as Arts researchers is. With such a wide range of brilliant HDR researchers in the Room Zoom, this was a truly stimulating and enlightening conversation that got me thinking about the value of my research and more broadly the various fields I class myself within (history, classics, archaeology and epigraphy). The product of this ‘thinking’ (brave of me to call it that) is this humble blog post.

I research about the Roman military community in the province of Dalmatia, which includes parts of modern Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia (see below). I do so through archaeological and epigraphical (inscribed) material from the early Roman Empire / 1st century BCE/BC to 2nd century CE/AD. I am theoretically informed by (or try to be informed by) social and symbolic interactionism as well as healthy doses of social constructionism and materialism (or ‘new materialism’). These concepts need not be discussed here beyond stating the fact that they allow me to examine the construction of communities and identities amongst Rome’s diverse soldiery and their extended communities. My MRes thesis did exactly this with the inscribed funerary monuments of the Roman seventh legion ‘legio vii Claudia pia fidelis‘ dating between 7-59 CE. It is my findings from this research that I will be focusing upon here.

A map of roman Dalmatia overlaid onto a modern satellite map. The region displayed is the eastern Adriatic coastline and hinterland, with the province covering parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania
Map of Dalmatia as of 117 CE overlaid onto a modern map. Image: DARMC, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The COVID pandemic had many impacts on our lives here in Australia and abroad and has drawn attention to multiple issues and inequalities in our contemporary society. One obvious impact was upon our social lives. In Australia, for the good of our fellow citizens, many of us were locked down with minimal ‘real’ human contact for months. For me, and I’m sure many others, this has illuminated the importance of community in our lives – the ever enriching social groups which permeate so many realms of our daily lives and provide us with a sense of belonging and even purpose. Us humans are social beings and to some degree that facet of our persons was stripped from us by this pandemic. Not all communities have been removed of course, with online communities remaining particularly significant. Interestingly, even prior to the pandemic, some academics have argued that community itself is ‘in decline’ and becoming less enriching, though there is by no means a general consensus and many see community as simply evolving.

So I ask, as we now emerge from lockdown how can we nourish new and enriching senses of community, perhaps even more fruitful than before? How can we get back to ‘being social’ again at our own individual paces? What can those of us looking to reignite that social vibrancy of our pre-COVID lives do? For this, I think the members of legio vii and their tombstones can provide some valuable insight.

The members of legio vii (or BROMANS as I like to call them) were a diverse bunch. Epigraphic data preserved in over 80 inscribed tombstones, altars and epitaphs which can be found here (and soon here) records that 21 servicemen hailed from Asia Minor (Galatia and Asia), 20 from across the sea in Italy, 4 from Macedonia and 5 from sites which for a myriad of reasons cannot be located. Now that’s a wide range of individuals from a number of domicilia (places of origin), and this represents just a fraction of ~6000 soldiers who served in legio vii and its fellow Dalmatian garrison legio xi whilst they were stationed in Dalmatia (Matijević 2017). How did these soldiers (milites) navigate their differences and fashion a sense of community?

line drawing of the triangular top of a tombstone. There is a frieze which has an array of weapons and armour inside, and then above there is a triangular pediment which depicts two fighting animals but is damaged
The top of the funerary stela (tombstone) of Titus Ancharenus. CIL 3, 2709. Archaeological Museum in Split Inv. No. A 2588. Illustration: Jack Roberts, CC BY-SA 4.0

The answer is both simple and complex (isn’t everything?). Firstly, the sense of community was reinvigorated through things such as combat training, communal messes and shared sleeping quarters. A key practice was also the communal setting up of tombstones and other funerary monuments for fellow servicemen. Unlike these previous practices, this ritual involved members of the broader community such as wives, children and freedpeople – groups previously absent from Roman military discussions but brought into view by scholars such as Penelope Allison. On some tombstones community members are actually recorded as commemorators, either by name, as seen with Lucius Atilius who dedicated a monument for his veteran uncle, or through expressions such as frater fratri ‘by a brother for a brother’ – an expression found across several Roman provinces (observed by Jana Kepartová). At a basic level this practice of communal commemoration brought together members to mourn and/or celebrate. At a deeper one it strengthened social ties, fed cohesion through shared experience and acted as a means of social rejuvenation – keeping the community relevant.

Secondly, the community was structured around shared symbols, values and ideas drawn from the soldiers’ shared experiences. Again funerary monuments provide a great snapshot of this. The monuments of legio vii frequently feature sculpted weapons, armour and equipment, drawing attention to the deceased’s occupation as a legionary of the Roman Empire. A common example of this is seen with sculpted friezes of weapons and armour which sat at the top of several tombstones, such as those of Titus Ancharenus (pictured above), Quintus Oppius and Lucius Fabius. Diving deeper, these symbols suggest shared values of martial prowess and military action – even though most of the soldiers would never have been on campaign.

Interestingly, some common symbols were significant communally yet did not draw upon ideas of combat or violence. For instance, another motif which was very popular amongst Roman soldiers in Dalmatia was a door with four panels, the so-called ‘porta-inferi’ or ‘Asia Minor façade’ shown below on the tombstone of Gaius Longinus. Used almost exclusively by soldiers in a funerary context, the motif was obviously of communal significance and by using it (and the other military symbols mentioned above) the soldiers were establishing membership within the military community as a defining feature of their identities in death.

line drawing of a tombstone with two main fields and a third broken off at the top. The broken one once held a portrait bust. The second or middle field has a latin inscription. The third or lower field had a four panelled door with two lions head door knockers and two standing figures in ancient dress
The stela of Gaius Longinus, legio vii miles. CIL 3, 9737. Archaeological Museum in Split Inv. No. A 178. Illustration: Jack Roberts, CC BY-SA 4.0

Thus these inscribed monuments and the individuals they commemorate were able to develop a strong community through what we could describe as ‘sharedness’: shared practices, shared experiences, shared ideas and shared symbols. Crucially, this did not conflict with their many differences, particularly their diverse origins, focusing instead on what was shared (we can get on to shared boundaries another time…).

Linking back to the original inspiration for the post and the questions I posed earlier: what, then, can we learn from this? For me, by studying the material produced by people of the past not only can we unlock their stories (a means to an end in itself) but we can also learn a lot about ourselves. In this instance, it is the fact that people from diverse backgrounds can come together and form a socially enriching community through shared practices, experiences and interests. Therefore let us think about what symbols, practices and ideas we can use, take part in and share, for this may be where we too can find meaning, enjoyment and belonging – just like the unnamed centurion of an unknown legion or the legio vii cavalryman Marcus Titius who both erected monuments in Dalmatia bearing the four-panelled door, setting in stone (ha) their military membership for all to see.

I do not have the answers of course, but I will leave you with some places to perhaps start. Think about those rituals that you enjoy or those values that are important to you and ask yourself: who shares these in some way? Do you enjoy reading? Perhaps set up or join a book club. Passionate about environmental activism? Link up with fellow campaigners. Stressing about a PhD deadline? Stress together with other HDR candidates! Then, if you feel like it, draw upon these experiences when you express yourself, pulling symbols and ideas from these social realms – put a favourite book quote in your Instagram bio or wear a t-shirt from a rally to signal your membership. Communities are formed from the ground up, by us, so get out there and get community-ing like it’s 1st century CE Dalmatia!

Further Resources:

I would like to thank Aimee, the editor of this wonderful blog, for allowing me to contribute my (kind of) structured ramblings to this great resource, as well as the Croatian Studies Foundation for funding this research.

Ewan Coopey | PhD candidate Macquarie University | @EuuanXCVI |