Ancient Stories: Regina

Did you discover any useful clues on the famous tombstone in our last post? Let’s take a closer look at Regina together, and see what we can find out.

Let’s start with the inscription. Regina is particularly special as her tombstone is bilingual: this means it has a message written in two different languages:

Keep reading to find out

The first section is written in Latin, as we might expect! It asks the spirits of the underworld to look after her as she journeys into the beyond, using a common abbreviation on Roman tombstones: DM. This is short for Dis Manibus, and is a dedication – we can tell this because our friend the dative case is back! We’ve seen the dative endings on a word – meaning to/for – on lots of different objects now. This usually lets us know which god or goddess a particular object has been made for. But this time the endings are a bit different to our usual -o or -a — Dis Manibus — this is because we have plural nouns instead, as the tombstone is dedicated to more than one recipient. Ancient Roman tombstones are usually dedicated to a specific group of divinities known as the Manes, underworld spirits who look after the dead.

We are then told four things about Regina in the inscription. First, she is a liberta – this word means ‘freedwoman’ and it is important as it tells us that Regina was previously enslaved. The Romans enslaved many people as they conquered different tribes and nations for their vast empire, and Britannia was no different. Regina herself is from a native tribe in Britannia, the Catuvellaunians. The Catuvellaunians were a powerful tribe and ruled over territories in the South East of Britannia, roughly equivalent to modern-day Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire (along with bits of Greater London, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire!) Their territory was taken in the Roman conquest led by Emperor Claudius in AD43.

A slave could be given his or her freedom by their master through a process called manumission. As a liberta, Regina is able to get married. This is the next piece of information we are told: she is a wife, and has a husband called Barates. It is Barates himself who has commissioned this beautiful (and likely very expensive!) tombstone for her. We are also told the age that she died in Roman numerals: XXX. Regina was thirty years old.

An interesting thing about Regina’s tombstone is that it also gives us a little bit of information about her husband Barates. He isn’t a North East local either – he is from Palmyra in modern-day Syria. He tells us this in the Latin inscription, while also giving adding a line of Palmyrene Aramaic underneath:

“Regina, freedwoman of Barates. Alas!“

The carving of the Aramaic is much better than the Latin, and this, along with the Palmyrene features on the tombstone, makes archaeologists think that perhaps the sculptor was also from the same place as Barates. How did these men end up all the way at chilly Arbeia? And what must they have thought of this small frontier outpost?

One of the best things about Regina’s tombstone is that it also tells us about her through the different objects depicted with her. What do you see – and what do you think it can tell you about Regina’s life as a liberta in the Roman North?

Regina on display at Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields

Regina’s depiction definitely emphasises her new status! Portraits on tombstones like this show idealised portraits of the deceased: not just how their family want them to be remembered, but also how their family want them to be seen by others. Regina is wearing an elaborately carved long-sleeved tunic with flowing long skirt, with an outer shawl-like piece of fabric draped over. There are no brooches fastening this outer garment, suggesting it is pulled over the head instead (a bit like a poncho!) Layered clothing like this would have been needed for winters in northern Britannia, and we see other tombstones of women who lived along Hadrian’s Wall also wearing shawls or cloaks.

Regina is also wearing lots of jewellery, another visible indicator of her new status and wealth. She has a torque around her neck – a piece of Romano-British jewellery we saw on our statue of Antenociticus! – as well as bracelets on each wrist. She also reaches one hand down to a small rectangular box, which some have suggested might be a jewellery box – the lock signifying it was for storing valuable things.

A recreation of Regina’s box, on display at Arbeia Roman Fort

In her other hand, Regina holds a distaff and spindle: these objects were used for spinning wool, a traditional and important role carried out by the woman of the household. By her chair is a basket full of wool. All of this wool, as well as the tools in her hand, send a message to whoever looks at the tombstone that Regina was a productive and hard-working wife – in other words, an ideal Roman wife. But our question for you is: why would Barates, from Palmyra, and Regina, from a native British tribe, want to send this message?

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