Archaeologists discover a rare 2,000-year old ancient Roman sundial in Italy

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According to the researchers at the University of Cambridge, the rarity of this Roman sundial in question doesn’t only stem from its well-preserved nature, but also from its decipherable inscriptions – that shed light on the patron who commissioned the structure. The discovery was made at the site of Interamna Lirenas, an ancient Roman colony near the modern-day town of Monte Cassino, in central Italy. In more specific terms, the intact sundial (spotted by the students of the university’s Faculty of Classics) was found with its front facade down, in proximity to one of the entrances of the colony’s theater.

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Location of the sundial in proximity to the theater.

Dr. Alessandro Launaro, a lecturer at the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge, said –

Less than a hundred examples of this specific type of sundial have survived and of those, only a handful bears any kind of inscription at all – so this really is a special find. Not only have we been able to identify the individual who commissioned the sundial, we have also been able to determine the specific public office he held in relation to the likely date of the inscription.

The physical bearing of the Roman sundial translates to limestone block of 54 x 35 x 25 cm or 1.67 cu ft. According to the description mentioned by the University of Cambridge press release –

…the sundial features a concave face, engraved with 11-hour lines (demarcating the twelve horae of daylight) intersecting three-day curves (giving an indication of the season with respect to the time of the winter solstice, equinox and summer solstice). Although the iron gnomon (the needle casting the shadow) is essentially lost, part of it is still preserved under the surviving lead fixing. This type of ‘spherical’ sundial was relatively common in the Roman period and was known as hemicyclium.

Roman sundial (Interamna Lirenas, Italy)
by al506
on Sketchfab

As for the pertinent inscription, the base features the name of M(arcus) NOVIUS M(arci) F(ilius) TUBULA (Marcus Novius Tubula, son of Marcus). This is complemented engraving on the curved rim of the dial surface that displays name of the office that the man held – TR(ibunus) PL(ebis) [Plebeian Tribune]. It also records how he paid for the limestone structure – D(e) S(ua) PEC(unia) (with his own money).

Now judging by the name of the individual and style of the lettering used in the inscription, the researchers have theorized that the sundial harks to a period during circa 1st century BC. Now historically, while the citizens of Interamna Lirenas had to, unfortunately, bear the legacy of siding with Hannibal, the colony was already incorporated as a Roman municipium by 90 BC, thus granting them full Roman citizenship by this epoch. In that context, Launaro added –

That being the case, Marcus Novius Tubula, hailing from Interamna Lirenas, would be a hitherto unknown Plebeian Tribune of Rome. The sundial would have represented his way of celebrating his election in his own hometown.

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Interestingly enough, the very ‘modest’ scope of Interamna Lirenas could ironically provide us with deeper insights into the interconnected regional and political workings associated with (most) Roman towns in Italy during the contemporary period (when the realm still pertained to the Roman Republic). As Launaro concluded –

Even though the recent archaeological fieldwork has profoundly affected our understanding of Interamna Lirenas, dispelling long-held views about its precocious decline and considerable marginality, this was not a town of remarkable prestige or notable influence. It remained an average, middle-sized settlement, and this is exactly what makes it a potentially very informative case-study about conditions in the majority of Roman cities in Italy at the time. In this sense, the discovery of the inscribed sundial not only casts new light on the place Interamna Lirenas occupied within a broader network of political relationships across Roman Italy, but it is also a more general indicator of the level of involvement in Rome’s own affairs that individuals hailing from this and other relatively secondary communities could aspire to.

Source / Images Credit: Faculty of Classics / University of Cambridge

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