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Essay: The Tombstone of Regina

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  • Published: January 19, 2020*
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  • The Tombstone of Regina
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The Tombstone of Regina dates to 200 AD and is made of sandstone. It stands at a height of 130x70cm and was found at the Roman fort of Arbeia, now South Shields, in 1878. Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums now has both the original and a cast of the tombstone in their collection. In a gabled niche flanked by two pilasters a woman sits facing forward in a wicker chair. She wears elaborate clothing with jewellery adorning her. Beneath her there are two inscriptions honouring her, one in Latin and one in Arabic.

The inscriptions are very important to our understanding of this sculpture and knowledge of the lives of people in Roman Britain. The Latin text translates to ‘To the Spirits of the Dead. Regina, freedwoman and wife. Barates a Palmyrene.A Catuvellaunian, aged 30 years.’ and the Palmyran text follows the typical formula for an inscription of the deceased (name+description+lament), thus in this case ‘Regina, freedwoman of Barates, Alas!’. It has been suggested that the confident lettering of the Palmyrene inscription and the erratic lettering of the Latin might persuade us to believe the sculptor was Palmyrene under the influence of the West. Additionally, through the use of the word freedwoman we can see that Regina had once been a slave but had been freed by Barates in order to make her his wife. Although slaves weren’t supposed to be freed until they were at least thirty, marriage was one of the few clauses which allowed younger women to be freed. Similarly the fact that the Catuvellauna tribe is mentioned may be confusing, as in the Roman world, enslavement resulted in separating from your homeland (Bradley 1994) and Pliny believed that the ‘household is for slaves a sort of republic and citizen-state’ (8.16) and thus slaves were ‘genealogical[ly] isolate[d]’. (Webster, 2010). Therefore, the choice to have Regina’s original tribe on her tombstone may be controversial and make us question whether Regina felt so connected to her tribe, that despite her recent separation from them, she wanted to commemorate them in her epitaph.

Her dress is neither Roman or Palmyrene, but its elaborate sleeved tunic allows us to see her wealth and status. This is also seen by the jewellery box at her feet and her twisted necklace and bracelets, which may be suggestive of torques worn especially by Celtic warriors and figures of authority from the third to the first cent BC . Although torques were anachronistic in Britain at the time, Regina’s wearing of them may reference ‘British-ness’ due to their depiction in the art and literature of Rome. The use of the distaff and spindle as well as her basket of wool show us her role as housewife. Many Roman women were praised for keeping the house and working in wool in their epigraphs. One gravestone ends with the message: ‘She kept house, she made wool’, thereby reducing the character and essence of this woman to her domestic duties and abilities.

The significance of the tombstone is what it can tell us regarding immigration and the mixing of cultures. Whether this be in the combination of Roman and Palmyrene ideas or the very fact that a Palmyrene man could marry a southern slave girl and then somehow end up in the north, it is fascinating non the less. We have no other knowledge of what sort of work Barates did that meant he could afford to erect a large scale tombstone of his wife and clothe her in finery but we are aware that the popution on the Roman frontier in Britain was a convuluted mixture of soldiers, civilians, dependants, slaves and ex-slaves.

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