Object in Focus: The Brough Stone

Stele GR.1.1884

Stele GR.1.1884,
The Brough Stone, in
the Fitzwilliam Museum

What is it?

The Brough Stone is a sandstone slab bearing a Greek inscription, named after Brough-under-Stainmore in Cumbria, where it was first noticed in 1879. The inscription was built into the porch of St. Michael’s parish church, along with a second inscription in Latin. Brough’s medieval castle stands within the remains of a Roman fort, Verterae, and the Brough Stone probably came from the cemetery of the fort. It is a tall, rather narrow rectangle, cut from the local brownish sandstone. The inscription is framed on either side by stylized palm branches and above by two squares, each neatly divided into eight triangles, suggestive of a gaming board.

What is unusual about it?

Tombstones with Latin inscriptions are common enough in Britain but this one is written in Greek hexameter verse, and it is extremely rare to find any type of Greek inscription at the very northern edge of the Roman Empire. The poem commemorates a boy called Hermes from Commagene, northern Syria, where Greek was spoken in the Roman period. It may be translated:

Should any traveller chance to see sixteen-year-old Hermes of Commagene, foredoomed by fate to the grave, let him speak as follows: "My greetings to you, boy, fast though you passed your mortal life; for you flew to the land of the Cimmerian-speaking folk." And you won’t be wrong, for he was a good, chaste-living boy.

The Greek script is also unusual: the letters are very tall and narrow, and some of them are curiously rounded. Early readers of the inscription thought it might be Runic (derived from Greek), but eventually recognized it as Greek and managed to translate it.

What was a Syrian doing in Cumbria?

Hermes is likely to have had some connection with the Roman army, whether as a soldier or some form of military servant. There is certainly evidence from the area of Hadrian’s Wall, including altars to a ‘Syrian goddess’, to suggest that Syrians were among the troops garrisoned there at various times. Another possibility is that he served in the Roman equivalent of the post-office: a large number of lead seals from letters or packets have been found at Brough, prompting the theory that the fort served as a kind of postal depot on the cross-country route from York to Carlisle.

Who were the Cimmerians?

The Cimmerians were traditionally associated with the area of the Black Sea, specifically the Bosphorus; however, it seems their name could also be used more loosely to evoke ‘the furthest north’, a mystical land beyond the ends of the actual world.

What date is the stone?

The script suggests a date in the 3rd century AD, which is also the date of most of the Brough sealings mentioned above.

The Fitzwilliam Museum : Object in Focus

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