From Chesterwiki
Jump to navigationJump to search
John Grenehalgh's original interpretation of the inscription on the altar.

In 1653, a large and beautiful altar of the local red sandstone was found in Foregate Street at a depth of “more than two ells” below the surface, while a cellar was being dug for the house of Richard Tyrer. The inscription has been in a very poor condition ever since the altar was discovered, because of the crumbling nature of the sandstone from which it is made. This was then not improved by the fact that after its initial discovery it remained exposed in Tyrer's garden for some years. Already in 1763, it seemed illegible to Chandler (Chandler, R. 1763: Marmora Oxoniensia, Oxford). Watkin (Watkin, W.T. 1886: Roman Cheshire, Liverpool) made engravings of the stone based upon photographs taken in 1884, which show some traces of lettering, but when examined by Hübner (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum,I–XVII, Berlin) only a few faint traces of lettering were visible, and it now seems largely illegible to the naked eye. There has been much discussion of what the actual inscription said. Unfortunately, one cannot see this altar in Chester today, it was given to Oxford University in 1675 and is now in the Ashmolean Museum. The original inscription is said to have read:


The altar employs commonly used abbreviations which would have been recognisable to most readers in Roman times. The Latin transcription is said to run (although there is some debate on this):

  • "Iovi Optimo Maximo Tanaro / Lucius Elufrius Galeria / Praesens Clunia / princeps legionis XX Valeriae Victricis / Commodo et / Laterano consulibus / votum solvit libens merito."

In modern English this would read:

  • "To Jupiter Best and Greatest Tanarus. Lucius Elufrius Praesens, of the voting tribe Galeria from Clunia, princeps of the 20th Legion Valeria Victrix, when Commodus and Lateranus were consuls, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow."

Modern analysis suggests that it is more like:

  • "To Jupiter Best and Greatest Tanarus. Titus Elupius(?) Praesens, of the Galerian voting-tribe, from Clunia, princeps of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix, in the consulship of Commodus and Lateranus, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow"

The Altar

One description of the altar reads as follows:

  • "The altar is of red sandstone, carved in relief, with a focus on top (h. 0.97; w. 0.45; d. 0.43). It is divided up into three main sections. On all sides, the topmost section is itself divided into three, with cylindrical bolsters followed by a border of egg-and-dart and then by another border depicting pairs of leaves. The central section is framed by an ornamental moulded frame, while on its four sides are the following: inscription (front); a small five-petalled flower inside a circular garland, or perhaps a libation-dish (rear); jug (left side); six-petalled flower (right side). The base section consists of another border depicting pairs of leaves and a roughly finished base."

It was found intact in Foregate Street, Chester in 1653. Its discovery was witnessed by chance by John Grenehalgh, Chief Master of the Free School and also a fairly competent amateur antiquarian, who recorded that the exact findspot was "Forrest-Street" (moderm Foregate Street), in the house of Richard Tyrer, just outside of the Eastgate near the end of St John Street. Grenehalgh immediately realised its Roman origins and returned the next day to transcribe the text, but was not over-confident of the accuracy of his transcription. Although the MS recounting his first encounter with the altar is now missing from Chester Chapter Library, MSS. in the Bodleian, together with Lansdowne MS. 843 in the British Library, preserve copies of Grenehalgh’s notes: in a postscript to MS Rawl., Grenehalgh explained that his original manuscript transcription of the inscription which he had made shortly after its discovery had become illegible by being handled so much, and so at the request of friends he had produced a new copy.

A sketch of the inscription on the altar when parts were still visible.

Even in taking an initial copy of the inscription errors seem to have crept in, with "LATERANO COS" being spread over two lines rather than being on a single line, and a "T" being inserted which may only be a contraction mark.

Dugdale steps in

The altar attracted much attention, with an exchange of letters between William Dugdale, Gerard Langbaine (Provost of Queen’s College Oxford) and antiquarian John Selden already in December 1653. The text of the inscription had been sent to Langbaine by Dugdale, and he in turn sent it to Selden. Langbaine replied:

  • "Thank you for communicating that inscription from Chester which I easily read thus jovi Optimo Maximo Tamaro T Elypius Galerius præfens Gumia Primcipibus Legionis Vicefimæ Veteramus votum folvit libens merito But what to make of jupiter Tanarus and what Place for I take it to be the Name of a Place This Point after the a in Gunia implies the Word is not writ at length is meant by Gunia though I might conjecture yet I dare not determine Í have sent your Copy to Mr Selden telling him from whom I had it what he shall return concerning it you shall know by the next."

Selden replied that he had already received five or six different copies of it:

  • "That inscription of Chester I think I have received by five or six Hands and this which you have is agreeable in Substance they being written from the Stone save that your Elypius is Elupius It is true Tamarus I think occurs no where else But considering the Slips of Cutters or the soon and usual mistaking to such a degree of a Name though there might be a jupiter Tamarus as well as another and I cannot doubt but such additional Names were multiplied to many of the Gods that appear not now in books there being so many of them lost yet probably enough this might be jupiter Taramis who in Lucam is a Gaulish and also a British God and in some Copies Tarami as is thought from Tamar easier to let slip with a little Anagram in Welch Thunder and to Thunder For GVNIA I am yet at a Nonplus."
The Taranis altar on display at the Grosvenor Museum in 2020, on loan from the Ashmolean.

This perhaps explains Watkin’s misleading claim that the earliest description of the altar was in a manuscript of Sir William Dugdale. A transcription was also sent by Dr William Holder, sub-dean of the Chapel Royal (1674–89), to John Aubrey. Grenehalgh’s reading of the inscription formed the basis of Prideaux’s text (Prideaux, H. 1676: Marmora Oxoniensia ex Arundellianis, Seldenianis aliisque conflata, Oxford), since already by 1675 the inscription had become very faint. Local antiquarian Randle Holme also made a transcription and gave the earliest account of the altar in print; his edition is distinctive in providing a drawing of just the altar itself, indicating reliefs and decorative features, followed by a separate drawing of the inscription.

The altar was given to Oxford University in 1675 by Sir Francis Cholmondeley, who had been awarded an MA from Brasenose in 1669, and belonged to the local landowning family from Vale Royal. In 1931, it was on display in The Arundel Vestibule on the Ground Floor of the Ashmolean Museum (just inside the front door). It is currently on display in the gallery "From Ark to Ashmolean". One description of the altar suggests that it had a piece of iron filled into the top surface, but this may have been a addition made while it stood in the garden at Chester. possibly for some purpose such as the base of a sundial or bird-bath.

"Jupiter Taranus, Best and Greatest"

The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (IOM) was the most important temple in Ancient Rome, located on the Capitoline Hill. It had a cathedral-like position in the official religion of Rome, and was surrounded by the Area Capitolina, a precinct where certain assemblies met, and numerous shrines, altars, statues and victory trophies were displayed.

Selden notes that the inscription reads "TANARO" and gives forth the opinion that this is meant to be "TARANUS" due to a sculpting error ("the Slips of Cutters"). A possible alternative explanation is that this is actually meant to read "TANARO" which is the name of a river in northern Italy that flows into the Po.

Many sources suggest that in Celtic mythology "Taranis" is the god of thunder who was worshipped primarily in Gaul, Gallaecia, Britain, Ireland but also in the Rhineland and Danube regions, amongst others. "Taranis", possibly along with Esus and Toutatis as part of a sacred triad, was mentioned by the Roman poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (3 November 39 AD – 30 April 65 AD), better known in English as Lucan. His epic poem Pharsalia names "Taranis" as a Celtic deity to whom human sacrificial offerings were made. Lucan is the briefest of sources for Taranis - he only writes: "Teutates horrensque feris altaribus Esus Et Taranis Scythicae non mitior ara Dianae".(Pharsalia, I. 445-446) which may be translated as "..Savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, And Taranis’ altars cruel as were those Loved by Diana..". This is clearly the reference made by Selden.

Lucan does seem to have gotten the form of the Gaulish name wrong. The Orgon stone (found at Orgon in the ancient territory of the Salluvii) is the only direct attestation of this name in Gaul. Its text, written in Gaulish in the Greek alphabet, runs as follows:

  • ΥΗΒΡΟΥΜΑΡΟС / ΔΕΔΕ ΤΑΡΑΝΟΟΥ / ΒΡΑΤΟΥ ΔΕΚΑΝΤΕΜ (Vebrumaros gratefully dedicated a tithe to Taranus)

The word is Ταρανοου — equivalent to Taranou in Latin characters — whose dative ending -ou indicates a u-stem declension. The correct nominative form is therefore Taranus.

Taranus was associated, as was the cyclops Brontes ("thunder") in Greek mythology, with the wheel. The name "Tanaris" as recorded by Lucan is a "one off" and unattested epigraphically, but variants of the name include the forms Tanarus, Taranucno-, Taranuo-, and Taraino-. The name is continued in Irish as Tuireann, and is likely connected with those of the Norse Thor, Anglo-Saxon Þunor and German Donar. In other words, a god of thunder. The reconstructed Proto-Celtic form of the name is *Toranos "thunder". In present-day Welsh taranu and taran means 'to thunder' and 'thunder' (taraniñ and taran in Breton and taran in Cornish). And, of course, "Thor's-day" in English is the German "Donnerstag" and the French "jeudi".

Bearded "Jupiter Tanaris" with thunderbolt in one hand and wheel in the other.

Human sacrifices to Taranis were supposedly made by burning prisoners. Taranis has been identified as the deity to whom both Julius Caesar and Strabo describe human sacrifices being offered by being burnt alive in ‘wicker men’. However, modern archaeological research has not yielded much evidence of human sacrifice among the Celts, and the ancient Greco-Roman sources are now regarded somewhat skeptically, especially considering the likelihood that Greeks and Romans "were eager to transmit any bizarre and negative information" about the Celts at a time when the latter were feared and disdained.

The wheel, more specifically the chariot wheel with six or eight spokes, was an important symbol in historical Celtic polytheism, apparently associated with a specific god, known as the "wheel-god", identified as the sky- sun- or thunder-god, whose name is attested as Taranis by Lucan. Numerous Celtic coins also depict such a wheel often with a horse: the theory being that the sybolism is associated with the rumble (thunder) and sparks (lightning) of an iron-shod chariot wheel. Symbolic votive wheels were offered at shrines (such as in Alesia), cast in rivers (such as the Seine), buried in tombs or worn as amulets since the Middle Bronze Age. Such "wheel pendants" from the Bronze Age usually had four spokes, and are commonly identified as solar symbols or "sun cross". Artefacts parallel to the Celtic votive wheels or wheel-pendants are the so-called Zierscheiben in a Germanic context. The identification of the Sun with a wheel, or a chariot, has parallels in Germanic, Greek and Vedic mythology (In 2013 a British combat drone system developed by defence contractor BAE Systems was named Taranis in reference to the Celtic god).

On one side of the Chester altar is the image of a flower, while the opposite side shows what might be interpreted as a wheel, but could equally well be a garland.

"Lucius of Clunia"

The original reading of the name is " L ELVFRIVS" (or "ELVPIVS") which was interpreted as "Lucius Elufrius" (of which the second part is not a known Roman name). However modern analysis suggests that the line should be read "T(itus) Elupius Galer(ia tribu)" or even that the name is "TITUS LUPIUS".

Modern analysis also supports the reading CLVNIA rather than GVNTA or GVNTIA or some other variant as suggested by Langbaine, Selden and others. The Roman city of Clunia, in the province of Burgos (Spain) was in the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis and was founded on a mount a short distance from a settlement called Cluniaco, or Kolounioukou, belonging to the Arevaci, a Pre-Roman tribe that belonged to the family of Celtiberians.

As for the rest of the inscription, the princeps of a legion followed the primus pilus as second in order of seniority. The centurions of the First Cohort of a legion were in order of seniority (i) Primus Pilus, (ii) Princeps, (iii) Hastatus, (iv) Princeps Posterior, (v) Hastatus Posterior; and Vegetius. According to ancient custom the princeps was always selected for promotion to primus pilus.

The consulship of Commodus and Lateranus was a.d. 154. L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus was L. Verus (joint emperor 161-9). So the altar was set up the year that the Antonine Wall was completed across what is now the Central Belt of Scotland, between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. Representing the northernmost frontier barrier of the Roman Empire, it spanned approximately 63 kilometres (39 miles) and was about 3 metres (10 feet) high and 5 metres (16 feet) wide.

Where From?

Just where a second centurion of Legio XX Valeriae Victricis could have picked-up the cult of Taranis is difficult to work out, but there appear to be three choices: at home in Clunia, from a tradition established in XX Valeriae Victricis or locally. Altars with an express dedication to Taranis are extremely rare, with examples other than the Orgon stone having been found at Heilbronn (Germany), Skradin/Scardona (Croatia) and Chester. Another altar, from Alt Often in Hungary, is dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus Taranucus, although this may be a reference to the dedicator by name - "son of Taranus": altars with a wheel/solar symbol are more common.

XX Valeriae Victricis was probably founded after 31 BCE by the emperor Augustus, who may have integrated older units into this new legion. Its first assignment was in Hispania Tarraconensis, where it took part in Augustus' campaigns against the Cantabrians, which lasted from 25-13 BCE. This was one of the largest wars the Romans ever fought. Among the other troops involved were I Germanica, II Augusta, IIII Macedonica, V Alaudae, VI Victrix, VIIII Hispana, X Gemina, and perhaps VIII Augusta. At least some subunits of XX Valeria Victrix were transferred to Burnum on the Balkans as early as 20, with the entire unit being sent to the Balkans before the beginning of the common era. Later, the unit was part of the army of general Germanicus, who led three punitive campaigns into "free" Germania. In 21, a mixed subunit of XX Valeria Victrix and XXI Rapax, commanded by an officer from I Germanica, was sent out to suppress the rebellion of the Turoni in Gaul. More than twenty years layer, in 43, the emperor Claudius invaded Britain with II Augusta, VIIII Hispana, XIV Gemina and XX Valeria Victrix. Its first legionary fortress was in Camulodunum (modern Colchester), the capital of the Trinovantes. After 48, it was stationed at Kingsholm in Gloucester, and in 57, it moved to Usk. In the civil war of the year 69, it sided with the emperor Vitellius. Several subunits took part in his march on Rome, and returned after the victory of Vespasian. In 75, XX Valeria Victrix was transferred to Wroxeter, from where, governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola led it to the north. Agricola used the legion also during his campaigns in the Scottish highlands (78-84). The soldiers were temporary garrisoned at Carlisle, and finally moved to Inchtuthill in Perthshire. However, in 88, the legion was ordered to return to England, where it found a new base at Deva: Roman Chester. Soldiers of the Twentieth were active in the construction of Hadrian's wall (122-125) and the Antonine wall (c.140). In the years between 155 and 158, a widespread revolt occured in northern Britain, requiring heavy fighting by the British legions. They suffered severely, and reinforcements had to be brought in from the two Germanic provinces. We hear nothing else of "Titus Lupius" and while that might be expected given the scarcity of Roman records it is possible that as a front-line centurion he was a casualty of war during the 155-158 revolt.

Related Pages

Sources and Links