Burial Practice in Roman Chester – The Intact Grave of Flavius Callimorphus and his son Serapion

When you walk through the Grosvenor Museum into the gallery containing the tombstones, the light dims and you enter another age. The stones are arranged in rows on either side of you, as if you are walking on a Roman road out of Deva. The walls are brilliantly painted to appear as the Roman landscape. On the right hand-side of the ‘road’ is the unassuming tombstone of an older man and a young boy.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Figure 1 Callimorphus lays on the couch whilst holding his son Serapion. Under the couch is a tripod with a small bird and a carrot-shaped amphora. (Authors photograph)

The Grave

Found in 1874, the entire grave was found intact. It contained two skeletons, a gold ring and a coin of Domitian, this coin allows us to date the grave to around the end of the 1st century AD and the beginning of the 2nd. This means that these individuals were among the earliest known non-Britons to inhabit the fortress and surrounding area.

The Tombstone

The sculpture on this tomb is in the style of a funerary banquet. Both Callimorphus and Serapion are represented, Callimorphus on the couch and Serapion in his arms. The couch is a tripod table and next to that is a carrot-shaped amphora, the shape of which indicates that it was meant for dried fruit. On the table stands a small bird, often used as a metaphor for the journey of the soul to the afterlife.

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Figure 2 The inscription runs “To the spirits of the departed (and) of Flavius Callimorphus, (who) lived 42 years, and of Serapion (who) lived 3 years, 6 months. Thesaeus had this set up to brother and son.” (translation provided by RIB, Authors own photograph)

The inscription tells us that Callimorphus’ brother Thesaeus set up the tombstone. The inscription is somewhat ambiguous, and it is hard to tell if Serapion is the nephew or son of Thesaeus, but in post I will continue to say Serapion is the son of Callimorphus.

Travellers in a strange land?

The three names on the tombstone are Greek. This could mean one of two things: they were the freedman of someone from Deva or they Greek merchants taking advantage of trade on the frontier. Of course, the inscription is written in Latin, but a name is central to the identity of a person, a badge that marks someone out. And the language of the inscription is not as important as it would seem since the stone craver would have likely known only the one language.

The name of the child, Serapion is especially interesting, as its etymological root is in the name of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. This cult was invented by the Ptolemaic monarchy circa 300 BC as a way of creating syncretism between the Greek and Egyptian pantheons. This didn’t work, but the cult proved popular with the Greeks and spread throughout the Mediterranean.

I think the idea that they were traders has the most evidence to confirm it. The tomb is located slightly to the west of the fortress overlooking the pier and the port, an area that would have been important for them, their jobs and their livelihood.

The amphora on the tombstone clearly meant something to the deceased, and on other male banqueting scenes, there is often an indication as to their vocation (see forthcoming post on Aurelius Luciananus, view his tombstone here). This, taken with the well carved stone and the gold ring found in the grave, would suggest they were traders of some means. Of course, apart from the name, it is hard to discern their ethnicity from the other available evidence. But if we look at what we do have and except the circumstantial evidence (their profession, the meaning of Serapion’s name and the Greek’s reputation as traders), it seems that the image that is being presented to us, is of successful traders of Greek origin who suffered a great family tragedy.

Conclusions

‘Identity is what is draped over a person by the groups of which he or she is part’ (Meskell 1999, .32)

Identity is like a rope made up of many different strands: Father, Brother, Trader, Greek, Provincial. The choice of iconography in the tomb of Callimorphus and Serapion is meant to highlight the strands most important to him, his family and his job. Apart from the names, the ethnicity of them is not mentioned, perhaps this means that is it not an important part of their identity, since traders would have travelled and perhaps didn’t see an intense connection with their ethnicity.

Bibliography

Eckardt, H. 2014 Objects and Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Henig, M. 1984 Religion in Roman Britain. London: B T Batsford Ltd.

Mason, D.J.P. 2001 Roman Chester: City of Eagles. Stroud: Tempus.

Meskell, L. 1999 Archaeologies of social life. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 15/07/2018) –
https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/
Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain, RIB 558 (accessed 15/07/2018) –
https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/558

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Figure 1 Callimorphus lays on the couch whilst holding his son Serapion. (Authors own photograph)

Figure 2 Incription (Authors own photograph)

2 thoughts on “Burial Practice in Roman Chester – The Intact Grave of Flavius Callimorphus and his son Serapion

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