Iconography and Identity: Curatia Dinysia

During the early 3rd century AD, Chester experienced a huge upheaval in terms of the building work and the quality of the architecture and the archaeological remains. This coincided with the campaigns of the Severan Emperors in Northern Britain, and the reinvigorating impact this had on the towns and fortresses on the Frontier.

During this period there was an increase in the number of tombstones of women, perhaps an effect of the urbanisation occurring at Chester (Mason 2001). This allows us to explore the lives of these women and how they either wanted themselves presented or how others presented them.

Curatia Dinysia
Figure 1 Tombstone Curatia Dinysia, a funerary banquet scene, a motif common in Chester. “To the spirits of the departed, Curatia Dinysia lived 40 years; her heir had this erected.” RIB 562. On Display at the Grosvenor Museum (Authors own photograph)

One of the aims of this project is to explore the lives of individuals, and what benefits it brings to archaeology. In examining the tombstone of Curatia Dinysia I hope to gain a well-rounded picture of the individual, which I can then put into the context of the world in which she lived.

Initially the inscription doesn’t seem very revealing, following the pattern of Roman Inscription, which are lacking in information regarding women; only ten percent of Roman inscriptions refer to women (Allason-Jones 1989). But using the limited information available, we can make educated suggestions about her life and social status.

“…lived 40 years; her heir had this erected.”

I’ve paired these two pieces of information together since they create a picture of a women who upper class. Life expectancy in Roman Britain was lower than today, and 40 years for a women is quite old by those standards, and the correlation between a greater age and greater wealth are well known (Allason-Jones 1989). The fact she was able to afford such a well decorated tomb and have an heir corroborate the fact she may have been wealthy.

The question of where Dinysia’s wealth came from is an interesting one and examining Roman property laws helps gain a clearer picture of the possibilities. Inherited wealth is quite likely and given her age and the Roman convention of men marrying younger women, she may have gained it from her husband. Technically, this money would be under the control of her closest male relative, but in practise women seemed to have a lot of financial independence (Allason-Jones 1989; Grubbs 2002). Thus, her ability to leave a will.

This short extract of the inscription gives us the means to explore her place in Chester and reveals a town that has built on its military foundations to create a thriving civilian settlement. Dinysia represents a part of the population that is sometimes overlooked when looking at Roman Britain, the middling small-town dweller.

What’s in a name?

In the archaeology of Roman Britain, names are often used as geographic indicators, allowing use to pinpoint where a person came from. As discussed in Callimorphus and Serapion, Greek sounding names may also indicate a slave or a freedman. It has often been said that ‘Dinysia’ is a mason’s slip for ‘Dionysia’ (Vanderbilt 2017), but regardless that part of her name is Greek in origin. If this is the case and she is a Freedwomen (who also happens to be quite wealthy) it is suggestive of the fact that she may have married her master. This is a relatively common phenomenon, the most famous example from Britain is Regina who married the Palmyrene Barates (RIB 1065).

It has been suggested that tombstones were of “particular relevance to immigrants and outsiders to assert their identity” (Hope 1997. 246) If this is the case Dinysia is revelling in her difference, both as a women and as a freedwomen, both identities that are ‘outsiders.’ As a statement is shows ancient Chester as a place filled with social boundaries, but boundaries that are tested and sometimes encroached.

‘Curatia Dionysia’

611px-Mildenhall_treasure_great_dish_british_museum
Figure 2: Great Dish from Mildenhall. Centre: Green man or Oceanus. Inner Ring: Tritons and Nereids. Outer Ring: Adventures of Bacchus, featuring Satyrs, Maenads and Hercules.

As previously mentioned, Dinysia may have been a misspelling of Dionysia. What is especially interesting is the iconography present on her tomb is associated with the cult of Bacchus. The cult of Bacchus was a mystery cult (a religious sect that was only for the initiated) from Greece. They were popular since they created a more personal relationship with a god, since state religion focused on ritual and helping the state as opposed to the individual. Mystery cults were often associated with those who were downtrodden in Roman Society, particularly slaves and women, which fits in with our profile of Dinysia.

The main beliefs behind the cult were of escape and in the cycle of life and death, in other words an afterlife. A main part of the lore of Bacchus was his travels, and this is reflected in the iconography associated with the cult. The doves are representative of the release of the soul and the tritons are linked to the journey from the present world to the isles of Blessed, which they believed was inhabited by Bacchus. Other Bacchic objects carry a similar theme, such as the Mildenhall treasure, of a journey across the sea to a land of revelry.

Dinysia Inscription
Figure 3 Close-up of the inscription

The garlands which the Dove’s sit on are of ivy, one of the plants that are sacred to Bacchus and on the inscription itself there is an ivy leaf motif.

And of course, Dinysia herself is looking out at the viewer, cup of wine in hand watching over her own funerary feast, an act of eternal revelry. It’s safe to assume that Dinysia knew how to party!

Conclusions

During this period of Chester’s history, Rome’s grip on the province gets stronger and the material culture that survives suggests that the inhabitants adopted certain aspects of Roman culture. Though ‘Roman’ doesn’t necessarily mean it originated in Rome, since the funerary banquet scene originates from the legions stationed in the Rhine region (Anderson 1984).

In truth, Dinysia’s tombstone represents a transition from a wholly military site, to a mixed site for civilians and the military. It also reflects the cross-cultural connections that can take place on the edge of the empire.

*

Allason-Jones, L. 2008 Daily Life in Roman Britain. Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing.

Allason-Jones, L. 1989 Women in Roman Britain. London: British Museum Publications Ltd.

Anderson, A.S. 1984 Roman Military Tombstones. Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd.

Grubbs, J.E. 2002 Women and the law in the Roman Empire: a sourcebook on marriage, divorce and widowhood. London: Routledge.

Hope, V.M., 1997. Words and pictures: the interpretation of Romano-British tombstones. Britannia28, pp.245-258.

Hutchinson, V.J. 1986 The Cult of Bacchus in Roman Britain. In Pagan Gods and Shrines of the Roman Empire, eds. Martin, H and King, A. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology.  

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

Mattingly, D., 2004. Being Roman: expressing identity in a provincial setting. Journal of Roman archaeology17, pp.5-25.

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Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 12/09/2018) –
https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/

Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 12/09/2018) – https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/562

Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 12/09/2018) – https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/1065

*

Figure 1 Tombstone of Curatia Dinysia (Authors own photograph).

Figure 2 “Mildenhall Great Dish” by JMaill is licensed  under CC BY-SA 3.0 Via src=”https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mildenhall_treasure_great_dish_british_museum.JPG” /> Accessed 12/09/2018.

Figure 3 Inscription from the tombstone of Curatia Dinysia, courtesy of the Chester Archaeological Society, edited from original. accessed 12/09/2018 via –https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/562

 

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