I was very taken with the news yesterday of the recent recovery of a Roman silver disc near Swaffham, Norfolk. The disc (0.46 g, 11 mm) has been interpreted as a bezel and is thought to have been part of a finger ring. It also features ‘a diademed head engraved in intaglio’ with a ‘retrograde and somewhat garbled legend ANTONI VIVAS IN DEO’.
“The formula VIVAS IN DEO is a Christian one, the translation of this inscription being ‘Antonius, may you live in God‘. The fact that the letters are retrograde and engraved in intaglio would have made the bezel suited for use as a signet.”
Such an inscription dates the ring to sometime in the mid-late fourth/possibly early fifth century AD, making it a member of known, but relatively rare British examples of a personal object carrying overt Christian association. The formulaic vivas in deo on such rings has been previously interpreted as perhaps indicating gifts associated with Christian conversion or milestones in life.
Seeking Early Christianity
While Christianity in Fourth Century Romano-Britain is archaeologically attested, it nevertheless remains elusive. Church buildings, whatever they may have looked like, are few and far between. There are several high status mosaics with Christian iconography, monogrammed objects, such as spoons and lead tanks, some stone inscriptions and some references in curse tablets. While such evidence indicates the presence of Christian symbolism, it doesn’t always provide us with a clear insight into the extent of individual belief and ritual expression. Which is why I find this particular example so interesting.
Public V Private ‘Profile’
There’s something intriguing about having an overt Christian invocation on an object that would have been worn daily; unlike many of the more stationary or specialised objects above. It’s an artefact that is not only designed to be close to its wearer at all times, but also one that carries a personal dedication (if a gift, from one to another) or perhaps, a private reminder of religious blessing/protection (if it was an individuals own desire). At 11mm and affixed to a ring on a regularly moving hand, it would not have been very visible at the best of times, something which underlines the element of personal intimacy along with the given name. As such, it is not something that would have overtly identified its owner as a Christian.
Or is it?
As mentioned above, ‘the fact that the letters are retrograde and engraved in intaglio would have made the bezel suited for use as a signet.’ If it was ever used in such a way, then the impression made by the ring bezel would have taken on a different ‘life’ of its own when transferred to another medium (wax). Given the overt depiction of romanitas and the silver content, the ring is likely to have belonged to an owner of some means and rank in life. Someone who would have perhaps had need to communicate with others over long distances.Viewed in this way, this single object represents a potential for multiple copies of itself on a fairly regular basis, transported along commercial, military or bureaucratic networks and received & perceived by many along the way.
‘Find Other Friends Who Like This’
Aside from identifying its authenticator, it would have obviously transmitted the Christian formula as well. As such, it could perhaps be read as being a blessing/protection being sent by Antonius, as well as for him. To the receiver, as well as the bearer. Of course, that is not to say that everyone, particularly non-Christians, would have recognised it for what it was; although interestingly, there are examples of similar rings with representations of Mercury and such like. Yet even if there was a lack of awareness in pagan eyes, its invocation would surely have been recognised by contemporary Christian observers, regardless of any previous association, or lack of, with the sender. Seen in such a light, the object itself in somewhat transformed. On a physical level, it naturally acts as an archaeological witness in and of itself. Yet its design and capacity for replication on more malleable form and multiple media, reminds us of equally important (although long vanished) attributes of the same.
An Early Christian ‘Facebook’ Status: Extending ‘Reach’
This raises several interesting prospects. Are we looking at a small example of one of the many ways in which awareness of Christianity spread within the empire? Almost certainly. Are we perhaps looking at a method of Christian networking among higher levels of society? A case of a Christian ‘calling card’ that identified its owner as a member of a shared group identity? It’s certainly possible. In the early days of ‘official’ Christianity in the empire – post Constantine – the rapid spread of the religion among certain high status groups is likely to have been viewed as a smart political and commercial move, aside from any private religious motivation. Even if Antonius himself had not been a deeply committed Christian, his use of such an invocation/dedication (if indeed, transmitted) nevertheless suggests an interest in portraying/utilising an audience that certainly may have been.
It is this portrayal that is perhaps most interesting. While the object provides a rare opportunity of viewing public expression of an intertwined personal and religious identity in late antiquity; its capacity for redistribution and transmission of the same to a wider, potentially ‘unfamiliar’ audience suggests an ease and willingness to so without civic or cultural concern. As such, it acts as a testimony to a very interesting period of Roman Britain and early western Christianity itself, one which apparently saw Christian identities (however small, or exclusive they may have been) operating in relative ‘normality’ alongside other religious identities. A fleeting glimpse, perhaps, of the slow but steady pace of its spread to the fringes of the Roman empire itself; and of course, once there, its eventual transportation beyond.
A Legacy in the Making
To those of you wondering what the hell this has to do with Early Irish Christianity? In a way, nothing and everything. Nothing, in the sense that we are looking at a distant figure in isolation and remove on a neighboring island. Everything, in the sense that whatever seeds were being sown in fourth century Norfolk and elsewhere in Britain would go on to form the character, avenues and makeup of the earliest Christianity introduced to Ireland. Of course, the earliest direct evidence and expression of Christian identity in this island takes the form of epistles written by a similarly high status Romano-Briton who went by the name of Patricius.
Would he have had something similar, I wonder.
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Brown, P. (2003) The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Darch, E (2013) NMS-0B5BB1 A ROMAN FINGER RING Webpage available at: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/547965 [Accessed: 20 Aug 2013 01:38:17]
Petts, D. (2003) Christianity in Roman Britain. Stroud: Tempus.
Thomas, C. (1981) Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 ; London : Batsford Academic and Educational.