This Week’s Puzzler

 

CORINUM MUSEUM CIRENCESTERRoman acrostic or word square scratched on wall plaster and containing a secret Christian message

CORINUM MUSEUM CIRENCESTER
Roman acrostic or word square scratched on wall plaster and containing a secret Christian message

We were back in the West Country for Christmas, and we went to Bath for the day. I hadn’t seen the Roman Baths for 20 years or so, and was curious to see how this site had been developed, since I remembered it as pretty cramped and BANES being not exactly a by word for quality visitor experience. The tourist stream must be incessant (as, presumably, it has been since the baths were founded 2000 years ago; plus ca change etc), and that’s difficult to handle. One thing that has always been wonderful about the baths (apart from the raw energy of the hot spring, which is an astounding thing to see on a cold grey December day in England) are the lead curses that Romano-British patrons of the baths and their attendant temples would throw into the healing and sacred waters. The messages are so immediate and present. That got to me thinking about this card, which is from the excelent Corinuim Musem in Cirencester. The Cotswolds were the play ground of the rich and monied upper classes in Roman Britain (plus ca change etc), and Cirencester (Corinium) was the richest city outside of London.

So this litle acrostic is a fun graffito from that time; and immediate record of an individual long dead; something never meant for anyone’s eyes other than the person who wrote. I’m going to be making liberal use of Wikipedia here, but here goes:

R  O  T  A  S

O  P  E  R  A

T  E  N  E  T

A  R  E  P  O

S  A  T  O  R

My card calls it an acrostic, Wikipedia calls it a pallindrome, I call it something that reads the same whichever way you look at it: Rotas (thing with a wheel), Opera (working), Tenet (has commands, preserves), Arepo ( a creeping thing, a proper names of some kind), Sator (the master, sower, the first principle).

This includes opposite and alternating directions; since Latin has no set word order, it still reads the same: ‘farmer Arepo uses a plough’. The literature on the Sator Square appears to be vast (just go to the Wikipedia page, already), especially concerning the proper name Arepo, which, apparently appears no where else (which means it’s code?A made up name?); but if it’s so famous (the Sator Square appearing from Pompeii to Cirencester to Manchester to Sienna to Dura Europos to the island of Gotland) then why didn’t people start adopting it as an actual name?

It’s been used for magic (such word play confuses the Devil, apparently), but also, it says here. contains a secret Christian message. The centre cross can be read as the first two words of the Pater Noster (Our Father, who art in heaven etc), surrounded by A and O; Alpha and Omega. As such, it could be a Christian code, something that you’d write on a wall to tell other Christians that there were Christians about, or, more simply, something that one might idly scratch to affirm ones own identity, a tag. And, as it did spread across the entire Mediterranean world and beyond, over hundreds of years, it might be earliest example of what we all now call a meme…

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