A tiny fragment of a Roman jar that once held olive oil produced in what is now southern Spain has left archaeologists delighted, puzzled and “saucer-eyed” after they deciphered a quote from the ancient poet Virgil that was cut into its clay by an unknown hand 1,800 years ago.
The highly unusual find, thought to be the first time a literary quotation has been discovered on a Roman amphora, was turned up by researchers from the universities of Córdoba, Seville and Montpellier who were excavating a site in the town of Hornachuelos, in Andalucía’s Córdoba province, seven years ago.
Given that the ceramic vessels were routinely engraved with information relating to producers, quantities and taxes, and that vast numbers of Roman pottery fragments have been found, the team paid little attention to the 6cm by 8cm shard. Córdoba produced and bottled much of the olive oil sent to Rome.
However, further examination has revealed that the fragment contains a quote from Virgil, best known as the author of the Aeneid.
The line – “[Earth] once changed the/Chaonian acorn for the plump wheat-ear/
And mingled with the grape [your newfound gift]” – is taken from the first section of Virgil’s second major work, the Georgics.
“Virgil was the most popular poet of his time and for many subsequent centuries,” the University of Córdoba said. “The Aeneid was taught in school and many generations were set the task of writing out its verses on their slates.”
But why, wondered the researchers, did the line of poetry end up on an amphora? And why the Georgics instead of the better-known Aeneid?
“It was then that they realised that that little piece of pottery could be something truly unique and extraordinarily valuable,” the university said. “Verses from Virgil had never been documented before on an amphora used in the olive oil trade.”
The archaeologists’ key theory, as published in the Journal of Roman Archeology, is that the verses, written on the lower part of the amphora, were not really intended to be seen.
“[Perhaps] the person who wrote them just wanted to demonstrate their knowledge and culture, something that shows a certain degree of literacy in the Guadalquivir Valley, which was a rural area,” the university said.
“But who was that person? As far as the authors are concerned, there are a few possibilities: it could have been a skilled worker at the ceramic factory who had some level of literacy, or it could have been someone from a nearby village who was related to one of the aristocratic families who owned the business. There is also the possibility that the verses were written by a child labourer, as the existence of such workers in these establishments has previously been documented.”
According to the journal article, the fragment is the first example of an amphora with literary content, making it “of exceptional interest for archaeologists, epigraphists, and philologists of [colloquial] Latin.”
Sam Jones in Madrid
Published: 2023-06-21 12:30:18