Sunday, 7 July 2013

Classicianus: the man who saved Britain for Rome?

In 1885, workmen on London's District Line close to Tower Hill unearthed a block of stone with a Latin inscription. It appeared to be part of a funerary monument that had been reused in the construction of London's defensive wall in the 4th Century AD. It matched a fragment that had been discovered more than thirty years earlier. A further fragment of the same tombstone came to light in 1935. Placing the fragments together brings us face-to-face with one of the largest Roman funerary monuments ever found in Britain. Who could have merited commemoration on this scale?

The inscription can be translated as follows:

"To the spirits of the departed, (and) of Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, son of Gaius, of the Fabian Voting Tribe...Procurator of the Province of Britain. Julia Pacata I[ndiana], daughter of Indus, his wife had this built."

Museums in the UK have many Roman tombstones with similar inscriptions, but it is very rare that they can be matched up with individuals known to us from the historical record. This one can.

The procurator was, in effect, the finance minister of a Roman province. Like the military governor, he reported directly to the emperor, in this case Nero. This particular procurator arrived in Britain in 61 AD, in the aftermath of Boudicca's revolt. His predecessor, Catus Decianus, had deserted his post and fled to Gaul. Classicianus would have arrived to find London, Colchester and St Albans razed to the ground, and tensions still running high. The governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was engaged in punitive actions against the British tribes, determined to take revenge for the destruction of the Roman cities.

Classicianus seems to have believed that diplomacy, rather than revenge, was the best policy, and he made his views known to the emperor. The historian, Tacitus, writes scathingly of his intervention:

"Julius Classicianus, who had been sent as successor to Catus, and was at variance with Suetonius, let private animosities interfere with the public interest, and had spread an idea that [the Britons] ought to wait for a new governor who, having neither the anger of an enemy nor the pride of a conqueror, would deal mercifully with those who surrendered."

Nero sent his freedman, Polyclitus, to hold an enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the revolt. Shortly afterwards, Suetonius Paulinus was recalled to Rome, not in disgrace exactly, but neither did he receive the Triumphal Ornaments he might have expected. The new governor, Publius Petronius Turpilianus, seems to have agreed with Classicianus's policy of quiet pacification. Britain's place within the empire was secured. The outcome could have been very different.

Classicianus was, by origin, a Gaul from the Moselle Valley. The culture of his parents and grandparents might not have been so very different from that of the native Britons, and he may even have been able to converse with them in something approximating to their own language. Perhaps this was what gave him the empathy that allowed him to build bridges with the native population, where his predecessors had stirred up so much resentment?

A procurator would normally have served for four or five years before returning to Rome. Classicianus, however, must have died in office. Did he fall victim to an infectious disease, was his death an accident, or was he murdered? We will probably never know.

He features as a character in my novel, An Accidental King, and, as one of the launch events for the book, I will point out his monument, and a number of other objects that feature in it, at the British Museum on 12th July. We will meet in the Great Court at 6.15 PM, beside the naked equestrian statue in the south-east corner. Afterwards we will adjourn to Truckles in Pied Bull Yard (directions at, where I will give a reading. Admission to the British Museum is free. Welcome drinks on arrival at Truckles, cash bar thereafter.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment