Two inscribed metal tablets discovered in York were left as offerings by a Greek traveller whose exploratory mission to islands off the coast of first-century Britain is described by Plutarch.
That’s according to new analysis which considers the information contained within the artefacts, and their broader historical context, in unprecedented detail. It revives a link between the tablets and the ancient author Plutarch’s Demetrius of Tarsus that was first made in Victorian times but had fallen out of favour as insufficiently supported and too good to be true.
If the identification is accepted, the tablets — which may have been hung on the walls of a shrine or on devotional statues or statuettes — are extraordinarily rare examples of Roman artefacts that can be linked to an individual known from literature who was not an emperor, empress, general or politician.
The tablets, at the Yorkshire Museum in York, were uncovered in 1840, during digging at the site of the city’s old railway station. This means they were not excavated using modern methods that enable dating through analysis of different layers. Dr Kelsey Koon, of the University of Alberta, the study’s author, said: “Archaeology is all about context. It’s not only the thing you find, but where you find it, how deep it is, and what other things are with it. And also the general temporal and physical milieu. One of the things that can cause problems with Roman Britain, specifically, is that early investigations took place at a time when techniques and tactics were different.”
So, what is known for certain about the tablets? They are copper-alloy and were once covered in silver. They were unearthed stuck together through oxidation but were originally separate artefacts. The inscriptions are in Greek, with the letters picked out in punched holes. They are in fact the only known examples from Roman Britain of Greek written on metal in this punched dots. The inscription on the larger tablet, which is about the size of a credit card, reads: “To the gods of the hegemon’s headquarters; scrib[. . .] Demetrios”. That on the smaller tablet says: “To Oceanus and Tethys; Demetri(os)”
The dedicator was identified by 19th-century scholars as Demetrius of Tarsus: a grammarian, or specialist in grammar and literature, who features in a dialogue by the Greek philosopher, historian and priest Plutarch. In De Defectu Oraculorum, “On the Failure of Oracles”, Demetrius is one of two “revered men coming from opposite ends of the inhabited earth” who meet at Delphi. The sacred site northwest of Athens was thought to be the centre of the world and was the seat of a famous female oracle for centuries.
In Plutarch’s late first-century account, Demetrius has returned from a special mission to Britain, ordered by the Roman emperor, while the other man, Cleombrotus of Sparta, has travelled in Egypt and “beyond the Persian Gulf”. In the view of Victorian antiquarians, it was fitting that Plutarch’s Demetrius should have dedicated an offering to the Titans Oceanus and Tethys at the western end of the Earth. Alexander the Great had set up altars to the same deities at the Mouth of the Indus in the remote East.
It is an attractive idea, but the identification of Demetrius has been challenged for decades. This is partly because the larger settlements of Roman Britain were cosmopolitan places, inhabited by people from across the empire. To assume that the dedicator of offerings in York and Plutarch’s Demetrius were one and the same due to a matching name appeared a leap too far.
Seeking to settle the question, Koon — who teaches Latin, Roman history and archaeology, and Greco-Roman mythology — cast her net widely. She explained: “We don’t have the digging context for these mysterious but very interesting artefacts. However, we do have more of a metatextual content. We can look at what the tablets say, which gives us a little bit of information. And then we have the way in which they were created, which adds more information. The first step is analysing the broad pool of evidence from across Roman Britain about this type of writing and these types of artefacts.”
For her study, published in the Archaeological Journal, she first identified all nine votive inscriptions in the Greek language known from Roman Britain. She found that these clustered on the militarised northern frontier, at locations such as Chester, South Shields and York. As such, she noted an association with the Roman military establishment, which would have included soldiers and hangers on from Greek-speaking eastern provinces.
Turning to the 93 known examples of punched-dot inscriptions from Roman Britain, the vast majority in Latin, she shows that these were also associated with the military. In fact, the technique was commonly used by soldiers to mark military equipment and weapons with their names, as well as in their votive inscriptions.
Again studying their physical characteristics, both tablets have the shape of “ansate” frames, with dovetail handles. Although used quite widely for inscriptions, Koon said the form has military connotations and was popularised through labels on trophies carried in triumphal processions.
In her analysis, the reference to the “hegemon’s headquarters” (ἡγεμονικοῦ πραιτωρίου) must refer to the HQ at York of a senior military leader, such as a legate, or a provincial governor. The fragment scrib…, or ΣΚΡΙΒ…, would refer to Demetrius’ role as a scriba: a public clerk, secretary or other official tasked with writing.
All of this suggests that Demetrius at York was a Greek-speaking scriba, devoted to the gods and familiar with the story of Alexander the Great, attached to the military establishment of a legate or provincial governor of Britain.
Koon argues that all of this aligns remarkably with Plutarch’s description of Demetrius of Tarsus as a Greek grammarian who travelled to Britain on a remarkable fact-finding mission. In her paper, she writes: “Given the uniqueness of these votives compared to other similar examples from the province, it seems that these tablets can in fact be attributed to Demetrius of Tarsus . . . The texts are (at present) too rare and unique not to represent a rare and unique circumstance, such as Demetrius’ journey around the islands of Britain as described in Plutarch’s account.”
Given the dating of De Defectu Oraculorum, this occurred around 81-85AD, during the reign of emperor Domitian and the governorship of Gnaeus Julius Agricola in Britain. Agricola was both the provincial governor and a military legate who used the fortress at York as a base of operations for campaigns in the north.
In Plutarch’s dialogue Demetrius mentions numerous uninhabited and sparsely inhabited islands near Britain. He says that his mission included making a “voyage for inquiry and observation” to one such island where holy men lived. Koon speculates that this may have been the Isle of Man or one of the Hebrides. Anglesey, a well-known religious centre off North Wales, had already been subjugated by Agricola in 77AD.
Koon said: “Tacitus [the historian, and son-in-law of Agricola] tells us that, at one point in his governorship, Agricola was casting an acquisitive eye towards Ireland. He was saying that he could take it and hold it with a single legion. So Demetrius may have been sent to reconnoitre those intermediate islands between Britain and Ireland.
“He says in the dialogue that, according to the native Britons, these islands are populated by holy men and sometimes by semi-mythical figures. For example, he talks about Cronus, father of Zeus, and Briareus who is one of the Hecatoncheires — one of the hundred-handed giants from Hesiod’s Theogony. It’s like he’s translating the knowledge the native Britons gave him about their religious beliefs surrounding these islands into language that a Roman or Greek listener would understand.”
She believes that, to carry out such a daring mission beyond the frontier, Demetrius may well have been attached to the army and have passed through the headquarters of Agricola at York — for example, to collect orders, supplies, intelligence or military escorts — on his way to and from the coast.
She said: “Plutarch tells us he was sent at the emperor’s direction. That probably entailed being sent to the provincial governor, because he was the highest authority in Britain. And it might also have entailed him being seconded or attached to military units that could facilitate this research trip. There were ships attached to the garrison of Britain to patrol and fend off Irish pirates, so it’s possible he was sent on one of those. He may have been handed over to a military unit in York if he was trying to go to any island off the northern part of Britain. They would probably be in the best position, infrastructure-wise, to help him.”
Gifts to Oceanus and Tethys, Titans associated with the sea, would not only have recalled Alexander — and demonstrated pride in the travels of the Greeks — but might well have seemed prudent before a voyage into the unknown, or in thanks for a safe return.
It remains unclear how the emperor knew of Demetrius of Tarsus. Koon said that, as a grammarian, it is possible he was employed as a tutor by a wealthy Roman family. This might have been outside Greece and possibly in Rome itself, where his talents could have become well-known.
Crucially, the York tablets point to Demetrius’ humanity. Koon said: “If all we had was the literary record, we might go, ‘That’s a nice character Plutarch has invented.’ But to find physical evidence that what we might assume is an invented character was a real person who actually went to the place where Plutarch describes him going and who put up these votives that we can trace in the archaeological record — that is is a very significant connection to make.”
The image at the top of the article depicts the construction of ancient Roman ships and is a book illustration after a painting by Allan Stewart (1865-1951). Photo: Alamy