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What's in a Name?

According to archaeologist Simon Keay of the University of Southampton, “The importance of Monte Testaccio is that it gives us the best look into the scale of essential foodstuffs being imported into Rome between the first and third centuries A.D., as well as how this was organized. It also links provincial producers to consumers in Rome.” Most of this information comes from inscriptions on the pots. Below are images of two types of those inscriptions, handle stamps and painted inscriptions. José Remesal, director of Monte Testaccio excavations, thinks that handle stamps name the oil’s owner, who may also have manufactured his own amphorae. Other scholars, such as French archaeologist Claude Domergue, believe they denote only the amphora maker and have nothing to do with the oil or the oil producer. Inscriptions called tituli picti were painted after firing and relate to regulation of oil production and transport. Greek letters (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and epsilon) are used by modern scholars to identify each inscription.  

  • This handle inscription reads IICAMILI MELISSI— Family members who were either the amphora’s manufacturers or the owners of the oil inside the amphora.
  • This sherd contains a wealth of information. On the left is a beta inscription reading C(ai) Antoni Balbi, stating that the oil belonged to the merchant Caius Antonius Balbus; next is a delta inscription reading  [---] ARCA PRIMA AA [---], which records bureaucratic information about the oil’s transfer. Other delta inscriptions record names of customs agents and places of export, as well as inspection dates; a rare epsilon inscription on the far right of this sherd is a storehouse control number, “III” or the Roman numeral 3.
  • The gamma inscription is the weight of the oil—here CCXVI, or 216 Roman pounds, about 154 modern pounds. Such inscriptions provided a simple system to deter cheating: both the weights of the empty amphora and the oil were written on the pot and could be checked by inspectors at any time.
  • The alpha inscription at the top of this sherd records the weight of the empty amphora. This one weighed XXCII, or 82 Roman pounds, about 66 modern pounds. Beta inscriptions, like the one on the bottom of this sherd, state the names of the oil traders and/or transporters. This inscription reads L(uci) • Atili Hermerotis et C Consi Hermerotis, or property of the merchants Lucius Atilius Hermeros and Caius Consius Hermeros. Similar names are found on thousands of amphorae at Monte Testaccio and on honorary dedications all over the ancient Roman province of Baetica in southern Spain.

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