Rome is swamped with tourists all year, in chilly climes as much as in hot summer months when most people take their vacations. Other popular cities not so much, or at least not advised such, since a city like Venice can be a horrific smell in some heats, and flooded in certain seasons and therefore difficult to manoeuvre.
Tourists take in ancient relics much the same manner as people generally take in paintings at a museum. That involves a ten second glance, superficial at best, before moving on to the next. I like to think that this is not solely, or even mostly, the result of disinterest because why would one pay so much money to travel to a part of the world unless they were interested in it? I prefer to believe that tourists do this because they don’t know quite what they are looking at.
I am understanding and sympathetic to their plight. To fully understand what you are looking at amongst classic relics requires both historical knowledge and an at least rudimentary understanding of the Latin language. For now, and for sanity’s sake, I think addressing only inscription should suffice.
Romans did make inscription difficult for a number of reasons:
1. They were working with limited space and often had to shorten words.
2. They were working with limited space which meant often including no spaces or punctuation.
3. Roman lettering excluded certain letters entirely like the J and U and instead used, respectively, the I and V.
Some are more difficult than others. The inscription on the Arch of Titus is one of the more easy ones. Observe.
That’s one of the easy ones? Yes. Yes it is. Because we are fortunate to have most of words actually spelled out in their entirety. So first, add the spaces. This requires one know a bit about Latin in order to identify words.
DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F
Then we fill in the one missing word, by the F. This is where knowledge of Roman history and Latin is essential, since by reading the words around the F one can easily surmise that this is in reference to Titus’s relation to Vespasian. Further, things like C.F., M.F, etc, are common after the name of Roman sons since Roman naming tended to name sons after their fathers, and one could only tell one from the other by which one had the F at the end of their name. The F stood for “Filio”. Son of.
DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F[ILIO]
Easier too if we then substitute the V for the U where applicable. Some words do have the V while others need a substitution. Again, one must know Latin to know when to switch a V for a U.
DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F[ILIO]
Now we translate…
And the Roman People
To the Divine Titus Vespasian Augustus
Son of the Divine Vespasian
Reading the inscription transforms the arch from an ambiguous, albeit grand, relic into an artefact that has true meaning.
If you think temple/mausoleum/building inscription is tedious and confusing, imagine such a thing on a much smaller artefact, specifically a coin.
Now we are having fun, aren’t we?
Alright, no. Not so much. I admit that even I have moments when I look at something and throw it over my shoulder with a resounding and pointed, “no.” This coin is, for all its value (no pun intended), a cluster of seemingly random and almost impossible to discern letters.
The front says:
On the back:
The back is relatively straightforward. Turn the I to a J, turn the V to a U, and you have Judea Capta, SC. Judea Captured. And the SC was an abbreviation that indicated that the striking of the coin and its value was done by degree of the Roman Senate. A painless series of deductions that, granted, do require some knowledge.
But what aboutthe front?
I will concede that this does require a bit of expertise. First, using considerable experience in Roman history, section off where words will begin…
Simple, no? Then one need only fill in the rest of the words.
IMP[ERĀTOR] CAES[SAR] VESPĀSIĀN[US] AUG[USTUS] P[ONTIFEX] M[AXIMUS] TR[IBŪNICIĀ] P[OTESTĀTE] P[ATER] P[ATRIAE] CO[N]S[UL] III (ie., third consulship).
Completely understandable that something so very lengthy could not have possibly fit onto an entire coin, and emperors did so love their honourifics be given without exclusion to any grand title they may have tacked on as a cog-cog-cog-cog-cog-cognomen.
And now I really must learn to discuss trivialities, which I have been told are quite entertaining, in an engaging manner.
Perhaps something “fun” next time.