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Rare Roman Sundial Uncovered in Italy

Commissioned by a local politician, it sheds light on the relationship between Rome and its outlying territories

(Alessandro Launaro)
smithsonian.com

The face of the sundial has 11 hour lines and runs through three day curves to indicate the track of the winter solstice, summer solstice and the equinox. Only a small bit of the iron needle that would have cast the shadow some 2,000 years ago, survives today.

The rare concave limestone sundial was uncovered during a summer session dig in the ancient Roman town of Interamna Lirenas, near present-day Monte Cassino in central Italy, reports the BBC.

An inscription on the ancient artifact reads “Marcus Novius Tubula, son of Marcus”, and records that he was “Plebeian Tribune and paid for the sundial with his own money.”

Researchers believe the sundial, discovered in a roofed theater​ under excavation, must have stood in a nearby outdoor courtyard in order to function. “Less than a hundred examples of this specific type of sundial have survived and of those, only a handful bear any kind of inscription at all – so this really is a special find,” Alessandro Launaro, of the University of Cambridge Faculty of Classics, which is conducting the excavation, says. “Not only have we been able to identify the individual who commissioned the sundial, we have also been able to determine the specific public office he held in relation to the likely date of the inscription.”

The lettering of the inscription places the sundial in the mid-first century B.C., a short time after the residents of Interamna were granted full Roman citizenship. It’s likely that Tubula commissioned the sundial to celebrate his election to the position of Plebeian Tribune, an office that gave the people of Rome a direct representative in government to counter the power of the Roman senate, which were appointed positions.

The sundial, as well as other discoveries at Interamna, are changing the way researchers look at the “average” Roman town. “Given the lack of visible archaeological remains, it was traditionally interpreted to be a backwater, sleepy, somewhat declining community, very much placed at the margins of what was going on in Rome and Italy,” Launaro tells Ruth Schuster at Haaretz. “However, we had no idea that anyone hailing from Interamna had ever held an important office in Rome (Plebeian Tribuneship).”

Prominent Romans were often involved in the affairs of cities and regions in the hinterland, with Julius Caesar and others serving as patrons. But Schuster reports that this find shows the people from the periphery of the Republic could also become prominent movers and shakers in Rome as well. “This was not a town of remarkable prestige or notable influence,” Launaro says in the press release. “It remained an average, middle-sized settlement, and this is exactly what makes it a potentially very informative case-study about conditions in the majority of Roman cities in Italy at the time.”

The BBC reports that Interamna was founded in 312 B.C. and was abandoned in the 6th century A.D. The researchers believe the sundial was moved inside the theater by later inhabitants searching for building materials during the Medieval or post-Medieval period.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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