Virgil Quotation Found Etched on 1,800-Year-Old Roman Jar

Researchers say the ancient inscription is the first of its kind ever discovered

Pottery shard with Virgil quotation
The three-inch-long pottery shard contains only parts of a passage from Virgil's Georgics. University of Cordoba

Long before the modern-day novelty mug made its way into bookstores and gift shops, an ancient reader carved a literary quotation into a piece of ancient Roman cookware. Now, researchers have determined that the inscription on an 1,800-year-old pottery fragment is a quote from the poet Virgil, who lived in the first century B.C.E.

Unearthed in southern Spain, the three-inch-long shard was once part of a Roman amphora, a jar that would have held olive oil. The inscription is thought to be the first literary quotation found on an amphora, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

When archaeologists found the artifact seven years ago, they didn’t think it was particularly noteworthy. Per a statement from the University of Córdoba in Spain, text printed on such vessels is common and often relates to production or taxation.

Still, one detail stuck out.

“You hardly ever get more than a line or two of engravings on an amphora,” says lead author Iván González Tobar, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona, to the Guardian’s Sam Jones. “This one had four or five lines.”

Those lines read:








At first, these words didn’t mean much to the researchers. They knew only that they had stumbled onto something unusual.

“To be honest,” González Tobar tells the Guardian, “it took a while because there were some spelling mistakes that held us back from seeing what it was straight away. But we did eventually get there.”

Study co-author Antònia Soler i Nicolau, a classical language scholar at the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain, realized the inscription looked familiar. The text comes from the Georgics, a 29 B.C.E. poem by Virgil about how to care for a farm. It was difficult to identify because the ancient inscription only contains segments of the full passage, which reads:


glandem m[utauit]

aresta, poq[ulaque]


[miscu]it [uuis]

C[ambió] la bellota aonia por la espiga [fértil] [y mezcl]ó

el ag[ua] [con la uva descubierta]

The full passage translates to:

O you brightest lights of the universe

that lead the passing year through the skies,

Bacchus and kindly Ceres, since by your gifts

fat wheat ears replaced Chaonian acorns,

and mixed Achelous’ water with newly discovered wine,

and you, fauns, the farmer’s local gods,

(come dance, together, fauns and dryad girls!)

your gifts I sing.

These lines “[make] sense as far as an amphora containing olive oil is concerned,” says Jane Draycott, a historian and archaeologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, to McClatchy News’ Brendan Rascius. The poem is “about the invention of farming, so [it’s] a suitable topic for one of the Roman dietary staples.”

Virgil is famous for the Aeneid, which he wrote soon after the Georgics. The epic poem tells the story of the Trojan prince Aeneas, a mythological character who first appears in the Iliad, and the founding of Rome. The newly discovered amphora dates to several centuries after Virgil’s death in 19 B.C.E. At the time, the poet was still “extremely popular with the Romans,” says Draycott, and the Aeneid was considered “an epic masterpiece that everyone read.”

The inscription would have been on a part of the amphora that wasn’t visible, so it wouldn’t have served a decorative purpose. Its existence may have been known only to the individual who etched it out.

The identity of this Virgil fan remains a mystery. Maybe, the researchers theorize, this person worked at the factory where the object was made and was a skilled craftsman replicating the lines from memory, or even a child laborer practicing their writing.

“There are debates about Roman literacy levels because a lot of ordinary people’s literary efforts would have been written on perishable material that doesn’t survive today,” Draycott tells McClatchy News. But the writings that do survive “make it clear that plenty of ordinary people, even enslaved people, could be literate and have a degree of education.”

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