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Lapis Niger

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Lapis Niger in Forum Romanum
Lapis Niger in Forum Romanum | | Author: Sven Keller

Lapis Niger is the oldest (probably from around 500 BCE) and for a long time the most important monument for the Romans, which is located in the Forum Romanum. It is located in front of the Curia, near the Arch of Septimius, surrounded by fragments of wall, near the Rostra (Lectern).

Lapis Niger is not a stone, but a place covered with slabs of black (hence the name “black stone”) marble where, according to legend, Romulus was killed or taken to heaven. This monument is therefore also called the tomb of Romulus. Some ancient writers believed that it was the tomb of Hostius Hostilius (grandfather of one of the kings) or Faustulus (father of the legendary twins). Ancient sources also mention that there may be located Vulcanal – a sanctuary of Vulcan.

Black marble slabs were placed on the pavement probably in the second half of the 1st century BCE, during the rule of Julius Caesar. It was then that the Forum and Comitium (place of the people’s assembly) were rebuilt, creating a rectangle measuring 4 by 3.5 meters, and surrounding it with a stone wall. In this way, a place important for the Romans was set aside; which, however, was not entirely clear to themselves. Lapis Niger was considered a place of immense sanctity and was treated with respect.

The earliest Roman records pertaining to this site indicate that the site was suggestum (here the first kings addressed the crowd and the Senate).

Discovery of Lapis Niger

Old Latin inscription with Lapis Niger.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The secret of Lapis Niger was discovered at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries during excavations conducted by the archaeologist Giacomo Boni. Research work under the black plates revealed much older structures, incl. an altar, a fragment of a column or a stone pillar with an old Latin inscription (written with boustrophedon – the way of writing in successive lines of text alternately from right to left and from left to right). This inscription is probably the oldest text in this language.

As it turns out, the ancient Romans deliberately buried this place, and researchers explain that there may have been a Vulcan sanctuary here in the past. This is evidenced by the discovered remains of votive gifts made by the inhabitants of the city.

Old Latin inscription

The inscription is severely damaged and we cannot read it. There are various hypotheses as to its message. Some believe that it contains a curse that threatened to desecrate this place, to which even kings were subject. Dionysius of Halicarnassus believed it was an epitaph to Hostilius, which emphasized his bravery against the Sabines, or it was a celebration of Romulus’ victory.
The plaque was dated in the middle of the royal period (ca. 570-550 CE) and it is one of the earliest known Latin inscriptions.

Sources
  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2016
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Ziółkowski Adam, Historia Rzymu, Poznań 2008

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