Lapis Niger, the shrine where the first known Latin inscription was found, was already a mystery to the Romans themselves

In 1898 the Venetian archaeologist Giacomo Boni was appointed director of the excavations of the Roman Forum at the Italian capital, a position he held until his death in 1925. Among the discoveries he made during that period are an Iron Age necropolis, the Regia (first a barracks and then the seat of Rome’s highest pontiff), the temple of Vesta and other monuments.

Archaeologist Giacomo Boni around 1920 / photo Martin G. Conde on Wikimedia Commons

One of its most outstanding discoveries in the Forum is the Lapis Niger (black stone in Latin), an ancient sanctuary where one of the first known Latin inscriptions was found, dated between 570 and 550 BC. This sanctuary, although considered a sacred space, was a mystery to the Romans themselves as early as the time of Julius Caesar. It was part of the ancient Comitium, the public meeting place of the curiate assembly located in the northwest corner of the Forum.

It could have been precisely at the time of Julius Caesar (or earlier in the time of Sulla, dictator between 81 and 80 BC, according to other experts) when it is believed that this sanctuary was reformed, building a new structure with black marble flooring. What was really interesting was what it covered, because underneath, at a depth of one and a half meters, Boni found the mentioned inscription and an ancient tomb that, as we said, the Romans had already forgotten, in Caesar’s time, to whom it belonged to.

What they were clear about was that the place was important and therefore sacred, so generation after generation they revered it and kept it intact. Since they did not know who was buried there, several stories emerged, conjectures that soon became legends. According to one of them it would be the tomb of Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, who was murdered in the temple of Vulcan that was next to the Lapis Niger.

whereas Romulus, when he vanished, left neither the least part of his body, nor any remnant of his clothes to be seen. So that some fancied, the senators, having fallen upon him in the temple of Vulcan, cut his body into pieces, and took each a part away in his bosom; others think his disappearance was neither in the temple of Vulcan, nor with the senators only by

Plutarch, Vidas Paralelas, Life of Romulus 1, 27-6
Diagram of the Lapis Niger in 1906/ photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

According to other stories it could be the tomb of Hostus Hostilius, the grandfather of King Tullus Hostilius (third king of Rome between 673 and 642 B.C.), and who was one of the Celeres, Romulus’ personal bodyguard; or also the place where Faustulus, the shepherd who found and raised Romulus and Remus, perished in battle.

As you can see the common denominator of all these conjectures is Romulus. The problem is that nothing inside the Lapis Niger can confirm (or disprove) this association. In fact the first ancient sources that mention it already question the legends, and are inclined to state that it was probably the place from where the kings addressed the people and the senate.

The pillar with the inscription in Lapis Niger / photo Giovanni Dore on Wikimedia Commons

What the Boni excavations found, besides the pillar with the inscription, were numerous fragments of pottery, votive statuettes and evidence of ritual animal sacrifices, all under a layer of gravel with which it had been intentionally covered. The dating of all these remains places them between the 5th and 7th centuries BC. That is, at the earliest right at the time of Romulus’ death and at the beginning of the reign of his successor Numa Pompilius (716-674 BC), who was also Romulus’ brother-in-law.

The place suffered several upheavals during the following centuries, such as fires and partial destruction due to wars and invasions, until it was reformed in the first century BC, when a more modest altar with black marble flooring was erected over it.

Interpretation of the inscription / photo

As far as the inscription is concerned, it is, as we said, the oldest known so far in Latin. But it has a number of particularities. Firstly, the alphabet with which it is written is more similar to Greek than to Latin, which places it chronologically at the origins of the latter. Then, it is written in bustrophedon, an archaic type of writing that consists of writing one line from left to right and the next from right to left or vice versa.

And finally, the interpretation of what it says is limited because the beginning and the end of the inscription are missing and the rest is only half of each line. But what can be read seems to indicate that the site was dedicated to a king (rex). The transcription of the four faces of the pillar would be:





And the generally accepted translation:

Whosoever (will violate) this (grove), let him be cursed. (Let no one dump) refuse (nor throw a body …). Let it be lawful for the king (to sacrifice a cow in atonement). (Let him fine) one (fine) for each (offence). Whom the king (will fine, let him give cows). (Let the king have a —) herald. (Let him yoke) a team, two heads, sterile … Along the route … (Him) who (will) not (sacrifice) with a young animal … in … lawful assembly in grove ..

Pillar replica / photo sailko on Wikimedia Commons

The importance of this inscription lies in the fact that for the first time epigraphic evidence was discovered that Rome had once had kings. Something that the classical sources cited but which had never been verified.

Whether Romulus or another of those kings was buried under the shrine is something we’ll probably never know. What almost all experts agree on is that Lapis Niger must have been a founding monument of the city of Rome, around which the assemblies of the Roman people were held since very remote times.

Sources: The Lapis Niger and the Grave of Romulus / VRoma / Lapis Niger and Vulcanal / Bibliotheca Augustana / Historia de Roma (Francisco Javier Lomas Salmonte, Pedro López Barja de Quiroga) / The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium (Ross R. Holloway) / Wikipedia.