Sex Messaging at Vindolanda 

By Alex Meyer and Alex Mullen

This stone made a splash in the international media when it was found in 2022, not only because it is decorated with a large phallus, but also because of the inscription that comes with it. We find depictions of male genitalia pretty often at Vindolanda and throughout the Roman world. If you take a look at the case in which this stone is displayed, you can see a few of them, but they’re also spread throughout the collection, on pendants, rings, pottery, wood and stone. This might strike us as odd, but in the Roman world, which was, in some respects, much less prudish than our own, phalluses were common symbols of good fortune and fertility, and defence against the ‘evil eye’. Of course, some of them were also just plain rude and a source of humour. In fact, there are about 60 carved phalluses from the line of Hadrian’s wall alone!

Whatever the creator of this carving intended, the person who added the inscription made this phallus depiction more than just a symbol of virility or good luck. The inscription probably dates to the third century CE and reads Secundinus cacor.  This caused us to scratch our heads because the form cacor is not attested anywhere else. We’ve considered various solutions. Perhaps the inscriber missed out a couple of letters and meant to write Secundinus cacator ‘Secundinus, the shitter’, which is a known Roman insult. But if we want to try to interpret what is actually written on the stone, it might be a passive of the verb caco ‘I poo’, so something like ‘I am pooed’, a new form in the Latin ‘scato-sexual vocabulary’. Maybe the writer was saying, ‘I Secundinus, am pooed on’, presumably in the context of Secundinus acting as the penetrator in anal sex. Or, if we imagine that the phallus is part of the message, then we could even translate it as ‘Secundinus, my dick (says): “I am pooed on”’, or, in terms that might capture the message better, ‘Secundinus, I am the one up your shitter’. However it might best be translated, the words force us to consider that the phallus carving here had a boastful and offensive function. Sex between men was standard in Roman culture but was there were strict social norms in terms of the status of who should penetrate or be penetrated and the message seems to be exploiting those. Though the specific phrasing of this inscription is unique, the sentiment is a well-documented part of the Roman sexual vocabulary. If only we knew more about the carver - who was likely to have been a military man - and his beef with Secundinus. We can be pretty sure that he could never have imagined that the stone he carved on would have been reused in beam slot of the stone fort and dug up centuries later during an archaeology training school.

The Romans, at least for large parts of their history, were much more flexible and less judgemental about sexual orientation than many people are today. The emperor Hadrian even had a lover, named Antinous, who was well-known in his own time and is the third most often depicted historical figure in Roman sculpture, behind only Augustus and Hadrian!