A 2000-year-old inscribed Roman sundial, found in a small town near Monte Cassino in Italy.
© Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge.

One Roman's day in the sun

The discovery by Cambridge archaeologists of a 1st-century AD sundial in southern Italy throws new light on the administration of small towns in the Roman Empire. Signed and dated, the hemicylium shows that a local man, Marcus Novius Tubula, erected it to celebrate his election as the town's Plebian Tribune, paying for it 'D S PEC' (De sua pecunia), with his own money.

The installation of public sundials was one way that Roman officials could celebrate their achievements. Few have survived, but this one has come to light at Interamna Lirenas, a fairly nondescript town near Monte Cassino. The carved limestone is from a block measuring 54cm x 35cm x 25cm. Its concave face, with lines delineating daylight hours, is intersected by three day curves that show the solstices and equinox. A small part of the gnomon is still in place. The donator's name, Tubula (small trumpet), identifies him as a citizen of this particular town.

'The discovery not only casts new light on the place that Interamna Lirenas occupied within a broader network of political relationships across Roman Italy, but it is also a more general indicator of the level of involvement in Rome's own affairs that individuals hailing from this and other relatively secondary communities could aspire to,' explains Dr Alessandro Launaro of the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge University, who directed the excavations at the site in 2017.

The town lies at a strategic crossroads on Via Latina, which links Lazio to Campania, and the River Liris, which flows from the hinterland to the coast 75km north of Naples. The town was founded in 320 BC and, by the time Marcus Novius Tubula was made a tribune, it had become a municipium and the pillar would probably have
been erected in the forum, though it was discovered in a street beside the Roman theatre, suggesting it was displaced during the plundering of the town for materials in the medieval period.

'Fewer than 100 examples of this specific type of sundial have survived,' says Dr Launaro, 'and of those only a handful bear any kind of inscription at all – so this really is a special find.'
Roger Williams