Niger Lapis

Richardson, L. jr

Niger Lapis: In a mutilated passage that can be restored with considerable probability, Festus (Festus 184L) says the Niger Lapis is a locus funestus in the Comitium intended to mark the place of the death, or burial, of Romulus, but actually used for the burial of Faustulus, Romulus's foster father, or of Hostus Hostilius, the grandfather of Tullus Hostilius. The Scholia on Horace Epod. 16.13-14 state that Romulus was buried either pro Rostris or post Rostra, the tomb marked by funerary lions. Dionysius (Dion. Hal. 1.87.2) says a lion stood over the burial place of Faustulus by the Rostra, but then later (Dion. Hal. 3.1.2) he says that the grandfather of Tullus Hostilius was buried there with a stele attesting to his valor.

These various stories do not need to concern us overmuch. In fact, in 1899 was found an irregular four-sided area in front of the Curia Iulia, about 4 m x 3 m, paved with slabs of black marble (marmor Taenarium) that had been marked off so no one would walk on it inadvertently with a pluteus of plates of white marble about 1 m high set in a base of travertine. Under this were found the base of a U-shaped altar, part of a tapering cippus or stele of Grotta Oscura tufa inscribed on all four faces with a boustrephedon inscription at large scale in an archaic alphabet, which not only took all the space available but also required the slicing of one corner to make an extra face so that it could be completed (ILLRP 3), and a plain truncated cone of tufa. Together with these things were archaic votive bronzes and terracotta revetments, pottery, and the remains of a sacrifice of the fourth century. It appears that the cippi and other archaic material had been set about the altar base almost haphazardly, all viewed as sacred material but at the time no longer understood, a sacrifice of expiation performed, and the area isolated. The present pavement of black marble is at the level of the Caesarean pavement of the Comitium, but must replace an earlier one.

The material under the Niger Lapis is all of the highest interest and importance. It is easy to see that the altar, once it had lost its upper parts and was associated with burial, would have been interpreted as the base for a pair of funerary lions, though such altars cannot have been unfamiliar. The truncated cone might have been either a boundary stone or a statue base. The inscribed stele, the reading, completion, and interpretation of which has occupied nearly every student of Roman antiquity, continues to be a bone of contention. In view of its unusual material, obviously foreign and unsuitable for inscribing, it is more likely to be a boundary stone than anything else, and the inscription on it is then likely to be a curse on anyone who moved it. The appearance of the name of Jupiter and words such as sakros and iouxmenta also supports this notion. The alphabet is close to the version of the Greek alphabet in use in southern Etruria and the Faliscan territory in the late seventh and sixth centuries, with certain additions. The only area in the neighborhood likely to have been so religiously bounded is the Comitium, but the votive material found together with the cippus seems unlikely to have been dedicated in the Comitium.

Exploration under this area has ascertained that there is no burial here. The Comitium having always been an inaugurated templum, that is what we should have expected.

Lugli 1946, 121-26; R. E. A. Palmer, The King and the Comitium (Wiesbaden 1969); BullCom 88 (1982-83): 61-64 (B. Frischer); Coarelli 1983, 161-99; MonAnt 52 (ser. misc. 3.1 [1984]): 1-37 (P. Romanelli); PP 39 (1984): 56-61 (F. Castagnoli); BullCom 89 (1984): 245-48 (F. Ammannato).

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