Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul. – The curse of the One Ring, The Lord of the Rings
A lot of times when I’m writing about things here, I’m delving into stuff that has come up in my book research, or is a topic I’ve always been interested in. But this week, while I was digging around for an appropriately spooky pre-Halloween idea, I first learned of the Ring of Silvianus, which is probably old hat to any of you in the UK, but was brand new information to me. I found the story delightful and its unexpected literary impact apropos of the writing/research craft, so I thought I’d share it with the similarly uninitiated. Don’t worry, I think we’re going to do ghosts next week…
The so-called Ring of Silvianus, as you can see above, is a gold band with ten facets all the way around it, most of which are engraved with lettering, but with one having a figurehead designed to be used as a signet ring for sealing documents. It is a rather large-width ring at an inch in diameter, which some historians suggest means it might have been made to be worn over a glove. The figure is the goddess Venus, as evidenced by the engraving “VE” and “NVS” on either side of the head, carved backwards in mirror writing, perhaps for added distinction for owner of the seal. But the rest of the writing is “SENICIANE VIVAS IIN DE”, likely meant to be “Senicianus lives in God”, but there is a typo extra “i” in the inscription that leaves off the “o” in “deo”. Now, the more astute amongst you might be asking why we call this the “Ring of Silvianus” when the name on the ring is Senicianus, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
The ring was discovered in 1785 in a field near the English town of Silchester in Hampshire, about five miles north of Basingstoke, by a local farmer. It would eventually be brought by the Chutes, long a Hampshire gentry family, and kept at their estate, The Vyne, until the estate and the ring would pass into the National Trust. Silchester itself first comes into the historical record as a regional seat of the Atrebates, a Celtic tribe originally from the Artois region of Gallia Belgica (Belgic Gaul), as you might have guessed, modern Belgium and northern France. The Atrebates were defeated by Julius Caesar in 57 BC during the Gallic wars and were slowly assimilated into the Roman state over the next century or so. Their most famous tribal leader from the conquest period and the decades following it was Commius, whom Caesar appointed as king of the Atrebates after their defeat. Commius, like many chieftains before and after him, would spend the next decade in a complicated frienemy dance with Caesar and Rome. He would serve as Julius’ envoy to the Britons before the Caesarian invasion of the island in 55 BC, but he would also join Vercingetorix’s revolt back in Gaul by 52 BC. Commius would survive his Gallic ally’s fall at the Siege of Alesia, launching another year of guerrilla warfare against Mark Antony’s forces in Germania before the latter finally cornered him, and the king of the Atrebates was forced to sue for peace again. The consul Aulus Hirtius claims in his military history of the Gallic wars that Commius agreed to live in peace with Rome on the condition that he never had to see another Roman again, a request Antony is said to have granted by sending Commius across the channel to Britain again, this time for good.
There are conflicting accounts of whether Commius’ second arrival in Britain was a flight from Caesar’s legions after one more double cross, or a supported departure based on the Antony truce. The 1st century engineer and general Sextus Julius Frontinus records the flight version in his Strategemata, but Frontinus was serving the emperor Domitian as governor of Britain several generations later and may have been reporting unsubstantiated local gossip. It is certainly believable for Commius to paint his break with Caesar as a dramatic escape from the dreaded Romans to impressed the British tribes rather than admitting that he was basically Caesar’s client king on the island. Either way, Commius’ British offshoot of the Atrebates would settle in ancient Silchester, establishing what would generally be referred to as the Gallio-Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (“Calleva of the Atrebates”). The Celtic name of Commius’ version of the settlement spoke of its densely forested surroundings, but Calleva Atrebatum was also ideally located as trading junction between the farther-flung parts of the island and the Gallic mainland (and by extension, the rest of the Mediterranean). While Commius maintained a foothold on Belgic Gaul through several of his sons, coins from this period bearing his name are associated with Calleva Atrebatum, further demonstrating that this settlement was the new seat of Atrebates power. The great Atrebates chief would in turn be succeeded by three of his sons until the official Roman conquest of Britain in 43 BC during the reign of Claudius would turn the island and its tribal units into the Roman province of Britannia. It appears that the Atrebates kings continued in their client role in some capacity after this period (they had likely helped with the Roman invasion in the south against their northern tribal rivals), but their local power would have been significantly reduced under the more direct Roman governmental oversight.
After the conquest, Calleva Atrebatum would be established as a fully Roman settlement, expanding Commius’ town, but otherwise building off of what the Atrebates had already made. Constructing a Roman town directly on top of a previous indigenous site was somewhat unusual in the Britain of the period, but doing so points to the likely fortuitous nature of the location, with its still-plentiful timber and accessible trade nature. The entire settlement covered 99-107 hectares, and was laid out in the typical Roman grid pattern, as you can see in the sketch above. Eventually, it would become highly sophisticated, with an amphitheater outside the town plan, Roman-style baths (some of the earliest stone structures in the town), and a large mansio (a villa designed for officials traveling or governing throughout the province) situated near the southern gate. This latter building was doubtless in high demand, as Calleva Atrebatum would essentially become the trading corridor between Londinium (London), the provincial capital, and the entire western arm of Britannia, including other major settlements such as Aquae Sulis (Bath), Glevum (Gloucester), and Sorviodunum (Sarum/Salisbury). The so-called Devil’s Highway, a name derived for it after much of its useful life had passed, is still evident through much of the southwestern English countryside, though much of its easternmost parts would be buried under the centuries of reconstruction in London to be periodically rediscovered. The route through the city was found in the modern era by Christopher Wren while he was rebuilding St. Mary-le-Bow after the Great Fire of 1666, and was traced from Newgate at the bridgehead of the Thames through Ludgate and over the Fleet River west to join the previously known parts of the Devil’s Highway.
By the 5th century AD, Calleva Atrebatum was a flourishing town of about 10,000 inhabitants, although the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 and its intendant crises would eventually lead to the imperial abandonment of Roman Britain, and the slow but steady urban decline of towns like it. That said, the decline of Calleva Atrebatum appears to have been especially steep, with little evidence of serious habitation beyond the 450s. However, the Ring of Silvianus dates from this period, so we have at least some evidence of people still living there. The funny thing about it is that Silvianus himself was probably not one of them…
Because you see, the ring was also supposedly stolen from Silvianus around the same time. How do we know this? Well, a hundred and seventy-some years after the ring was discovered in Silchester, in 1929, an archeological excavation in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire near the Forest of Dean was uncovering a Roman-era temple to Nodens, an ancient Celt deity. Nodens was seen as a sea god, but also as the god of dogs and hunting, which lead him to be associated with the Roman gods Neptune, Mars, and Silvanus. His name is also thought to share linguistic cognates with the Irish mythological hero Nuada, and his Welsh counterpart, Nudd/Llud; a connection largely traced by Oxford philologist and author J.R.R. Tolkien.
The temple at Lydney, perched on a bluff overlooking the Severn Estuary as it joins the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic, was a major cult center for Nodens and a befitting location for the home of a sea god. The temple itself was fairly large, its foundations suggesting a separate section of the complex that may have been used to house pilgrims. Artifacts found at the site reinforce Nodens’ connections to the sea and dogs (who would’ve been associated with Mars), as well as indications that Nodens might have been called on as a healing deity (another reason the extra structures of the main temple room have been thought to be for those seeking cures from the god). Similar to the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Celts may have attempted cures through divine dreams, calling on the gods to appear to them by sleeping within his sacred space.
But aside from healing offerings, a previous archeological dig in the 1880s had unearthed many prayer tablets addressed to the god. Like many ancient temples, these kinds of tablets could be positive or negative—either requesting or offering thanks for a divine service rendered, or as a demand for divine vengeance against misfortune. “Curse tablets”, or defixio in Latin, were a common part of most ancient religions. Among the defixio discovered at Lydney, one caught the 1929 dig lead, Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s, attention. It read: “DEVO NODENTI SILVIANVS ANILVM PERDEDIT DEMEDIAM PARTEM DONAVIT NODENTI INTER QVIBVS NOMEN SENICIANI NOLLIS PETMITTAS SANITATEM DONEC PERFERA VSQVE TEMPLVM DENTIS”, which translates as “For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.”
Wheeler remembered the ring with the Senicianus inscription in Silchester, and made the connection to Silvianus’ angry defixio. Which if true, means not only did Senicianus steal Silvianus’ ring, he was sneaky enough to have it inscribed with his own name, presumably to deflect suspicion. Now, as you can see on the map below, Calleva Atrebatum in Hampshire, where the ring was found, is nowhere near the temple of Nodens in Gloucestershire, where the defixio was lodged. But both were on the all-important Devil’s Highway of the west, so it isn’t a stretch to imagine the ring’s theft was perhaps part of a trade deal that went bad between Silvianus and Senicianus, who might have lived too far apart for the former to track down an unscrupulous partner. Whether or not he was from the Glevum area, Silvianus, who was named for one of Nodens’ Roman counterparts, might have sought out his namesake deity’s help in recovering what was not only a costly personal item, but one that might have been relied on by his business and would have been as important as his signature or word of honor. He might have been worried that he would be on the hook for transactions fraudulently made by Senicianus with his ring and wanted Nodens to prevent more misfortune than the theft alone.
We don’t know whether Silvianus’ defixio worked and Senicianus was cursed with swamp foot or what have you for his perfidy, but since the ring never made it back to Nodens’ temple, we can probably be sure Silvianus never saw it again (if he picked it up there, you’d assume he would have scratched Senicianus’ name off of it). But Silvianus’ loss was arguably modern literature’s gain, because remember how I said earlier that Tolkien was the guy who successfully traced Nodens to his more well-known-at-the-time Irish and Welsh iterations? Well, that was because Wheeler and Tolkien were colleagues, and Wheeler had brought Silvianus’ defixio to Tolkien to help with the Latin translation, in part to decipher the Nodens reference. Tolkien mapped out the Celtic/Germanic roots of the god’s name (noudont- or noudent-, from the Germanic neut-, “to acquire”), which is echoed in both Nuada and Nudd/Llud’s famed skill with their hands. Nuada’s ephitet is Airgetlámh, “Silver Hand/Arm”, and Nudd/Llud is usually also called “Llud of the Silver Hand”. “Nudd” is the Welsh hero’s earlier name, derived from the Irish Nuada and Nodens before that, but the later version, “Llud”, is important too because it had been previously suggested that the name of the English town that had sprung up around the temple of Nodens, Lydney, was a toponym of the Old English Lydan-eġ— “Llud’s Island”, linking everything together.
But the fact remains outside of this linguistic nerdiness, Silvanus’ defixio brought Tolkien into contact with the idea of a supposedly cursed stolen ring that sowed misfortune in its wake. An idea—along with the silver-handed Celtic god-heroes—that he would later make the focus of his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. “Silver Hand” becomes the ephitet of Celebrimbor, the elven-smith who is tricked by Sauron into forging Middle-Earth’s rings of power, while Sauron creates the cursed ring that only he, the rightful owner, can fully control. So in its extended afterlife, Silvianus’ lost treasure has become not just any ring, but the One Ring, one of the most potent symbols of the corrupting influence of greed and malice in western literature. Perhaps a fitting end for the pilfered subject of a curse tablet.