Rare 2000-Year-Old Sundial Sheds New Light on Ancient Roman Politics
When a Roman citizen named Marcus Novius Tubula won an important election some 2000 years ago, he didn’t have the technology to tweet about it. He opted for more permanent brag, and commissioned a marble sundial inscribed with both his name and position.
Paid for with the politician’s own money, the timekeeping device served as a public monument in his hometown, the small Italian municipality of Interamna Lirenas. But as millennia passed, memories of the proud politician faded, only to be recently revived by a group of Cambridge University archaeologists who discovered the marker still intact, according to National Geographic.
Located in Italy’s Liri Valley, Interamna Lirenas was likely founded in the fourth century BCE and abandoned by the sixth century CE. Archaeologists have been conducting a fieldwork project at the ancient site since 2010, trying to figure out how the town was affected by Rome's shift from republic to empire.
They discovered the 2000-year-old sundial—one of only a handful known to have survived the millennia—while excavating a roofed theater. Lying facedown by one of its street-side entrances, the sundial had probably been overlooked by scavengers, who picked apart the Roman town for building materials during and after the medieval era.
Experts think the sundial once sat atop a pillar in the nearby forum. Carved from limestone, it has a concave face that’s engraved with lines and curves that indicated both daylight hours and the current season. Its shadow-casting iron needle is mostly gone.
“Less than a hundred examples of this specific type of sundial have survived, and of those, only a handful bear any kind of inscription at all—so this really is a special find,” said Alessandro Launaro, a classics lecturer at Cambridge University, in a statement. “Not only have we been able to identify the individual who commissioned the sundial, we have also been able to determine the specific public office he held in relation to the likely date of the inscription.”
Based on the inscription’s lettering and other factors, experts were able to date the sundial to around the middle of the first century BCE. And thanks to its engraving, they know that Marcus Novius Tubula held the office of Plebian Tribune. These officials were non-aristocratic men who provided governmental checks and balances.
Until the Republic fell, members of the Plebian Tribune enjoyed a sizeable amount of prestige. Archaeologists were surprised to learn that Marcus Novius Tubula—who hailed from a no-name town—was one of them.
“In this sense,” Launaro added, “the discovery of the inscribed sundial not only casts new light on the place 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.”
[h/t National Geographic]