Sometime around 2,000 years ago, a Roman citizen named Marcus Novius Tubula, fresh off an election win, dedicated a marble sundial to his small town of Interamna Lirenas—a sort of victory monument paid for, the inscription notes, with his own money.
Archaeologists discovered this ancient Roman election "trophy" during ongoing excavations at the site of Interamna Lirenas, located about 50 miles south of Rome in Italy's Liri Valley. Interamna Lirenas appears to have been a small town established in the fourth century B.C. and abandoned by the sixth century A.D.
The sundial, carved from limestone, features a concave face with 11 hour lines intersected with three curves indicating the season with respect to summer and winter solstices and the equinox. Most of the iron needle that would have cast a shadow is now lost.
Finds of sundials with inscriptions are quite rare, making this a "special find," notes Alessandro Launaro, who co-directed the 2017 excavations with Martin Millett, both with the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge.
The base of the sundial is inscribed in Latin with the name of Marcus Novius Tubula, while an engraving along the curved rim explains that he held the office of Plebeian Tribune and graciously paid for the sundial with his own money. "The sundial would have represented his way of celebrating his election in his own hometown," says Laurano. "People looking at it to check the time would have been reminded of Tubula's success."
Originally, the sundial was likely placed in a prominent spot in the town's forum, yet archaeologists found it near an entrance to the nearby theater. Researchers speculate that it may have been left behind when the ruins of Interamna Lirenas were scavenged for building materials in the medieval period.
Marcus Novius Tubula's sundial was dedicated sometime around or after the middle of the first century B.C., say the researchers. The dating is based on the lettering style of the inscription and the presence of a cognomen, a sort of inherited ancestral nickname that until the first century B.C. only appeared in the names of very prestigious individuals. Marcus Novius' cognomen, tubula, means "small trumpet" in Latin.
During the Roman Republic, officers of the Plebian Tribune represented non-aristocratic citizens in the government. The tribune lost most of its political power after the demise of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire in 27 B.C., but remained a prestigious step in one's political career.
What's particularly interesting to archaeologists is how this find helps illuminate the aspirations and involvement of citizens from smaller communities in the political affairs of Rome.
"We had no idea that anyone hailing from Interamna had ever held an important office in Rome," says Launaro. "Interamna Lirenas was not a town of remarkable prestige or notable influence, it was an average, middle-sized urban settlement."
"This is exactly what makes it a potentially very informative case study about conditions in the majority of Roman cities in Italy at the time," he adds.