Flavinus rides in triumph over his barbarian enemy on the tall sandstone slab that stands in front of a blocked doorway at the foot of the night stair in Hexham Abbey. According to the inscription below the bold but battered relief, Flavinus was a SIGNIFER or standard-bearer in Candidus’s troop of the ALA PETRIANA. He died at 25, after seven years of military service. Some of his army pay had gone to a regimental burial fund, and helped to provide this impressive tombstone, which probably stood once in the military cemetery near the fort of CORIA (Corbridge); that was where the Petrian cavalry was based as Rome extended its grip over the Tyne Valley in the years from 79AD.
The ALA PETRIANA, the Petrian Cavalry Regiment, came from Gaul. Gaul had come under Roman rule during the 1st century BC, conquered by disciplined, heavily armed legions of citizen infantry. Once such lands were subdued the Roman army recruited auxiliary regiments from the subject peoples, to serve alongside the legions.
The Legion, 6,000 strong, fought on foot, a solid mass of men protected by a wail of curving plywood shields. Attackers hurled themselves vainly at this barrier, to be met by a hail of javelins and finished off by the short, stabbing legionary swords. On the flanks of the legion were the ‘wings’, the ALÆ, the cavalry regiments of Auxiliaries, roaming and reconnoitring, pursuing and harassing the enemy.
The ALA PETRIANA took its name from the Roman noble, Titus Pomponius Petra, who first commanded it. Auxiary cavalry regiments numbered about 500 horsemen in 16 troops (TURMÆ) of some 32 men, each commanded by a decurion like Candidus. Flavinus’s regiment had a long and distinguished history, but most of it came after the young soldier’s early death. It was nearly doubled in strength to 24 troops or nearly 800 men, becoming a ‘milliary’ ala; its Gaulish warriors were awarded Roman citizenship. It was granted the title ‘Emperor’s own’ (AUGUSTA), and the whole unit was twice decorated for gallantry by the award of the coveted torque, the neck-ring. These honours were eventually reflected in the regiment’s full title: ALA AUGUSTA GALLORUA PETRIANA MILLIARIA BIS TORQUATA CIVIUM ROMANORUM. Flavinus died before these titles were added, some time before 98AD. About that time the regiment moved from Tynedale and served in southern Scotland, eventually settling at the large fort of UXELODUNUM, Stanwix, near Carlisle.
Flavinus bore a single Romanised name, rather than a Gaulish one like Asterix or the three names of a Roman citizen. He may have been of some importance in his own country wearing a torque around his neck as a mark of rank among his own Celtic people. He was also of some importance in the regiment, for as standard-bearer he was responsible for regimental funds, including the burial fund. On his tombstone he wears parade armour, with a very fine plumed helmet and perhaps a facemask; cavalry regiments enjoyed spectacular displays of horsemanship in mounted games and parades. At his side is the long SPATHA, the cavalryman’s sword for a sweeping blow, in contrast to the infantry’s stabbing GLADIUS and he has an oval shield on his left arm. His saddle can hardly be seen, but it would have a well-padded, rigid frame, into which a rider with no helpful stirrups could fit securely and safely. His horse is undersized to fit on the slab, but wears elaborate harness whose straps are linked by bronze discs (PHALERÆ). These details would have bean picked out in vivid colour when the memorial was first erected, but the paint has long gone and the stone is now worn, battered and pitted.
The standard Flavinus carries may have been surmounted by an eagle, though now there is only a trace of what may be a spread wing. The main part is a radiate head, probably of the Emperor, and strictly speaking Flavinus seems to be carrying an IMAGO rather than the regimental SIGNUM.
Flavinus’s stirrupless foot boots his cowering enemy in the rear. The triumphant horseman was a common model for military tombstones of the 1st century in Britain and the Rhineland, though Flavinus’s is rather later and larger than most; earlier examples at Colchester and Carlisle are more modest in scale. Usually the foe is shown falling beneath trampling hooves, but here the naked, shaggy barbarian cringes away, ominously gripping a native sword. His face is distorted with fear and hate. The sculptor has a rather biased view of the foe; most of the people Rome conquered in Tynedale seem to have been peaceful small farmers when left undisturbed.
Flavinus’s tombstone is nearly nine feet high (2.64 metres), though it must once have been set deep in the earth. We have no evidence of any nearer Roman cemetery, so it was presumably brought from Corbridge for St Wilfrid’s church building efforts six centuries after Flavinus’s death; yet it seems odd that so massive and decorative a monument should have bean manhandled over three miles simply to serve as building stone. We know that when in the 12th century the Augustinian Canons set to work on their new church buildings, they laid the great slab face upwards in the foundations of the east range of the cloister. Where it had been before is not known, but that was where C. C. Hodges found it in 1881, when he was investigating below the floor of the slype. Since then, it has stood impressively if incongruously in the south transept, not far from where it was discovered.