Chesters Roman Fort, Bath House and Museum is one of those must-see sites of antiquity on Hadrian’s Wall. It has much of interest to offer the tourist, though, as with any ruinous historical attraction, it is as well to do a little homework beforehand to truly get the most from your visit.
Perhaps the oddest (and, well, yes, plain funny) ‘points’ of interest is the bold-as-brass phallic symbol to found in the central Headquarters building of the fort itself. There it sits in full view on a paving slab on the western side of the courtyard on a slightly raised circular boss, as if to emphasise its importance. All it does these days, of course, is to elicit a giggle or two and to be the subject of an innocent enquiry from a small child to their embarrassed parent.
It is not the only carving of its type at Chesters (there is another one, half buried, on the north wing of the bridge abutment, and a third in the Bath House), and there are plenty more elsewhere along the Wall. The fact is that these are not merely smutty items of 3D graffiti – but rather they actually mean something and were part of the Roman belief system.
Put simply, the phallic symbol represented good fortune and protection against evil spirits. Depending on its location, the meaning would be slightly different. A symbol found near a bridge or water may mean protection against flood, for example; though it is difficult to offer an explanation for the siting of what is, after all, a rather large example in the HQ block! It all no doubt stems from the quite literal representative use of the phallus, being that of fertility – the Romans celebrating Liberalia every 17th March with the phallus at the centre of proceedings and concerned (among other things) with the blessing of the year’s crops.
For the etymologically minded among you, these sorts of carvings are known as ‘phallic petrosomatoglyphs’, from the Greek words for ‘stone’, ‘body’ and ‘to carve’.