Story: Christianity in Roman Manchester
Object: 2nd century Roman word puzzle
Location: Manchester Museum
Year: 182 AD
How surprising that in Manchester, the most modern of cities, the world’s first industrial city, one of the oldest Christian relics ever discovered in Britain should be found, and to complete the irony it was in the shadow of one of the most prominent modern structures, the Beetham Tower.
In 1978, on a dig on Trafford Street by the side of where the Beetham now stands, archaeologists unearthed a piece of broken pottery dating back to the year 182 ad, apparently, inscribed with Latin letters. What made this relic different was that the writing read “ROTAS OPERA”. Experts knew that this was part of a word square, found across the Roman Empire, which Christians, then having to worship in secret, would use to communicate with each other secretly. The complete wordsquare would have read:
which reads the same backwards, forwards, upside-down. Even though the translation is prosaic: “Arepo the sower guides the wheels with care”, re-arranged it reads PATERNOSTER, “our father” plus the letters A and O signifying alpha and omega, “the first” and “the last”.
Clearly there were Christians in late 2nd century Manchester at a time when Rome was still worshipping the god Mithras. It would not be until the year 312 that Rome would adopt the new religion.