A volunteer digger at the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland unearthed a rare silver phalara bearing a relief of a Medusa’s head earlier this month. It was discovered on the floor of a barracks dating back to the period of Hadrian’s occupation in the 2nd century BC.
The silver disk has a raised edge with the bust of Medusa facing the viewer. She has wings on top of her head and disheveled wavy hair, a refined snake-haired version of the once terrifying gorgon. The only snakes in the portrait are two slender guys tied in a knot under her chin like a bolo tie.
Phalers were worn by centurions and standard-bearers in the Roman legions, emblems of rank and valor. They came in sets of three to ten medallions fastened to leather straps with a buckle on the back. They could be simple discs or decorated with reliefs of deities, animals, mythological creatures, or emperors. The Gorgon Medusa was a popular motif for phalars, breastplates, and other military equipment, as her image was considered apotropaic (i.e., having the power to ward off evil or bad luck).
An example comparable to the Vindolanda find is engraved on the tombstone of the Roman centurion Marcus Caelius, known as the only archaeological epigraphic source that explicitly mentions the Varian catastrophe of AD 9. Marcus Caelius was a primus pilus (senior centurion). one of the three legions of the XVIII legion, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was accidentally ambushed in the Teutoburg Forest, which destroyed them all and brought to naught the Roman attempt to conquer Germany beyond the Rhine. After his death in a disastrous battle, his brother Caelius had a tombstone erected in his honor. Now in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, the headstone depicts a centurion in a falar. The central medallion, larger than the others, is a gorgonion.
Phalers were valuable status symbols and could not be deliberately abandoned. The one in Vindolanda was probably lost by accident, much to the dismay of its owner. It is currently under conservation and will be exhibited at the Vindolanda Museum next year.