The Sator Enigma: Ancient Roman Mystery, Solved At Last?
Click on image to enlarge.
by John T. Cullen
Description: The inscription is found in ruins around the former Roman Empire: Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas. From a military headquarters at Dura Europos (in modern Syria) to a sports complex in ancient Pompeii to the towns of Manchester and Cirencester in Great Britain, the mysterious saying appears to have been an aphorism or a spell of extraordinary importance in Classical Roman society. Since at least 1880, generations of scholars have been working to solve it, in various disciplines, and until now nobody has succeeded in finding a plausible, satisfying explanation. During his study of ancient Roman topology (for creating the first virtual tour guide for lay readers, of the entire imperial capital in 150 under the Emperor Antoninus--A Walk in Ancient Rome, Revised 2nd Edition, due out early 2010), the author happened upon this ancient inscription. He spotted something nobody else has ever noticed, and from there proceeded to translate and explain the Sator Square. It is the first plausible, satisfying explanation ever found, and quite likely the correct answer to a mystery that has baffled scholars. In the light of this discovery, the ancient world comes to life for us in a beautiful new set of insights. The author was flown to Yale University for an interview at a secure facility, standing beside the Sator exemplar from Dura Europos. The interview will be aired on the History Channel in late 2010.
eBook Publisher: Clocktower Books and Far Sector SFFH (magazine), 2009
Filament eBookStore Release Date: November 2009
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [85 KB]
Reading time: 38-54 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
With Dan Brown's bestselling novels like The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, a trend emerged in recent years among suspense writers, to pen fast-paced thrillers about someone who deciphers an important ancient code. The heroes and heroines of such stories suddenly find themselves on the run for their lives, chased by all sorts of gun-wielding heavies. Usually, the Vatican, the U.S. Government, and other players throw shadowy and dangerous agents into the mix. In the end, after harrowing adventures, the world is saved for the moment, and the hero and heroine get a brief reprieve while the next installment signals itself at the ending.
I was amused to think, while attending a major 2009 convention of thriller writers in New York City, that I must be the only one of more than 800 thriller writers in that hotel to actually have deciphered a major ancient code. Lucky for me, so far no gun-wielding thugs are chasing me, and the world seems safe from the Sator Square (often known as the Sator Rebus). This article is a personal account of how I had the great fortune to spot something nobody else has apparently ever seen, and developed the first-ever plausible translation and explanation of this ancient mystery. The History Channel will release this story as part of a series on ancient history in late 2010.
[A note for readers: This is in large part a rather scholarly article that does not make for light reading.]
What a cipher it is! For centuries, scholars have been trying to understand the enigmatic code of the Sator Square, without significant result. Hundreds, if not thousands, of papers have been published by the best people in various disciplines, ranging from History to Linguistics, from Epigraphy to Classics. At least one person completed his Ph.D. thesis at Yale University on the Sator Square. Famous writers like C. W. Ceram and Jerome Carcopino have weighed in over the past century or more. Dr. Rose Mary Sheldon, Chair of History at Virginia Military Institute, has compiled a bibliography of all major work done for the past century or more, which was published by a cryptology journal at the U. S. Military Academy, West Point. Like the Voynich Manuscript, it is one of history's most tantalizing mysteries, but many centuries older--perhaps the world's oldest mystery cipher at that, dating to at least the same time period as the early decades of Christianity.
The Sator Square has proven to be a baffling, world class mystery that will not go away and will not rest.
Was it important? Without revealing a clue about its meaning, it has seemed obvious to scholars that a cryptic inscription found prominently displayed across the entire Roman empire over a period of centuries must have had some profound meaning. But what universal meaning did it have to the generals, soldiers, senators, emperors, bishops, and governors of the world's first quasi-global empire?
Some recent scholarship tentatively points to a military connection, since some exemplars of this ancient mystery have been found inscribed on the walls of military headquarters from Britain to Syria.
As with all historical problems, it is amazing how much we know and, at the same time, frustrating how much has been lost. Within months of my discovery, I was contacted by producers for the History Channel, who consulted with a world expert, and flew me across the United States in February 2009 for an interview in a secure facility at Yale University. Curators wheeled out an exemplar taken from a wall of the ancient Roman fortress Dura Europos, in today's Syria.
In this article I will reveal the world's first plausible explanation of the Sator Square, and its profound meaning in human history.
The cover image of this article shows a twin-headed wall fresco decorating a wall in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. There is no direct connection with the Sator Square (whose five enigmatic words I have written under the image). However, the gaze of awe and faith mirrors the general theme of the wall paintings of the house, and the profound spirituality of the Sator Square. The art work in that villa has not been completely deciphered, since it points to one of the mystery religions whose rituals and tenets were kept strictly secret. The whole point was that you had to be an adept to get into the cult in the first place. My guess is that the two heads, in this minor fresco, represent Persephone, daughter of the grain goddess Demeter. In a myth dating as far back as the New Stone Age, and current throughout the Mediterranean for millennia, Persephone is the virginal daughter of Demeter. Persephone is abducted into the underworld by Hades, who ravishes her and keeps her prisoner. In protest, all the gods and goddesses turn to Zeus for justice. Finally, a compromise is worked out. Persephone gets to spend half the year (spring and summer; see the life-like face with the green leaves) above the earth, and half the year underground (fall and winter; see the paler, ghostly face) as a shade or spirit. It is one of the threads of Neolithic legend. As happened in actual life many thousands of years ago, a related thread in the mythos tells of a king who is ritually executed as an atonement for his people's sins, goes down to the underworld, and is reborn triumphant.
Was the Sator Square part of an ancient mystery religion? Was it a Christian artifact? As recently as 1923, the Sator Square coughed up another of its tantalizing secrets, creating even greater mystery, when it was found that its letters can be rearranged to spell the words Pater Noster, leaving A and O, possibly Alpha and Omega, as in I am the beginning and the end. But then, 'Our Father' is not only a reference to the Judeo-Christian God, but also to Jupiter, Father of Men and Gods, as cited in Virgil's Aeneid. Welcome to our very own house of mysteries...