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The Latin inscriptions of Oxfordshire

Latin has a new lease of life in Oxford

Dr Cressida Ryan
BBC Oxford contributor

'Latin isn't dead, it's just set in stone'.

It is certainly monumentalised in Oxford inscriptions, but Oxfordshire's Roman heritage goes far beyond masonry.

Latin permeates a range of daily activities: church clocks, such as at Carfax, direct our lives through Roman numerals.

Latin Masses are said at the Oratory every week. While most local street names are Anglo-Saxon in origin, shop names display our Latin heritage more clearly.

Scriptum ('the thing having been written') on Turl Street, for example, uses its Latin name to explain its contents.

North Leigh Roman villa includes a well-preserved mosaic floor and is free to visit.

The Ashmolean features such gems as a Roman oakwood water valve to stop fish escaping from ponds at Shakenoak.

The money gallery sets the Chalgrove hoards of Roman coins next to the Oxford Crown, whose inscription RELIG PRO LEG ANG LIBER PARL 1644 ('The religion of the Protestants, the laws of England, liberty of Parliament') was used by both sides in the conflict.

Latin inscription
Oxfordshire people are surrounded by Latin

Conflict provides further Latin, when we look at the memorials to soldiers which are found around the colleges. Spoken and written, sacred and secular, we're surrounded by Latin.

Hertford College

Over the college door is inscribed the motto: sicut cervus anhelet ad fontes aquarum 'Like as the hart pants for streams of water'.

A quotation from Psalm 42, this recalls the more modern phrase 'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink', while the college hopefully does inspire its students to drink from the founts of knowledge available to them.


The Schools Quad contains the university's original lecture rooms, with the subject titles above the doorways. Originally covering the subjects available to students at the university, they provide a glimpse of academic history in action.

The Ashmolean Museum

The very name is a Latinised form of the museum's founder, Elias Ashmole, in the same way as the Instituto Tayloriana and Bodelian library Latinise English names.

Latin inscriptions adorn the inside of the museum, particularly the main front staircase. The newly re-opened cast gallery includes a copy of the Laocoon statue, inspired by Book II of Virgil's Aeneid.

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Coming up from the garden, an inscription reads Dominus custodiat introitum tuum et exitum tuum, 'May the Lord watch over your entrance and exit'.

Easy to miss, this line is repeated elsewhere in Oxford.

Enriching education

The Classics Outreach Programme aims to support Latin where it does exist, promote it where it does not, and use it as a valuable tool to enrich the education of all children throughout the area.

Formal provision for school children is limited but a range of options are available and interest in expanding local Latin provision is keen.

Dr Cressida Ryan is the Classics Outreach Officer at the University of Oxford.

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