Licinius' 5 cups

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« I belong to Licinius » : when five small cups start to talk

In a roman house, an interesting discovery…

In 1992, during archaological digs at the Rue de la Gare in Nyon, two roman domus’ are excavated, large houses that occupied a quandragular area of 1000m2 each. Built aroung a central courtyard surrounded by a portico, these houses were very common in urban areas in the roman provinces. Close to the facilities of the city centre (forum, market, thermae…), they were probably owned by a rich family of the region who lived there with their slaves and employees.

In one of them, under a collapsed wall, five small ceramic cups were found. Each of them is about eight centimeters in diameter. They were evidently stowed on or in a wooden cabinet, that must have fallen apart when the wall collapsed.

Distinctive ceramics

Two of the cups (the first two on the left of the picture, top and bottom) clearly come from potter workshops in the South of Gaul. This type of ceramic is called “terra sigillata”, recognizable by the bright red-orange color of its coating. These workshops were major centres of production, exporting their products all over the Roman Empire, to the oriental borders of the Mediterranean. It is therefore unsurprising that we regularly find these ceramics on Helvetian territory.

The three other cups are similar to the two previous ones in both dimension and shape. Slightly less sharp, they come from potter workshops of the region. Given the success of these ceramics imported from Gaul, the local craftsmen started making similar products, inspired themselves by the italic terra sigillata. These regional ceramics are called “imitation of terra sigillata” and are mainly produced in Helvetia.

These cups are thought to be used for drinking, probably wine, a beverage of roman tradition rather than Gallic. Even if wine was imported from Italy and appreciated by the Gauls, they traditionally drank mead and barley ale, served in deeper cups with a slightly tighter neck.

When the ceramic gives a time frame

Ceramic containers, particularly the “terra sigillata”, are precious time markers for archaeologists. Just like today, roman tableware was subject to trends and the production of ceramics evolved through time, as did the craftsmen’s expertise. Thus a cup of a certain type could be produced for several decades and later be abandoned for another type that was considered more “modern”. Thanks to comparative research, it is now possible to determine the production period of each type of ceramic and give a rather precise dating.

Concerning the five cups of the Rue de la Gare, it is likely that their owner gathered all five during the first half of the first century AD, more specifically as of 30 AD, since one of the shapes was not produced before that date.

When the objects talk

Let’s have a closer look at these cups: two bear the name Licini “for Licinius”, whereas two others are ingraved on the side with the phrase Li(ci)num sum “I belong to Licinius”. These words were ingraved by the owner of the cups, someone named Licinius, who wanted to make sure the rest of the household knew they were his. The fifth cup has no graffito, but since it is part of the same lot, it probably belonged to him as well.

Ownership marks on household objects are relatively common and are part of what the archaeologists call “minor inscriptions” or graffiti. According to a recent study (R. Sylvestre, Les graffitis…, 2017), 1828 graffiti of that type (on ceramics, on wall coating or other bases, school exercises, content indication or votive inscriptions…)  were found in the city of Avenches of which 483 bore ownership marks.

Who was this Licinius ? Was he one of the owners of the house? Or was he a slave or an employee of the family? Unfortunately, it is impossible to answer to these questions. Indeed, there are numerous occurences of this name in Gaul and even in Rome and can just as well designate roman citizens, slaves, freed slaves or peregrines (free men deprived of roman citizen rights).

The identity and social status of Licinius will remain a mystery, but we can always imagine him carefully writing his name down on the cups in order to ensure they weren’t used by anyone else, just like we would do today with our personal belongings. 

Malika Bossard
Tour guide and inventory officer at the Roman Museum of Nyon, archaeology graduate

Something to read:

Collectif, Musée romain de Nyon Colonia Iulia Equestris, un site, un musée, Gollion, Infolio, 2019.

Richard Sylvestre, Les graffiti sur céramique d’Aventicum (Avenches). Éléments de réflexion sur la population du Caput Ciuitatis Heluetiorum, Avenches, Documents du Musée Romain d’Avenches, n°28, 2017.

Thierry Luginbühl, Imitations de sigillée et potiers du haut-empire en Suisse occidentale : archéologie et histoire d’un phénomène artisanal antique, Lausanne, Cahiers d’archéologie romande n° 83, 2001.

Thierry Luginbühl et Annick Schneiter, Estampilles régionales et graffiti : inscriptions mineures de la Colonia Iulia Equestris, Nyon, Rapport au Musée Romain de Nyon, 1998.


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