Above: A Roman gravestone of similar design to the one mentioned in this article.
A version of this essay was first published in the Missoulian newspaper.
I previously explained the Roman and Colorado connections of the state name “Montana” and how in 1864 Congress applied the name the vast area between what were then Idaho Territory and Dakota Territory.
I observed that the name had a previous history: Montanus was a classical Latin word meaning “mountainous.” Both montanus and its feminine-singular and neuter-plural form montana—appeared frequently in Roman literature. When used as a noun, montana is best translated “mountainous country.”
Before Congress appropriated the name, Americans had called several other places “Montana.” Three of these were in the portion of Kansas Territory that later became eastern and central Colorado. The City of Denver is now situated in what was briefly called Montana County, Kansas.
But Montana is more than a place name. Occasionally parents bestow it on newborn daughters, although it is somewhat rare: I’ve known only one person called Montana, a lovely and gracious woman named Montana Watts. She lived in Billings, and when I ran for governor of Montana in 2000, she was one of my most enthusiastic supporters. I was disappointed to learn that she died in 2018.
Montana Watts was the heir to a name whose use extends back over 1500 years. Our first record of it comes from Gondorf, Germany. Gondorf is part of Kobern-Gondorf, a village in the Rhineland. As the town of Contrua, it was part of the Roman Empire.
The record is a gravestone. Re-discovered in 1887, the stone is 19 inches wide and just over a foot high. It was dedicated by a widow named Montana to her deceased husband Mauricius. She probably ordered it inscribed during the late fifth century.
You might expect the stone to be written in Latin, the dominant language in the western Roman Empire. But it isn’t—not quite. Conventionally, we date the “fall of Rome” to 476 C.E. But the western empire’s collapse actually was a process that lasted about a century. Montana and Mauricius may have noticed the slow relaxation of central control and the languishing of European commerce.
As Roman political and commercial bonds weakened, versions of Latin spoken in different regions began to grow apart. Eventually they evolved into the modern Romance languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Provinçal/Catalán, Spanish, and a collection of lesser middle-European tongues.
The inscription on the Gondorf gravestone appears in a form of Latin that was then in the process of mutating into a now-extinct, Romance language known as Mosel Romance. The inscription is as follows:
HOC TETOLO FECET MONTANA
CONLUX SVA MAVRICIO QVI VI
SIT CON ELO ANNVS DODECE ET
PORTAVIT ANNVS QARRANTA
TRASIT DIE VIII KL IVNIAS
In good Latin, that would be: “Hunc titulum fecit Montana/coniunx sua Mauricio; quae vi/xit cum illo annos duodecim; et/portavit annos quadraginta./Transit die VIII Kal. Iunias.”
Writers differ slightly about the translation, but here’s my literal English version: “Montana his wife made this inscription for Mauricius; she lived with him for twelve years and he carried 40 years. He went across on the eighth day before the Kalens of June.”
Or, more freely: “Montana, his wife, made this inscription for Mauricius; she lived with him for twelve years and he was 40 years old. He died eight days before June 1—that is, on May 25.” (The Roman system of counting days differed from ours.)
Below the inscription is a circle containing the Greek letters alpha and omega on either side of a crossed chi and rho, indicating that the deceased and his wife were Christians. The circle is flanked by two doves.
The year of death is not recorded. And we know nothing else about this couple—neither about Mauricius nor about his loving wife Montana.