Today, there are many Roman rings of gold and silver in museums and archives. However, one Roman ring stands out as legendary. Known as the Ring of Senicianus, the Ring of Silvianus, or the Vyne Ring, this gold ring was stolen over 1600 years ago. The owner begged the gods to curse the thief and anyone else who possessed it. Owned by the National Trust today and on display at Vyne Manner, this golden ring may have been the inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s One Ring in The Hobbit.
Sometime during the 4th century AD, Silvianus, a Roman stationed in Gloucestershire, England, visited the elaborate baths of the Celtic God Nodens. Located on a hill above the River Severn at Lydney, the Temple of Nodens celebrated the Roman-British deity that is associated with healing, hunting, dogs, and the sea.
Nodens is a cognate of the Old Irish Nuada Airgetlam, first king of the Tuatha de Danann who was disqualified from ruling Ireland because he lost his hand in battle. Nodens has also been associated with the Fisher King of Arthurian legends, the Norse god Njord of the Vanir (god of wine, fishing, sailing, and fertile land along the seacoast), and the Roman god Mars. By all accounts, Nodens could be a rascally deity and well inclined to help with a curse.
When Silvianus was at the Temple, his golden ring was stolen from him. Silvianus believed that it was Senicianus who stole the ring- how he knew this is not clear. Silvianus thus went to the Temple and prepared a lead plate known as a defixio or ‘curse tablet’.
He inscribed the tablet in Latin:
DEVO NODENTI SILVIANVS ANILVM PERDEDIT DEMEDIAM PARTEM DONAVIT NODENTI INTER QVIBVS NOMEN SENICIANI NOLLIS PETMITTAS SANITATEM DONEC PERFERA VSQVE TEMPLVM DENTIS
Which translates as:
For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.
The ring is large, perhaps intended to be worn on the thumb or outside of a glove. It has a diameter of 1 inch (25mm) and weighs 12 grams (0.4oz). The ring has ten facets and a square bezel engraved with the image of the Roman goddess Venus. When the pagan Silvianus owned the ring, the ten gold sides were bare. Yet a later Christian owner, perhaps Senicianus, had the ring crudely inscribed with the letters “SENICIANE VIVAS IIN DE.” Presumably, the inscriber meant to say “SENICIANE VIVAS IN DEO” or “Senicianus, may you live with God,” however, he misspelled ‘IN’ with two Is and therefore had no room for the O in DEO.
Little is known about the fate of Senicianus. The ring was discovered in 1785 in a plowed field on a farm near Silchester, England. Silchester is a town of Roman origins some 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Lydney. Some researchers say the ring was accidentally lost, others hold that it was purposefully discarded. Falling on hard times, the Silchester farmer sold the ring to the Chute family who lived in the nearby country house, The Vyne. The Chutes were known to be interested in history and antiquities, however, it was not until 1888 that Chaloner Chute took notice of the ring and published a paper on it. And it was not until 1929 that the connection between the Vyne Ring and Silvianus’ curse tablet was established by archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. The connection cannot be entirely confirmed, however, Senicianus is an unusual name and the close dates of the artifacts seem to support Wheeler’s theory.
J.R.R. Tolkien, at the time merely a professor of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic literature at Oxford University, was asked by his friend Wheeler to help clarify who the obscure god Nodens was and what role he might play in the history of the Ring.
Many now believe that the Ring of Senicianus was the inspiration for the ring in The Hobbit . In an article published in History Today , Mark Horton, professor of Archaeology at the University of Bristol, and Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill, Education Officer for the Tolkien Society, explain:
Silvianus loses his gold ring at Lydney, as Gollum lost his under the Misty Mountains. Silvianus believes his ring has been stolen by someone whose name he knows – Senicianus – just as Gollum thinks his ring has been stolen by Bilbo Baggins. Silvianus curses by name the person he suspects. Similarly, when Gollum works out that Bilbo has found and kept his ring, he cries out in rage: ‘Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!’ Both Gollum and Silvianus know the identity of the persons they regard as thieves who have stolen their gold rings and both declare these names with maledictions.
It is important to recall that the ring in The Hobbit (1937) , which gives the wearer invisibility, is different from that ring in The Lord of the Rings books (1954-55), which gives the wearer unique sight, extended life, and untold power. Author J.R.R. Tolkien has acknowledged the difference, writing, “The only liberty … has been to make Bilbo’s Ring the One Ring: all rings had the same source, before ever he put his hand on it in the dark.”
Interest in the story of The Vyne Ring has been re-awakened by a new exhibition at the National Trust's historic Vyne Estate, which asks the question: what is it that inspired author JRR Tolkien? Martin Parsons sets off On The Trail Of Tolkien to find out, following the author's story from Birmingham to Oxford and beyond. The journey examines Tolkien's early life around Sarehole Mill, visits the city's real-life inspiration for The Two Towers and soaks up Tolkien's influences in Oxford: from the academia of Exeter College, to his meetings with CS Lewis at the Eagle And Child pub, to the Tolkien family home in Northmoor Road. The story of Tolkien's connection with The Vyne Ring is also explored with historian Mathew Lyons and Professor Michael Fulford of Reading University, as Martin joins the archaeological dig at Silchester where the famous 'cursed' gold ring was discovered...YouTube
A film for the National Trust by Honalee Media.