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Ancient Secret

Image found in the Palaestra, Pompeii, dating no later than Vesuvius eruption 79 CE, actually shows a plow motif

With bestselling suspense novels like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, a trend emerged in recent years toward 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. Typically, the Vatican, the U.S. Government, and other convenient 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 2009 convention of the International Thriller Writers in New York City (of which I am an Active Member; and Clocktower Books a recognized publisher), that I must be the only one among hundreds of 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 (also known as the Sator Rebus, or the Rotas Square).

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.

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, Ph.D., 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 I will explain, there is a military connection—but that is a subset of the larger implications of this rebus.

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 privileged to visit a secure facility at Yale University. Curators wheeled out an exemplar taken from a wall of the ancient Roman fortress Dura Europos, whose ruins lie 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.

Why the cover image? 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), but the image suggests the mystical depths of Roman culture as do quite a number of mythological frescoes surviving in ancient Roman ruins. The gaze of awe and faith mirrors the general theme of the wall paintings of that house, and suggests the same sort of profound spirituality as the Sator Square. The art work in that villa has also 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.

I have appended a short article about ancient Roman numenism, the animist religious foundation of their belief systems that allowed them to rise to a historica greatness that, when historians read or investigate, they most often come away in awe, speaking of ‘the Roman achievement.’ As I will point out in other articles, the rediscovery of Classical times and themes has been a regular theme and marvel of more modern cultures ever since the last Roman governors and civil servants and their families by about 400 A.D. or C.E. abandoned the far-flung regions of the empire and returned to the homeland (from Africa to the Baltic Sea, from the Scottish border to the Red Sea, and all points inbetween).

As an aside: Other meanings of the twin heads have been suggested. My initial, compelling guess was that the two heads, in this minor fresco, represent the two personifications of 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 because the seasons have gone awry, nothing is growing properly, and the world is in disorder. 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. I actually suspect humans were already harvesting as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, but weren’t fully in a regular annual planting-waiting-harvesting-celebrating seasonal mode yet until the Neolithic Revolution (and Epipaleolithic in the Fertile Crescent) not long after the last glaciation ended. As happened in actual life many thousands of years ago, in early Neolithic cultures a related thread in the mythos tells us about kingship: the king is ritually executed as an atonement for his people's sins, goes down to the underworld, and is reborn triumphant. Sound familiar? Oh, and the two halves of the Neolithic miracle are (a) rebirth and (b) fermentation, as in beer or wine. Hmm… those themes survive in many modern religious observances and rituals, just as the Sator Square never loses its freshness and meaning.

Was the Sator Square part of an ancient mystery religion? Or 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 alleged 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 let us not be too hasty to fall into pat and ready, well-worn grooves and clichés. The Sator Arepo 'Our Father' is not likely a reference to the Judeo-Christian God, but (far earlier) to Roman Jupiter, “Father of Men and Gods,” as cited in Virgil's Aeneid. Jupiter (Deus Pater) in turn is a manifestation of the Hellenic and Hellenistic Zeus or Zeos of primordial pedigree (Theos, God; PIE dyaus, etc.) who is father of men and gods in his own right. And there is the Father of whom Jesus repeatedly spoke…could that entail a Hellenistic influence, given the battle within Judaean culture between the pro-Hellenistic Sadducees and the anti-Hellenistic Pharisees (who also went after Jesus on many occasions, according to Christian scriptures).

Welcome to our very own house of mysteries…

In the summer of 2007, during years of research for a nonfiction guide to ancient Roman topology, I changed upon an old friend: the Sator Square. I had been aware of its existence for decades but, like most readers, was pushed away by the cryptic and opaque nature of its five words. I had no idea that I would one day solve the mystery (as I can confidently state).

Those five words seem to make no earthly sense, but must have been overwhelmingly important in the Classical world. I am about to explain the entire enigma. This is perhaps the most perfect and wonderful palindrome ever created. A palindrome is a word or group of words that reads the same forwards as backwards. For example, the word madam is a one-word palindrome. Here is a sample palindrome:

Madam I'm Adam.

The Sator Square is far better: a four-way palindrome. You can read it the same way left to right, right to left, up to down, and down to up. Try it—take a look at the exemplar above. You’ll see why it is just as often referred to as a Rotas Square as it is a Sator Square.

By the way, you’ll also see it described as the Sator Rebus. What is a rebus, you ask? It is probably a European Medieval invention, in an age when a late form of popular (vulgate) Latin was a universal language of commerce, education, and church across the many languages and dialects of Europe, and it refers most commonly to a game or a puzzle. It is a form of the Latin word res, which had about as many applications as our modern English word ‘thing.’ Specifically, it is the ablative plural in the declension of res, so it’s rebus, which means roughly ‘about things’ or ‘about stuff.’ It is actually the first word in the elided (one word made out of two) word pair res publica, best translated as ‘the public business.’ From that, we derive the modern English word republic (for which it stands, right?).

Ancient examples of the square can be found all over the Roman Empire, from Britain to today's Syria, in Africa, and certainly in Italy. In Roman Britain, exemplars found in Cirencester and Manchester are of a variety called the Rotas Square, because the order is reversed: Rotas Opera Tenet Arepo Sator. The meaning is the same. Medieval and modern examples are found on churches across Europe, for example the Duomo in Siena. When I came upon it in the summer of 2007, I probably uttered an initial gasp of exasperation. Even as I pushed it away, a sudden revelation floated to the surface of my thoughts. Intrigued, I decided to take a break from the research on my Rome book, to play with the Sator Square. I saw something nobody else had seen before. I realized that the Sator Square is a mystery hidden in plain sight, in the finest tradition of thrillers and suspense novels. Only this is a true story.

It took me a few weeks to sort out what I had uncovered. Once I had the initial insight, it did not take long to tease the rest of the information from plain sight into plain meaning. For me, personally, as the hidden meaning floated into view, it was like developing a photograph in the stillness of the darkroom, and being startled at the emerging clarity of what had been a muddle. Without commenting on the Shroud of Turin, just for example, I am reminded of how startled the amateur photographer Secondo Pia must have been on a May evening in 1898, when he accidentally discovered that the photo-negative plate of a photo he had taken of the shroud showed a much clearer image of the purported crucifixion victim than the actual faint, sepia image on the shroud. There is no connection between the Sator Square and this shroud, and I only mention it as a measure of my amazement when, finally, at last, the Sator Square made perfect sense in its linguistic, religious, philosophical, and historic contexts.

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