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Opinion: More on the name 'Montana'

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In several previous Missoulian columns, I’ve discussed the history of the name “Montana.” The word is Latin and means “mountainous country.” Congress knew this when, in 1864, it applied the name to the territory between the Dakotas and Idaho. Before that, “Montana” designated several locations now in Colorado. Most of the city of Denver, for example, was once located in Montana County, Kansas Territory.

“Montana” occasionally is used as a woman’s name, and has been for centuries. Last year I reported on what I believed to be our earliest record of “Montana” as a female name. The record is a gravestone found in Gondorf, in Germany’s Rhineland. The Rhineland was part of the Roman Empire and the stone dates to the latter half of the 5th century, when the Empire was on the point of dissolution.

The inscription was written in a transitional language between Latin and a now-extinct Romance language, and it was dedicated to a man named Mauricius by his wife, Montana.

However, an exciting thing about honest research is that you learn new things, and sometimes you learn that you were mistaken. I recently found that Roman women bore the name “Montana” well before the time of the Gondorf grave marker.

A premier resource for Roman historians and classicists is a multi-volume set of Latin inscriptions collected during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the German scholar Hermann Dessau. The collection is called Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (Selected Latin Inscriptions). Academics usually abbreviate it “ILS.” It includes thousands of Latin-language inscriptions from classical times as well as Dessau’s own commentary, also composed in Latin. Later scholars have supplemented it with additional inscriptions.

Working with the hard copy of ILS can be clumsy, but the multi-volume set is now online, in (somewhat imperfect) word searchable PDF format. Using both the original index and the word-search feature, I checked to see if the various Latin forms of “Montana” appeared before the Gondorf epitaph. I found a fair number.

The most common form of the word was the masculine version: “Montanus.” This appears on the gravestone of one Gaius Julius Montanus, a young man who died while heading up the ladder of public offices during the time of Nero. (Nero reigned from the year 54 until 68). I also found the epitaph of Titus Aelius Montanus, who served in the imperial accounting office and died on an unknown date at age 55. Still another inscription memorialized a first century soldier named Gaius Julius Fabia [sic; possibly “Fabius”] Montanus.

More distinguished was a legionary commander named Quintus Eniboudius Montanus, active during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (reigned:161-180). There was even a consul: Titus Junius Montanus, who served in that office for part of the year 81.

More humble folk also shared the name. One gravestone records the deceased as Quintus Nunnius Montanus, a member of the carpenter’s guild in Luna, a Roman town near modern La Spezia in Liguria, Italy.

“Montana” and its variations could designate locations as well. In Lower Moesia (a province whose territory overlapped modern Bulgaria), there was a town called Oppidum Montanensium or Municipium Montanensium. Literally, this means “Town of the Mountaineers.” Sometimes people just called it “Montana.”

A monument records how a wealthy Roman lady named Mallia Aemiliana came to Montana, promptly did honor to the local gods, and restored the town’s public grain supply.

Variations of the word could be applied to military units. The best example is a cohort of auxiliary soldiers called “Montanorum” — the cohort “of the mountainous areas.” An inscription from the time of the Emperor Domitian (81 to 96) reports its existence.

Auxiliary soldiers were drawn from subject and allied peoples, and did not enjoy Roman citizenship. As the name suggests, their job was to support the Roman legions, often as cavalrymen. I’m happy to report that an inscription from the time of Trajan (98-117) tells us that the cohort Montanorum received Roman citizenship for its loyal service.

What of women named Montana? The evidence is less copious. The two most interesting inscriptions I found were both epitaphs. One marked the grave of Turrania Montana and her husband Aulus Turranius. The epitaph doesn’t tell us much, other than that Aulus was a dealer in wickerwork in the province of Gaul.

My favorite, however, is the epitaph on a gravestone found at Antinum (modern Cività d’Antino), in central Italy. Unlike the stone at Gondorf, whose decorations show the deceased to have been a Christian, this stone contains the abbreviation “D.M.” — dis manibus, a reference to the pagan gods of the underworld.

The marker was placed by Odyne and her husband Montanus. It tells us that Montanus was an arcarius, or financial officer. The stone marked the resting place of a young woman named Varia Montana, “the most dutiful of daughters,” who “made her parents sad by her untimely death.”

As well it might: Varia Montana was only 22.

Rob Natelson was a professor of law at the University of Montana for 24 years and is Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. He is the author of "The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant." 

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