The inscription appears on the front of the altar above a carved relief of five male figures carrying out a ritual. The officiant in the center is wearing a toga and has his head covered (capite velato). He extends his hand toward an altar in order to burn incense, a box of which is held by a boy to the left. Behind them is an aulos-player, whose music would be intended to "drown out inauspicious noises." The figure between the aulist and the officiant is worn and reveals little. The fifth, to the far right, is bearded and wearing a garment that is not a toga; he carries something slung over his right shoulder.
The inscription reads as follows:
- Titus Flavius
- Constans Praef
- Praet EMV
Roughly translated into English, the inscription can be read as:
- To the Goddess
- Titus Flavius
- Constans, Prefect
- of the Praetorians, [dedicated this] in his distinguished memory."
The altar was dedicated by a Roman citizen, and the iconography is that of a traditional Roman sacrifice, but Vagdavercustis was most likely a native Germanic or Celtic goddess. It was not unusual, and perhaps even customary, for Roman officials in the provinces to honor local gods as a way to maintain local goodwill. There is some evidence that Vagdavercustis was worshipped by the Batavians (a Germanic tribe reported by Tacitus to have lived around the Rhine delta, in the area that is currently the Netherlands) in the region between the present-day Netherlands and Cologne (Köln).
The paucity of evidence pertaining to Vagdavercustis has led to abundant interpretations of her significance. Trees are depicted on the side panels of the altar, suggesting a vegetative function. She may be related to Virtus, the Roman god of military virtue. Since she occurs only at Cologne, she may be a localized deity of place. The name has been taken to mean "protectress of war dancers," with Vagdavercustis characterized as a war goddess.
- Janet Huskinson, Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire (Routledge, 2000), p. 248.
- "EMV" is a conventional abbreviation for "egregiae memoriae vir," see Peck, Harry Thurston. Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. New York:Harper and Brothers, 1898
- As indicated by the use of the tria nomina; see Roman naming conventions.
- Compare the relief of Marcus Aurelius sacrificing before the Temple of Capitoline Jove.
- Ansuharijaz (2003) Forgotten Gods, on the Reginheim website.
- Huskinson, Experiencing Rome, p. 261.
- For a map, see Livius.org.
- Religiöse Kulte im römischen Köln: Vagdavercustis
- Miranda Green, Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art (Routledge, 1989, 1992), p. 40 (Green takes Vagdavercustis as a Germanic deity).
- Green, Symbol and Image, p. 40.
- Michael Speidel, Ancient Germanic Warriors: Warrior Styles from Trajan's Column to Icelandic Sagas (Routledge, 2004), p. 102, citing Jan de Vries, Religionsgeschichte II, 1957, 325.