The Sator Square, an enigma that crosses history

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If we found a palindromic Latin epigraph with an uncertain meaning, it would already be an enigma. Moreover, if this signifier were to be rediscovered repeatedly and in different places, it could also be an archaeological riddle. But if it were found on artifacts belonging to different epochs, peoples and cultures, it would be a great mystery. There is no other way to define the Sator Square, a timeless puzzle that seems to transcend the limits of human understanding.

Sator Square
A Sator Square in the remains of the castle walls of Brusaporto

The mysterious Sator Square

The words that compose the Sator Square are impressed in history. Like a seal on an ancient letter, they reveal the existence of deep and immutable contents of the human soul, primitive anthropological mechanisms that resound from the darkness. This is the only way to explain the wide diffusion of an apparently meaningless Latin phrase over the centuries. Perhaps the words SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS are part of a collective unconscious, as Jung suggested, but no one knows why. In any case, the words of the Sator keep re-emerging from the dust, in very different archaeological contexts.

They have been found in a variety of Medieval places of worship: in Sermoneta, at the Abbey of Valvisciolo (13th century) as wall engravings; in a circular mosaic floor of the Collegiate Church of Sant’Orso in Aosta (12th century) and in the presbytery mosaic of the Church of San Giovanni Decollato in Pieve Terzagni (12th century); carved on a stone block outside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Siena (13th century) and the Pieve San Giovanni in Campiglia Marittima (12th century), they can be read on a wall in Brusaporto and so on. Most of these archaeological finds confirm the importance of the spatial arrangement of the words, aligned in an ideal square of twenty-five letters. The Sator Square is palindromic. It maintains its meaning intact in different reading directions, a peculiarity for which it is also called the ‘magic square’.

Sator Square
The Sator Square

Hence, we could imagine the Sator Square to have Medieval origins. Indeed, until the beginning of the 20th century this was believed to be the case, but at that time the enigma had not yet been revealed in all its complexity.

The finding of the Sator in Pompeii

On 5 October 1925, the archaeologist and epigrapher Matteo della Corte examined for a long time an inscription in the atrium of the house of Publius Paquius Proculus [1] [2], in the archaeological site of Pompeii. Between the cracks in the plaster, he identified the Sator Square. The fragment, which was mutilated, was almost forgotten until 12 November 1936. On that day, della Corte found the Sator engraved on the plaster covering of column LXI in the Palestra Grande [3]. The words were carved irregularly and curiously began with ROTAS. Matteo della Corte defined the discovery as a Pompeian laterculus, since it was recurrent among the epigraphic attestations [4]. He immediately perceived the playful character of the inscription, which could be read in various directions.

The Palestra Grande of Pompeii has a long portico, supported by columns, which runs internally for three hundred and fifty metres on three perimeter sides. On column LXI, Matteo della Corte has found the inscription of the Sator Square.

A terminus ante quem

The discovery was bound to change everything we thought we knew about the Sator Square. This new finding backdated its origin by many centuries, making it possible to obtain a precise time estimate. The Palestra Grande dates back to the first century BC but was rebuilt after an earthquake in 62 AD. The Pompeii Sator is certainly later than this date, and has a certain terminus ante quem. In fact, it cannot be later than the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD that covered Pompeii until its modern rediscovery.

Sator Square
The Sator from the Palestra Grande in Pompeii. This piece is now preserved, although no longer legible, in the Antiquarium of Pompeii.

The Pompeian squares are not the only ones dating back to before the Middle Ages. Some squares from the first centuries are known: the specimen engraved on a plaster of a house in Cirencester, the ancient Roman Corinium Donuborum (3rd century); those found at the archaeological site of Dura-Europos, in Syria (prior to 256, the year in which the Mesopotamian city was destroyed) [5]; the graphite engraving in the basement of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (prior to the 5th century).

A complicated interpretation

A well-established practice in archaeological research is to identify an artefact by the context in which it was found. This practice is essential in order to understand its use, dating and proper meaning. If an Egyptian papyrus is found in a burial chamber, we can deduce the meaning of the hieroglyphics. They could contain information about the deceased, the burial method or the Ancient Egyptians’ beliefs about the afterlife.

In the case of an epigraph, such as the Sator Square, we would certainly expect it to be linked to the historical moment in which it was made. However, the difficulty in interpreting the Pompeian laterculus derives precisely from the impossibility of reconstructing a temporal context, since it belongs to different periods. Rather, we wonder how it is possible that the Quadrato del Sator is rediscovered in Roman and early Christian archaeological sites as well as in medieval ones; on cult buildings as well as on secular manuscripts; on the surface of vases and cups and at the same time on floor mosaics; in the form of an engraving or epigraph; and again: in square, rectangular and even circular form, as in the case of Aosta and Sermoneta.


Sator Square
The Sator Square, Campiglia Marittima (LI)

Literal translations

So far it has been extremely complex to reconstruct a complete meaning shared by scholars. There is not even an unambiguous interpretation of the words that compose the Sator Square:

  • SATOR is usually translated as the ‘sower‘. In relation to the biblical references of the term, it could take on the meaning of ‘creator‘. Scholars who support this thesis point out that a pre-Christian Sator has never been found. However, a pagan origin of the Sator cannot be ruled out, especially in relation to the Pompeian discoveries dated just before 79 AD. The first to use the term ‘Sator’ for a deity was Cicero as early as 44 BC. In his translation of Sophocles’ Trachiniae, Hercules refers to his father Zeus as caelestum sator [6].
  • AREPO is a term of great interpretative complexity. It is found only in the Quadrat of the Sator and in no other text. Arepo is a hapax laegomenon and it is not possible to reconstruct its meaning through a philological comparison. A possible linguistic derivation has been sought from other Roman terms: it could originate from aripennis, a plot of land; it could be an abbreviation of the Areòpagus in Athens; in Gaul arepos was a chariot; again, the harpe was a sickle for agricultural purposes; finally, there is the possibility that the word arepo was an acronym, e.g. ‘Aeternus Rex Excelsus Pater Omnipotens’.
  • TENET is the conjugation of the verb to hold or to keep, third-person singular.
  • OPERA could indicate the ablatif ‘with care’, or the accusative plural of opus ‘the works’.
  • ROTAS, plural accusative, is the ‘wheels’ or the ‘celestial spheres’.

Suggested interpretations

On the basis of the semantic analysis of its terms, numerous literal and interpretative translations of the Sator Square have been proposed [7]. A list of the main ones follows.

A – Jérôme Carcopino (1881-1970), Le christianisme secret du carré magique: “The sower, with his plough, holds the wheels with care”. AREPO is used as an ablative and indicates a particular type of Celtic chariot.

B – Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘The sower of the Areopagus holds the wheels of the Opera’. AREPO is translated as ‘areopagus’, the hill sacred to the god Ares. OPERA is used as a genitive.

C – R.G. Collingwood, The Archaeology of Roman Britain, London, 1930: “The Sower, Arepo, guides the wheels carefully“. La parola AREPO è qui il nome comune di persona Arepone.

D – Andrea Brugnoli e Francesco Cortellazzo, L’epigrafe del Sator a San Michele di Arcé: “The sower of an arepo maintains the convent with his work”. AREPO indicates a plot of land, from arepennis, an adaptation of a word of Gallic origin. ROTAS is translated as “the convent”.

E – ‘The sower decides his daily work, the supreme areopagus decides his fate’. AREPO is the “areopagus” in the sense of ” tribunal”. ROTAS is the “wheel of fortune”. The direction of reading is bustropheic (sator opera tenet arepo rotas).

F – Ludwig Diehl: “The Creator holds works, the Creator holds works“. Diehl’s reading follows the course of the plough: sator opera tenet – tenet opera sator. In this way the term AREPO disappears.

G – Jacob, 1866: ‘The worker Arepo leads his chariot with care’. AREPO is used as a personal name.

H – A. Treichel, Zeitschrift Ethnologie XII, 1880: “The sower Arepo drives the wheels with difficulty”. AREPO is used as a personal name.

Sator Square
The Sator Square on a perimeter wall of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Siena

A cultural evolution

It is possible to understand the difficulty of interpreting the Sator Square, and its temporal dissonance of the findings, only from the perspective of cultural evolution. The epigraph has maintained its form for hundreds of years but has changed in its essence. It was certainly reinterpreted through new significations and frames of meaning. The oldest findings of the Sator Square begin with the word ROTAS, and those of the Middle Ages with the word SATOR. This difference cannot be due to chance, but shows how the Sator changed in relation to the cultural contexts.

Sator Square

The Roman and early Christian ROTAS begins with a plural accusative and reveals a certain syntactic imprecision, since it was not so important the arrangement of the words, rather the ritual formula. The medieval SATOR, on the other hand, places syntactic emphasis on the Sator, the sower, who in Christian exegesis is God. It is more important to analyse the cultural contexts in which the magic square was found rather than to seek a unique meaning in history. For this reason, it is appropriate to analyse separately the different moments of its findings, Roman-Paleochristian and Medieval, to which correspond different meanings. It is evident that the original significance of the Sator Square has been lost over time and has been overwritten and reinterpreted, especially by Christian theology in the Middle Ages.

The origins of the Sator Square

There are two main archaeological theories about the origins of the Sator Square. The first argues that the square of Pompeii is associated to the pagan rites. According to the second it has an early Christian origin, linked to the cult of the first catechumens, since no artefacts prior to Christ have been found.

The hypothesis of the pagan origins of the Sator Square

Although the oldest findings of the Sator Square are dated to the 1st century, it is not excluded that it has origins before the coming of Christianity. The inscription could be a pagan ritual or apotropaic formula. This would explain why the earliest examples of the magic square begin with rotas, indicating an extra-empirical efficacy independent of the sentence structure. The engraving of the Sator rediscovered in the basement of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, for example, is accompanied by the palindromes Roma summus amor and Roma olim milo amor.

A possible invocation to Saturn

In the context of pagan cults, the Sator Square could be a sort of invocation to Saturn [8]. Saturn was in Rome’s religion the god connected with the knowledge of agriculture and the eternal regeneration of time. He was believed to have ruled at the beginning of time, in a mythical Golden Age called Saturnia Tellus. The Romans celebrated this period as an era of peace and equality, in which there were no social differences. From 17 to 23 December they used to celebrate the Saturnalia, during which the social order was subverted and slaves were served by their masters. This overturning of the social hierarchies made it possible to re-establish the lost moral order and the cyclical regeneration of time.

Saturn with the harpe [fig. 1]

The Sator Square could have a pagan meaning. Rotas could be the cyclical change of time; arepo would indicate the gladius falcatus, the sickle that is an attribute of Saturn, translated from Greek into Latin as harpe. Thus, the words of the Sator would be an invocation to Saturn, the one who holds the cyclical change of time and the knowledge of agriculture. Indeed, next to the Pompeii Sator in the Palestra Grande we find the inscription Sautran, an anagram of Saturnia (Saturn), and ano, perhaps referring to the terms annus (year) or anulus (cycle).

The early Christian hypothesis

The Sator Square was used by the first Christian communities. This assumption derives from the various testimonies from early Christian archaeological sites. For example in Dura Europos there was an important domus ecclesiae dating to the 3rd century, and five specimens of the Sator have been found. So, assuming that the Sator square has pagan origins, then it was reinterpreted by the catechumens. In fact, cultural overwriting was a widespread phenomenon: a large number of pagan rites were revisited in a Christian key. An example is the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which became the day of Christ’s birth.

However, it is different to say that the Sator Square has early Christian origins. The term sator would indicate the biblical sower, a figure of Christ sowing the Word of God. The first Christians could not profess their faith openly, since they were exposed to ferocious persecution. Until the events of Constantine and his conversion, they were forced to pray in secret. The adoration of Christ passed through stratagems, anagrams and christograms. This is why the Sator Square could be a crux dissimulata:

The T in tenet would recall the shape of a cross like in the Tau sign.

Felix Grosser’s anagram

The thesis of the early Christian origins of the Sator is supported by the research of F. Grosser. The scholar, an evangelist pastor from Chemnitz, proposed in 1926 an anagram of the square that gives the words PATER NOSTER [9]. The remaining letters A, O, according to Grosser, represent the alpha and omega of the Book of Revelation. [10].

Le critiche all’analisi di Grosser

The discovery of the Sator square in Pompeii has raised some doubts about Grosser’s anagrammatic solution, since the writing of the Book of Revelation is believed to be later (last decade of the first century). The symbolism of alpha and omega is also present in the book of the prophet Isaiah, albeit in different terms (“Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” [Is 41:4]. “I am the first and I am the last” [Is 44:6]).

In addition, an anagram of twenty-five letters can create several sentences. Thus, Grosser’s analysis cannot be considered a reliable proof of the Christian origin of the Sator.

The Medieval Sator Square

The Sator Square, beginning with the word rotas, is common in the first centuries after Christ. Then it mysteriously disappears, and is found again only from the 8th and 9th centuries. It is not clear whether this historical void is due to the lack of findings or to the loss of meaning after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It now starts with the term sator and more rarely rotas, but especially its anthropological function changes.

In a ninth-century manuscript, preserved in the Capitular Library of Modena Cathedral [Cod. I 4], it could have some relation to the theological conception of sin, since it segues into a verse on the prohibition of drunkenness and fornication. Moreover, it is written in linear form, indicating a change of meaning in connection with the ancient ritual formula. For the same reason, in later centuries it appeared both in rectangular form in the Pieve San Giovanni in Campiglia Marittima and circular, for example in the Collegiate Church of Aosta and the Abbey of Valvisciolo.

The Sator Square and its liturgical function in the Middle Ages: the case of Pieve Terzagni

Most of the Medieval findings of the Sator Square are blocks of reuse, as in Brusaporto or at the Abbey of San Pietro ad Oratorium in Capestrano, where it is walled upside down. it is possible to reconstruct the original archaeological context only in a few cases. It is clear that the Sator was reinterpreted according to the Christian theology of the Middle Ages.

In this period the Sator Square has assumed a liturgical-apotropaic function. In Pieve Terzagni, at the church of San Giovanni Decollato, it was located at the center of a floor mosaic in the presbytery.

Reconstruction of the mosaic floor in San Giovanni Decollato, Ernst Aus`m Weerth [11].

The presbytery is decorated with symbolic representations of the Tetramorph and of the deacon Stephen, at which there was a mobile lectern. The faithful got there by walking on several figures of mythological and real animals, symbols of vices and sins. Hence, the palindrome probably indicated the placement of the priestly seat. The Sator Square was perhaps a sacred invocation, a sort of ritual liturgical-apotropaic formula that ideally turned the sin away, figuration of the evil. Its location among the four evangelists and near the lectern suggests that it had some relationship with the Holy Scriptures.

In biblical exegesis the Word of God is the Merkavah: the Holy Scripture is like a chariot of fire that reaches all the corners of the Earth. The wheels of this chariot are driven by the Holy Spirit and accompanied by the Tetramorph, image of the four evangelists. In this sense, the Sator is an invocation to the Spirit of God: the sower who carefully holds the wheels of the chariot.

A sacred invocation to the Spirit of God?

Here are some clarifying biblical quotes:

2 At once I was caught up in spirit. A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one […]

6 In front of the throne was something that resembled a sea of glass like crystal. In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back.

7 The first creature resembled a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like that of a human being, and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight.

8 The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, were covered with eyes inside and out. Day and night they do not stop exclaiming:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.

Book of Revelation 4, 1-11
The remains of the mosaic floor in Pieve Terzagni: the word Rotas

5 Within it were figures resembling four living creatures that looked like this: their form was human, 6 but each had four faces and four wings, […].

10 Their faces were like this: each of the four had the face of a man, but on the right side was the face of a lion, and on the left side the face of an ox, and finally each had the face of an eagle.

20 Wherever the spirit wished to go, there the wheels went, and they were raised together with the living creatures; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

Book of Ezekiel, 1, 4-20:

Sator Square at the Collegiata di Sant’Orso of Aosta

The thesis of a liturgical-apotropaic invocation is confirmed by the discovery of the Sator Square in Aosta. Some mosaic remains of the first half of the twelfth century, discovered in the presbytery of the Collegiata di Sant’Orso, have revealed the presence of the palindromic phrase. Exceptionally, the Sator in Aosta is in circular form and surrounds the representation of Samson, symbol of Christ, who defeats the devil-lion.

The central theme of the mosaic with the Sator, Collegiata di Sant’Orso in Aosta

An external circular band of the same mosaic contains an invitation to invoke God with reverence:


“This house of the Lord respectably adorned in its interior, welcomes who always sing to Him with veneration”.

From these words we deduce that invoking God turns away the evil, and this is expressed by the ritual meaning of the Sator.

Does the Sator Square have a meaning beyond the literal significance?

In conclusion, the Sator Square is an extraordinary archaeological mystery still debated among the scholars. No definitive evidence has been found to prove whether its origin is Christian or pagan. Furthermore, there is no universally accepted translation. The Sator Square has been reinterpreted throughout the centuries, always enriched with new uses and meanings. For this reason there have been numerous attempts to find a logical solution, and also improbable theoretical speculations: numerological-cabalistic analysis or linked to alchemical occultism.

The Sator engraved in the cloister of the Abbazia di Valvisciolo in Sermoneta

A careful point of view is to read the Sator Square in an amphibological approach: it would be designed to contain multiple keys to interpretation, which change depending on the observer. So, a farmer could read in it that “the sower, with the chariot, keeps with care the wheels”, but a more educated man could understand that “the creator keeps with care his own works”.

Probably in the Middle Ages, the magical palindrome assumed a function of liturgical and apotropaic invocation. For this reason, it is found in a parchment of Aurillac as a wish for a woman giving birth, or in the mosaic floors of Pieve Terzagni and Aosta to ward away the evil.

Samuele Corrente Naso



[1] Matteo Della Corte, Notizie degli scavi, 1929

[2] La casa è situata all’interno della Regio I, Insula VII, Domus I.

[3] Matteo Della Corte, Rendiconti Accademia Pontificia, 1936; Notizie degli scavi, 1939

[4] During the Bourbon archaeological excavations of the eighteenth century was found another Sator Square in Pompeii. It was transcribed by Miguel de Cira in his reports. The exemplary was found painted near the praedia of Giulia Felice.

[5] Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters, The excavations at Dura-Europos, Preliminary report V (1934), 159, no. 481 and  Preliminary report VI (1936), 486, no. 809; Annali della R. Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, ser. 2, vol. 3 (1934).

[6] Marco Tullio Cicerone, De natura deorum; Tusculanae disputationes, 44-45 a.C.

[7] Rino Cammilleri, Il Quadrato magico

[8] Randall T. Ganiban, Virgilian Prophecy and the Reign of Jupiter, in Brill’s Companion to Valerius Flaccus, edito da Mark Heerink and Gesine Manuwald, Brill Academic Publishers, 2014.

[9] F. Grosser, Ein neuer Vorschlag zur Deutung der Sator-Formel, Archiv für Religionwissenschaft, XXIV 1926.

[10] Book of Revelation 21,6: “I (am) the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the endrincipio e la Fine”

[11] Ernst Aus`m Weerth, Der Mosaikboden in St. Gereon zu Cöln, 1873.

[fig. 1] Dr. Vollmers Wörterbuch der Mythologie aller Völker, Stuttgart, 1874. Link

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