On the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain

I’ve just given a talk for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas about the different kinds of written evidence that survive from Roman Britain and what they can tell us, so thought I’d write up a summary here for any interested readers who couldn’t come to the talk! The title “On the Edge” was chosen to fit in with the theme of this year’s festival, “Extremes”, and to reflect the position of Britain on the very edge of the Roman Empire (a journey from Rome to London in October could take up to 40 days), and for that matter the position of many of the surviving texts, which come from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain, on the very edge of the Roman-controlled part of the island. A major theme of the talk was how, despite this remote position, Britain was very well connected with the rest of the Roman world, as the evidence of many of the written documents shows.

Hadrian’s Wall. Photo by Michael Hanselmann via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The vast majority of inscriptions that we have from the ancient world in general are on stone, just because that’s what is most likely to survive. In Britain, as elsewhere, many of these are tombstones of soldiers, which can tell us a lot about how people in the Roman army moved around the Empire. Just a couple of examples: a tombstone of a soldier found in Colchester (initially the capital of Roman Britain after the Emperor Claudius’ invasion in 43; later on the capital moved to London) shows that a cavalry regiment from Thrace (Bulgaria) was present in Britain, while another found in Rome belongs to a Briton who served in the Emperor Trajan’s mounted bodyguard:

Colchester: ‘Longinus Sdapeze, son of Matycus, second in command of a troop in the First Cavalry Regiment of Thracians, from the district of Sardica, aged 40, of 15 years’ service. His heirs under his will set this up. Here he lies.’ (RIB 210)

Rome: ‘To the shades of the dead and to Marcus Ulpius Justus, cavalryman of the Imperial Horseguards. He served 25 years, he lived 45 years, he was a Briton, Marcus Ulpius Respectus, Imperial veteran, made (this) for an excellent friend who deserved well of him’ (CIL vi 3301)

These two tombstones aren’t particularly unusual – quite the opposite: moving army units around to different areas of the empire was standard policy (makes them less likely to side with the locals), and other similar inscriptions show us that Roman Britain saw troops from France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, eastern Europe, North Africa…pretty much all over the Empire. Texts like this don’t tell us much about everyday life in the army, though – for that, we’re very lucky to have a collection of wooden writing tablets, written in ink, from Vindolanda, a fort near Hadrian’s Wall.

Writing tablet from Vindolanda. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The largest collection of these come from around 100 CE and were found in the residence of the fort’s commander, whose name was Flavius Cerialis. A couple of highlights relating to military activities: the ‘intelligence report‘ detailing how the Brittunculi (roughly, ‘the nasty little Britons’) fight; the letter from Masclus, a decurion (commander of a small troop of cavalry), to Cerialis asking for instructions as to how many troops to send back to the fort, and ending with a PS relating to what was clearly an equally urgent issue: “My fellow-soldiers have no beer, please order some to be sent” (Tab. Vindol. III 628); and the accounts of individual soldiers buying a range of different foodstuffs, items of clothing, etc – even including pepper, which must have been imported from the other end of the Empire but was still apparently a luxury that even ordinary soldiers in this fort could access.

Of course, it wasn’t just soldiers who moved around the Empire. Two more tombstones, both from South Shields, at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall:

‘To the shades of the dead and of Victor the Moor, aged 20, freedman of Numerianus, trooper of the First Cavalry Regiment of Asturians, who most dutifully followed (his funeral).’ (RIB 1064)

This tombstone commemorates a North African man (Moor = from Mauretania = Morocco/Algeria) who was enslaved, brought to Britain by a Spanish cavalryman, and then freed. Along with the army, slavery was another major institution responsible for the (in this case, forcible) movement of people all over the Roman world. Also, of course, when people moved (or were moved) around, their languages moved with them, and some inscriptions from Roman Britain are other languages instead of/as well as Latin:

Latin: ‘To the shades of the dead. Barates of Palmyra (commemorates) Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a Catuvellaunian, aged 30.’

Palmyrene: ‘Regina the freedwoman of Barates, alas.’ (RIB 1065)

This inscription is bilingual in Latin and Palmyrene – the first language of the person who set it up, Barates, who came to Britain from Syria, probably as either a soldier or a trader – and clearly, despite being in a place where hardly anybody else would even be able to recognise Palmyrene, it was important to him to include this language as well as Latin on this memorial. His freedwoman and wife, Regina, was British, from the area near St Albans, and would have spoken a Celtic language (as well as Latin, probably), but we only know that through the reference to the tribe she belonged to, the Catuvellauni – even though it’s her memorial, there’s no trace of her native language, or its place in her identity, on this tombstone, as there is of Barates’.

I’ve already mentioned some business-related texts from Vindolanda; a fairly recent discovery from London has also given us a lot more insight into trade and business in early Roman Britain. The ‘Bloomberg tablets‘ are wooden stylus tablets that would have originally contained wax on which documents would be written (see here for some images). Although the wax doesn’t survive, the stylus has often left scratches on the wood underneath which can now be read, if we’re lucky; in other cases the tablets have been re-used and it can be impossible to separate out the marks of one text from another. There’s so many wonderful texts in this collection it was hard to choose just a couple to include, but here is the City of London’s earliest dated financial document, from January 8th 57 CE, a contract between two freedman acting as business agents for their former owners/patrons:

‘In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January [8th January 57 CE]. I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern…’ (WT44)

These texts don’t just show us the kinds of business dealings that were occurring in London at this point; they can also give us important historical information:

‘In the consulship of Publius Marius Celsus and Lucius Afinius Gallus, on the 12th day before the Kalends of November [21st October 62 CE]. I, Marcus Rennius Venustus, (have written and say that) I have contracted with Gaius Valerius Proculus that he bring from Verulamium by the Ides of November [13 November] 20 loads of provisions at a transport charge of one-quarter denarius for each, on condition that…’ (WT45)

This text at first sight seems a fairly similar business agreement – one person has contracted another to bring provisions to London. The important points are that these provisions are coming from Verulamium = St Albans, and that the date is October 62 CE: just one or two years after the revolt led by Boudica destroyed both St Albans and London (as well as Colchester). It looks like the recovery from this destruction must have been fairly rapid since, as far as we can tell from this text, both towns seem to have been functioning normally again within a pretty short period of time.

Another major category of surviving inscriptions is those relating to religious practices, often stone altars or dedications:

Altar from Maryport. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Altar from Maryport: ‘To the Spirit of this place, to Fortune the Home-Bringer, to Eternal Rome, and to Good Fate. Gaius Cornelius Peregrinus, tribune of the cohort, from the province of Mauretania Caesariensis, from his home Saldae where he is a town-councillor, has paid his vow gladly, willingly, deservedly.’ (RIB 812)

This inscription shows the common Roman practice of setting up an altar to a god or gods in exchange for a favour. In this case, the military officer who set up the altar, Gaius Cornelius Peregrinus, mentions his home town (in Mauretania, the same area Victor came from) and his role as a local councillor there, and includes ‘Fortune the Home-Bringer’ among the deities it is dedicated to – possibly he’s trying to ensure a safe return home after his military service in Britain ends?

Inscription from London: ‘In honour of the Divine House, Marcus Martianus Pulcher, senator and imperial propraetorian legate, ordered the restoration of the temple of Isis which had collapsed from age’ (RIB 3001)

This inscription shows that the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, popular in Rome, even reached as far as Britain. It’s not known exactly where the temple was, as this inscription was re-used and the temple has never been excavated.

Solinus’ curse. Photo by Mike Peel via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Not all religious texts were as benign as these ones, though: Roman Britain has also produced a lot of curse tablets, with the largest collection coming from the hot springs at Bath. Curses were written on thin lead sheets that were then rolled up and thrown into the springs to dedicate them to the gods: at other sites across the Roman world we find curses relating to legal cases (e.g. cursing the witnesses testifying against you to stop them giving evidence) or love affairs (cursing a rival, or casting a love spell), but the ones from Bath are almost all to do with thefts. Here’s one from a man who obviously came out of the baths to find his clothes had been taken:

‘Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty my bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to the one who has done me wrong, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, unless they reveal themself and bring these things to your temple…’ (Tab. Sulis 32)

This shows the classic features of a curse tablet relating to theft: the stolen items are dedicated to a god, in this case Sulis Minerva (the local British goddess Sulis and the Roman Minerva seem to have shared similar attributes and so been identified with each other at Bath), so that the thief has now stolen divine property; then the curse specifies what the god should do to punish the thief. There doesn’t usually seem to be any aim to get the stolen items back, just to make sure the person who took them suffers for it, as is even clearer in this particularly detailed and gruesome curse:

‘Basilia gives into the temple of Mars her silver ring. If anyone, whether slave or free, is involved, or knows anything about it, may they be cursed in their blood and eyes and all their limbs or even have all their intestines completely eaten away, the one who has stolen the ring or has been involved.’ (Tab. Sulis 97)

Studies of the handwriting of these curse tablets have concluded that in most cases, rather than having to get a professional scribe to write them, people would write their own. This didn’t mean that those who couldn’t write – who would of course have been the majority – didn’t also sometimes want to curse people. Some tablets have markings on them which superficially resemble writing but don’t actually contain real letters or words (e.g. Tab. Sulis 112, 113). It seems as though the physical actions of scratching marks into the lead, folding them up, and throwing them into the spring was almost important as part of the ritual than the actual contents of the text – whether you could write or not, the gods would presumably know the curse you wanted performed.

Other kinds of texts show people in the process of learning to write, such as a practice alphabet on one of the Bloomberg tablets (WT79), or a line from Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid on a Vindolanda tablet. In letters from Vindolanda, it seems that the main body of the text would often be written by a scribe, but this doesn’t mean that the authors of these letters couldn’t write – in fact, they would often add the closing lines themselves. One final text of this kind shows us something about the personal lives of the families of the military officers stationed near Hadrian’s Wall:

Address: ‘To Sulpicia Lepidina, (wife) of Cerialis, from Claudia Severa’

‘Claudia Severa to [her] Lepidina, greetings. On the 3rd day before the Ides of September [September 11th], sister, for the day of my birthday celebration, I warmly invite you to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if [you are present]…Greet your [husband] Cerialis (for me). My [husband] Aelius and my little son send you their greetings.’

Here we have what as far as I know is the only preserved birthday party invitation from the Roman world, sent to the wife of the commander at Vindolanda by the wife of an officer at another fort. (They’re not actually sisters; ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ are just friendly terms of address). This more formal part of the letter has all been written by a scribe, but a change in handwriting shows us that Claudia Severa has added the closing lines herself. If you look at the Vindolanda picture above, which is of this letter, you may be able to see the difference in the writing in the bottom right-hand corner:

‘I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, [may you prosper] as I hope to prosper, and hail.’

For me, it’s this kind of rare glimpse into the personal lives and relationships of the people who lived in Britain almost 2000 years ago that makes these written documents so endlessly fascinating to read.

For any readers who are similarly fascinated, here are some recommendations of books and websites for further reading, along with references to the texts I’ve quoted:

Roger Tomlin, Britannia Romana: Roman Inscriptions and Roman Britain (Oxbow Books, 2018)

Alan Bowman, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People (British Museum, 3rd edition 2003)

RIB = Roman Inscriptions of Britain: online here

CIL = Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions): information here

Tab. Vindol. = Tabulae Vindolandenses/The Vindolanda Writing Tablets: information here

Vindolanda Tablets online

Roger Tomlin, Roman London’s First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations, 2010-14 (Museum of London Archaeology, 2016)

Tab. Sulis = Roger Tomlin ‘Tabellae Sulis: Roman Inscribed Tablets of Tin and Lead from the Sacred Spring at Bath’, in B.W. Cunliffe, The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, II, The Finds from the Sacred Spring (Oxford, 1988).  

Curse Tablets online

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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