Although most of the literature that we have from the ancient Mediterranean and Near East was written by men, we do also have compositions by women – most famously the Greek poet Sappho, as well as other Greek and Roman poets (e.g. Corinna, Nossis, and Sulpicia: for more, see this list of ancient women authors); an ancient Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna, who lived in the 23rd century BCE, is often referred to as the first known author in history (although at least some of the hymns attributed to her actually seem to have been composed several centuries later). Similarly, most of the inscriptions that actually survive – including letters, archival documents, grave markers, public or legal texts, and religious dedications – will have been both commissioned and physically written/inscribed by men; even in cases where the text makes it clear that a woman is ultimately responsible for it, it is not necessarily the case that she actually wrote it (e.g. stone inscriptions would be carved by specialist craftspeople, probably men; letters were frequently dictated to scribes, mostly ditto). But we do have some ancient texts which show evidence of literate women actually engaging in the practice of writing, and it’s those – or at least a small selection of them – that I’d like to look at for this International Women’s Day post.
The most famous example from the Roman world comes from Roman Britain, specifically from the fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, where a large number of wooden writing tablets, with letters and administrative documents written in ink, have been found, mostly from around 100 CE. Amongst them is this letter, sent by a woman called Claudia Severa – the wife of an officer at another fort – to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the commander at Vindolanda, to invite her to a birthday party:
Happy New Year to readers of this blog! And to start the year off, I’m reviewing an exhibition I went to see over the Christmas break – the Ashmolean’s ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’ (which closes in just a few days, on January 12th; for readers not in Oxford, there are a few pictures of exhibits and a video at the link).
The exhibition is billed as ‘tell[ing] the story of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii’s love affair with food and wine’, and it features plenty of wonderful artefacts relating to that theme, many of them loaned from the Naples Archaeological Museum or from the site of Pompeii itself — from the pots and pans used to cook and serve meals, to depictions of food on frescoes and mosaics, to an actual carbonised loaf of bread. Continue reading “Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean”
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.
Cambridge-based readers of this blog may be interested to know about two events focusing on ancient writing that I’m involved in as part of the Festival of Ideas (which starts today, October 15th, and runs until the 28th):
Raiders of the Secret Scripts: this is a free, drop-in event for adults at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, 7-9pm on Friday 19th. Have a go at deciphering inscriptions to follow the trail around the gallery (all necessary information provided!), try your hand at writing a curse tablet, find out more about different ancient writing systems – and have a glass of wine at the same time! I’ll be there to help out and answer your questions, along with colleagues of mine from the CREWS project.
On the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain: this is a lunchtime talk in the Classics Faculty on Wednesday 24th, 1.15-2pm; it’s also free, but prebooking is required. The festival’s (fairly loose) theme is “extremes”, so I thought it would be fun to look at the written texts from one of the extreme edges of the Roman Empire. Britain has produced a remarkable range of documents – from gravestones to letters, legal documents to curses, and much more – including some remarkable recent finds of writing-tablets from the City of London. Come along to find out more about what these documents are, who wrote them, and what they tell us about life in Roman Britain!
The tablet looks beautifully well preserved – in the picture you can clearly see the indentation in the middle which would have held the wax for writing on (unlike most of the tablets found at Vindolanda, which were written in ink). We’ll presumably have to wait until the tablet is cleaned and conserved to find out whether there are any traces of writing preserved on the wood – which happens when the stylus went right through the wax and scratched the wood underneath – and whether they’re at all readable (as some of the stylus tablets found in London have been). Fingers crossed…
Some exciting news from the north of England – the remains of a Roman bathhouse have been found underneath a cricket pavilion in the city of Carlisle. The baths are thought to be associated with a nearby fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Here‘s the BBC report, and the local News & Star paper has more details and pictures here (including the one on the right, featuring the archaeologist in charge of the dig holding a rather nice Roman water pipe). Hopefully the site will be open to visitors in the future!
A very exciting announcement today of the publication of a group of writing tablets from Roman London, dating from the first century C.E. (i.e. the early period of Roman control of Britain). Features that have been reported include the earliest mention of ‘London’ (as ‘Londinio’ = ‘in Londinium’); the earliest dated handwritten document from Britain (January 8th, 57 C.E.); an example of someone practicing writing the alphabet; and contracts and legal documents providing all sorts of insights into the lives of people in Londinium. Continue reading “Londinium Calling”
The Bedale by-pass road construction project has revealed the site of an extensive Roman Villa which may well be the most significant to be found in Northern Britain. Preliminary evaluation work failed to establish the full extent of the villa and consequently a major part of the villa is under threat because the project has not included plans and funding to excavate and record all of what is clearly a very important site.
A Press Release has just been authorised and some of you may have seen a couple of minutes feature on BBC Look North on Tuesday 24th March 2015.
By clicking on the links below you can read about what has been revealed so far. If you have a view as to what should be done next, use the Comment link on this page. I know this is happening in North and not West Yorkshire but this find is of…
You may already have seen the headlines about recent archaeological discoveries at Binchester Roman Fort, somewhat over-dramatically being referred to as the “Pompeii of the North” — e.g. this BBC news story. There’s a lot more information about the site and the dig on its website and its blog – for instance, the ring mentioned in the BBC story as being ‘one of the earliest pieces of evidence for Christianity in Britain’ is described in more detail here, and the whole blog is worth a scroll through for more details of the finds and some nice pictures.