“I have sent you… pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals…”
This excerpt from a fragmentary letter on the first writing-tablet found in 1973 at Vindolanda, the military camp now in the northern English county of Northumbria, gives a vivid snapshot of the details of the daily life of the people living on the frontier of the Roman province of Britannia in the period between about AD 85 and 120, before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
Over subsequent decades the excavation and decipherment of almost 900 more thin wooden tablets, written in ink, has yielded a vast amount of such information in the form of shopping lists, letters to families and military colleagues, accounts, military reports and so on. These fascinating and accessible records of a lively environment of soldiers, families and traders and slaves, led to the tablets being voted the British Museum’s “top treasure” from Roman Britain in 2003 and sparked a number of spin-offs, including the online Minimus programme, created by Barbara Bell, for teaching Latin in primary schools.
Further discoveries of comparable material from earlier decades at other Roman sites, notably Carlisle and London, has resulted in an accumulation of over 1,200 tablets from Britannia, many of them substantial, and makes the province the richest new source of such everyday records in Latin in the Roman Empire.
The tablets offer lots of engaging glimpses of these activities and transactions, details of daily life, such as birthday parties (tablet no. 291, above) and purchases of chickens or apples, illnesses, bad roads and poor weather. Such features are central to appreciating the fabric of the Roman way of life, but they are indeed ephemeral. Less obvious, but of huge importance, are some fundamental and enduring contributions that these records make to our knowledge of Roman civilisation and culture.
In the first place, we should emphasise that it is a huge surprise to find such a breadth and depth of literate communication in Latin at the very farthest boundaries of the Empire, on the so-called Stanegate frontier, soon to be superseded by Hadrian’s Wall, a mile or so to the north. There were clearly some members of the elite officer-class who generated this mass of written material, but most of the people were certainly not Roman, or even Italian, but soldiers, their families and entourages predominantly from the lower Rhine area, that is north Germany, the Netherlands (Batavia) and Belgium.
Within one or two generations of the incorporation of their Batavian and Germanic homelands into the empire, these people had become linguistically and culturally assimilated and rapidly brought the practices of communication and documentation in Latin to the fringes of the territory they helped to control. Put simply, the very existence of these writing tablets at this time and in this place is a major revelation, later bolstered by the subsequent discoveries of even earlier records from London and Carlisle. Roman Britain was hardly a backwater!
Unsurprisingly, there is very little information about, or sign of, the indigenous Britons in the tablets, except for their role in the provision of transport vehicles and a note referring to their fighting characteristics (gladis non utuntur equites nec residunt Brittunculi ut iaculos mittant, “the cavalry do not use swords not do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins,” Tablet no. 164, below) But the existence of a significant number of Celtic or Germanic names, some of them Latinised, such as Gauuo and Brigio(nus) is an indication of assimilation of these people into the literate Roman world.
We can add two further aspects. Among the tablets we find fragments, perhaps writing exercises, of Latin literature of the highest level, including lines of Vergil’s Aeneid and Georgics (Tablets nos. 452 and 854, the latter below) as well as by far the earliest known examples of what we believe to be Latin shorthand. One expression in what is probably a letter of recommendation refers to someone as amore liberalium studiorum profectus (“love of liberal studies”, Tablet no.660 below)
Second, although there is clearly some use of scribes, the huge quantity of samples of handwriting reveals the work of a very large number and range of different individuals, from elite officers through to ordinary auxiliary soldiers, traders, women and slaves. This has a crucial impact on our assessment of the level and depth of literacy in the empire and strongly suggests that, even if the percentage of people who could read and write was small by modern standards, functional literacy clearly penetrated to some individuals at all levels of the social and economic order, and certainly affected the spread of the Latin language into the local communities. This points us to a different way of understanding the role and impact of literacy in ancient society, in a qualitative rather than quantitative way.
Two further novel features of the tablets are ‘revisionist’, indeed transformative, in two very important (if rather specialised) respects. One is the history of cursive writing in Latin, which is an important part of the foundation and early development of scribal practices in western Europe.
The cursive scripts in Latin documents from this period have traditionally been classified by experts in palaeography into two main categories: Old Roman Cursive (ORC), prevalent in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and late into the 3rd century, and New Roman Cursive (NRC), which is well attested from the 4th century AD, but is thought to have its origins in the late 3rd.
ORC was plausibly believed to have had its origins in so-called ‘capital bookhands’, of which samples can be found from the early first century AD. In fact, literary fragments of the Early Imperial period illustrate the lack of firm boundaries between script types, using both formal capitals, which also appear in document headings such as pay records, and letter-forms with a more cursive appearance.
All of the writing tablets from Roman Britain will belong chronogically to the family of ORC scripts. Even before the discovery of the ink-written leaf tablets at Vindolanda and Carlisle (c. AD 70–130), it had been proposed that there were certain developments and changes in the character and style of the scripts in the early 2nd century AD which are important in relation to the later appearance of NRC.
In the newly-acquired evidence of the Romano-British tablets, including those on metal, we see ORC scripts of the first two centuries using letter forms which were critical for the development of NRC. So the steadily-accumulating evidence from Roman Britain has undermined the idea of clear chronological demarcation of script types, and supports the view that the move to NRC was an evolving process in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, rather than a change in which stylistic canons were imposed – in other words, more of a continuum than a sharp break. What is just as remarkable is that the limited amount of evidence on Latin papyri from Egypt and the Middle East suggests similar trajectories of development at either end of the Empire.
The evidence for the range of language and subject-matter also makes a very notable contribution, particularly in relation to the connections between Latin and Celtic. In addition, the striking examples of quotations from Virgil clearly show that this literature is part of the common currency in at least part of that remote community. There is both good and sophisticated language, some ‘substandard’ examples and important evidence for usages which cast light on the development of the Latin language.
Technical terms borrowed from Celtic and Gallic languages are found (e.g. Tablet no. 301 below). There is also unexpectedly early evidence for some linguistic usages hitherto known only from much later mediaeval sources and this shows that signs of the Latin roots of development of Romance languages exist long before they surface elsewhere. These are obviously symptomatic of elements in the register of the Latin language in the West, which can only now be backdated by centuries. To quote J.N. Adams, this all depends on the “chance discovery in Britain of the types of informal documents likely to contain humdrum terms which, though widely used across the empire, were rarely put into writing of a literary kind.”
There is also the matter of the relationship between Latin in Britain and Gaul and the Celtic and Germanic speakers. There is a marked Celtic element in Vindolanda tablets. They provide direct evidence for Latin written by provincials, both those stationed in Britain and those writing to them from elsewhere.
To quote Adams again: “Since the Latin surviving from Britain was for the most part written not by Britons but outsiders, these ‘north-western’ elements must either have been introduced by soldiers and others with a continental Celtic background, or picked up from local contacts with British Celts.”. This speaks to a close connection between Britain and Gaul and their Celtic speakers, with common linguistic features from the Celtic background, whether from Continental or British Celtic. The importance of this evidence is that it enables us to document for the first time the linguistic interpenetration in some detail at a level and in an early period which has not hitherto been possible. This is crucial for new knowledge of the development of Romance languages in western Europe.
In short, anyone with an interest in the Roman Empire who has considered the province of Britannia a bit of a backwater now has good reason to think again!
Alan Bowman was Camden Professor of Ancient History and Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford. He has published books on Egypt under the Ptolemies and the Romans, and on the Vindolanda tablets, including Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People (British Museum Press, London, revised edition, 2003).
J.N. Adams, The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC – AD 600 (Cambridge UP, 2007).
A.K. Bowman, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier. Vindolanda and its People (British Museum Press, London 1994, rev. ed. 2003).
A. Mullen and A.K. Bowman, Manual of Roman Everyday Writing Vol. I Scripts and Texts (LatinNow ePubs, Nottingham); this interactive Ebook is also available in PDF here.
R.S.O. Tomlin, Roman London’s First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations 2010–14 (Museum of London, London, 2016).