In 1973 archaeologists digging at Vindolanda– the former site of a Roman fort, about halfway along Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England– uncovered a store of letters and files on wooden tablets. Between about AD 85 and 122 the wall was being built to mark the farthest extent of the Roman empire. Boudicca and the Iceni had kicked off and destroyed several Roman cities only a few decades previously, and the tribal people of Britain were still far from pacified or assimilated, but Hadrian made the strategic decision to physically isolate the Picts who lived in what is now called Scotland because they were even more troublesome. Most of the tablets seem to date from roughly this frontier period. Ironically the documents may have been preserved because they were dumped out periodically with the rubbish, which led to them being buried instead of taken away or lost.
Remarkable as their survival is, what’s really amazing about them is the way they connect us so intimately to people who’ve been dead for about two thousand years. They weren’t concerned with Imperial policy except in a pragmatic way, and for the most part they weren’t philosophising about huge historical issues. They weren’t Ciceros or Caesars. They were exactly like us. Soldiers wrote racist assessments of the spear-chucking natives. They invited their sister for a birthday piss up. They complained. Their mums sent them underpants and socks to keep them warm in Britain’s horrible climate.
These translations and images are from Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People, by Alan K. Bowman, published by the British Museum Press.
… the Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords, nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.
(The writer calls the natives Brittunculi, which is a contemptuous diminutive form of the more proper Brittones.)
Claudia Severa’s birthday
Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the 3rd day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send you their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. To Sulpicia Lepidina, (wife) of Cerialis, from Severa.
(It’s unknown whether Sulpicia was able to attend her sister’s birthday party, but another letter exists in which Claudia arranged to visit Sulpicia.)
… he punished me all the more until I should declare my goods to be worthless or pour them down the drain. As befits an honest man I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods and, my lord Proclus, I was unable to complain to the prefect because he was detained by ill-health and I have complained in vain to the beneficiarius (note: a special assistant to the prefect of a military cohort) and the rest of the centurions of his unit, I accordingly implore your mercifulness not to allow a man from overseas and an innocent one, about whose good faith you may inquire, to have been bloodied by rods as if I had in some way committed crimes.
This apparently relates to a centurion who took exception to the quality of a merchant’s goods. The complainant’s mention that he is “a man from overseas” is probably intended to suggest that he shouldn’t be dismissed as a Briton tribesman, although even in the previous generation urban Britons were already Romanised and assimilated enough to attract the ire of their still tribal,hut-dwelling neighbours. Many of the people stationed at Vindolanda seem to have been Batavian or Tungri in origin, culturally Roman but only one or two generations away from tribal Germans. Whatever their other faults, Roman identity was not restricted to any particular nationality or ethnicity; Britons could– and did– become Romans. Conversely there are records of people from all over the (then) known world from Persia to North Africa settling in Britain as colonists, as retired soldiers, or as traders.
I have sent you … pairs of socks from Sattua two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals… Greet …ndes, Elpis, Iu…, …enus, Tetricus and all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune.
(This is the classic mumsy letter and care package, isn’t it? Make sure you have clean underpants.)