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.)