Roman Britain: what six objects can reveal about life for women at Hadrian’s Wall
The soldiers who garrisoned Hadrian’s Wall were all men, but what of the many women of diverse backgrounds who lived on and around the frontier? Bronwen Riley selects six objects that offer precious insights into women’s lives at the edge of the empire...
As is so often the case when exploring the past, we have a clearer picture of the lives of men – particularly Roman soldiers – on Hadrian’s Wall than of the women who lived alongside them. Yet artefacts found on the frontier reveal much about the varied experiences and backgrounds of women in the society that emerged in Britain’s military zone.
Here, Bronwen Riley highlights six such objects...
The tombstone of a slave who married her master
An intriguing example of what an artefact can reveal about the lives of women at Hadrian’ Wall is an elaborate gravestone of the mid-to-late second century AD, from the cemetery outside the Roman fort of Arbeia (South Shields). It depicts a woman, dressed in all her finery, sitting with her spindle on her lap. The Latin inscription beneath this picture of domestic comfort and industry tells us this is Regina, a freedwoman, wife of Barates from Palmyra (Syria) and a member of the Catuvellauni tribe, who died at the age of 30.
Beneath, a line in Palmyrene laments: “Regina, freed woman of Barates, alas!” This tombstone reveals the complex and ambiguous nature of relationships in the Roman world, particularly in Britain, on the empire’s north-western frontier.
Here is a woman from the peaceful south of Britain – the Catuvellauni tribe were based around Verulamium, near modern-day St Albans – who was enslaved, and bought by a man from Syria. At the time of her death, he had granted her freedom and regarded her (in Latin, at least) as his wife. However, neither Regina nor Barates was a Roman citizen, so any form of marriage they may have contracted would not have been recognised under Roman law.
Barates may have been a merchant, and the style of the gravestone suggests that it was the work of a Palmyrene craftsman, implying the existence of a Syrian community in Arbeia. How did this enslaved southern British woman end up on Hadrian’s Wall? She may have been born into slavery or sold into slavery by her family, or was perhaps an orphan or foundling.
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Regina is Latin for “queen”, so hers is likely a slave’s nickname – ironic or admiring, perhaps a mixture of both. Did the trader who sold her call her that, or was it Barates’ name for her? Perhaps 10,000 men were stationed in the military zone on and around Hadrian’s Wall. It may have been thought politic to take women from outside the local area rather than from tribes nearby. What is left of Regina? Her face is lost and we cannot tell how she wore her hair. She wears a Gallic coat over a tunic – fashionable in both Britain and Gaul. One possible mark of a British identity is the torc around her neck. Regarded as typically Celtic, torcs were worn under Roman occupation, but designed in new styles and materials.
There is a tendency to see in this tomb stone a love story – that woeful “Alas!” of Barates who freed and married his “Queenie”. But the Palmyrene text is no more than the equivalent of “RIP” and reinforces Barates’ identity rather than Regina’s.
- Read more | What was life like on Hadrian's Wall?
An altar that reveals the only priestess known by name in Britain
Diodora was a priestess in Corbridge, a busy Roman town on the banks of the Tyne 2.5 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, situated at an important crossing point over the river at the intersection of key roads. Diodora’s name – and the Greek inscription she wrote on the altar that she dedicated to Herakles of Tyre – suggests that she came from the eastern part of the empire, where Greek was the predominant language.
The cult she served as priestess was rather niche, originating in the port city of Tyre in the province of Syria, and was one of several eastern religions for which there is evidence at Corbridge. Worship of the cult may have been brought to northern Britain by soldiers or merchants (such as Barates of Syria, husband of Regina, discussed above), or by troops who had become devotees of the god while serving in the eastern part of the empire in the 160s AD during the Parthian Wars.
The earliest known temples at Corbridge date from this period, when the fort became a supply base for the northern frontier, with detachments of legionaries stationed here. Naturally, such a depot attracted traders and merchants of all sorts.
How, from where and for what reason Diodora arrived in Corbridge and became a devotee of the god remains a mystery. Nor is it clear if she served the cult as a career priestess, or if her title was honorary – a sort of social distinction with a few light ceremonial duties attached. Priests and priestesses could be elected or sometimes inherited their roles; in some regions, they could buy their offices.
Women likely had a limited role in traditional Roman religion. They were largely excluded from playing any significant part in religious public life, with very few exceptions – for example, the Vestal Virgins (priestesses of the goddess Vesta) or in supporting roles to their husbands. They seem to have been forbidden to butcher animals or handle undiluted wine, both key components in animal sacrifice. Nor could they invoke prayers on behalf of a community.
By contrast, in Greek religion priestesses sometimes had key public responsibilities and were given honours and duties on a par with priests. So the appeal of many eastern or fringe cults that offered women more scope for participation – Christianity included – is understandable.
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A discarded sandal: fast fashion for the elite
Among other extraordinary organic material found at Vindolanda is a rather exquisitely decorated sandal, stamped with the name of its Gallic maker, Lucius Aebutius Thales. It would have been worn as a house shoe, over a bare foot or with a slotted sock. It seems to have been discarded after the toe thong snapped, with no sign of any attempts at repair – indicating that its owner had access to other fine footwear.
We do not know who it belonged to but, because it was found in the commanding officer’s house, it is tempting to imagine Lepidina wearing it as she read one of Severa’s letters.
An invitation to a birthday party on Hadrian’s Wall
Claudia Severa’s letters to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina are among the most personal of more than 2,000 found at Vindolanda, where Lepidina’s husband was the prefect of the ninth cohort of Batavians.
In her letters, Severa invites her friend to celebrate her birthday, eagerly plans visits, and exchanges news about her husband and children. Severa dictated her letters to a secretary but wrote the affectionate endings herself: “I will hope for you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.” In another fragment she describes Lepidina as her desideratissima (most longed-for) soul.
Living at a military base on the empire’s remote north-western frontier added numerous constraints to these women’s lives. The roads would have been in a terrible state at certain times of the year, and there may have been restrictions in place for travelling
Written at the beginning of the second century, Severa’s letters represent the earliest known examples of a woman’s hand writing in Latin. Her sign-offs may express the warmth and exuberance of her character but perhaps also reflect the intimate way women of her background customarily addressed each other (“sister” does not necessarily imply they were related). One also detects in them a sense of isolation, and Severa’s longing for the company of other women of her own age and background.
Severa appears to have had an affectionate relationship with her husband. However, as wives the women were subject to their husbands, and clearly needed their permission to travel. Living at a military base on the empire’s remote north-western frontier added numerous other constraints to these women’s lives. The roads would have been in a terrible state at certain times of the year, and there may have been restrictions in place for travelling around the frontier zone; in any case, the women would have needed some sort of escort.
Until AD 197, rank-and-file soldiers could not contract legal marriages. This did not preclude soldiers from having relationships or families in the settlements that inevitably grew up around the forts. Inside the forts, though, only the prefects and centurions could officially have their families with them, which must have greatly constrained the women’s social lives.
A spindle whorl to remind us of women’s labour
Spinning wool was seen as women’s work – the essence of female domesticity. Even women of the highest status were expected at least to supervise their household in the task. Spinning was a crucial domestic task for women, because a constant supply of thread was needed to be woven into cloth.
Beyond the immediate requirements of the individual household, there were also thousands of soldiers on the wall to be clothed. Britain was highly prized for the quality of its wool, and its blankets and cloaks were also exported.
Wooden spindles rarely survive, but spindle whorls – made from stone, bone, jet, lead or ceramics – are commonly found on archaeological sites. Acting as weights on the spindle, adding momentum to the spinning, their size varied depending on the type of wool and form of yarn required. This amber spindle whorl was found in the settlement that grew up around Old Penrith, a fort at the centre of key trade routes on the road to Carlisle.
How a young girl’s gravestone is evidence of the persistence of indigenous beliefs along the frontier
How sad Sudrenus must have been as he commissioned the gravestone for his daughter Ertola, “properly called Vellibia”, who “led the happiest of lives for four years and 60 days”.
Having died in the late third or early fourth century, Ertola was buried at Corbridge, a town that seems to have attracted a sizeable indigenous population: more Celtic stone heads have been found here than at any other site in the north. The little girl is depicted on the gravestone clutching a round object, commonly interpreted as a ball. The names Sudrenus and Ertola are Celtic, as is the decoration of the gravestone, far removed in style from the classical tradition.
A Roman girl would often take a feminine form of her father’s name (so a daughter of Claudius Severus could be called Claudia Severa), but Celtic girls’ names seem to have been less rigidly prescribed. The name Cartimandua (queen of the northern Brigantes tribes), for example, means “white filly”.
Before the occupation, British women seem to have enjoyed greater freedom than their Roman counterparts. Though we hear about the British queens Cartimandua and Boudicca only through a deeply prejudiced Roman filter, accounts show that they were independent rulers who owned property, led armies into battle and divorced their husbands.
Under Roman law, girls could be legally married from the age of 12, but there is evidence that in Britain girls married later. There are also persistent reports that British women had much freer sexual relationships with men. Outside the immediate Roman sphere of the towns and forts, British women may have remained subject to local rather than Roman law in terms of marriage or inheritance. The Romans often thought it would be too inflammatory to meddle with such rules unless absolutely necessary.
Ertola’s gravestone provides an intimate insight into the grief of a father for his young daughter. It’s also a poignant reminder that women of all ages and backgrounds – and from all parts of Britain and the empire – lived, loved, worked and died along Hadrian’s Wall.
Bronwen Riley is a classicist and author, whose latest book is Journey to Britannia: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall, AD 130 (Head of Zeus, 2022)
This article was first published in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine