What was written on the Vindolanda Tablets?
A handful of exceptionally rare surviving letters reveal a great deal about life at the Wall, writes Miles Russell…
We possess little written evidence for everyday life in the average fort or civilian settlement. Thankfully, a wealth of relevant information has been uncovered at one British site, the frontier fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland, just south of Hadrian's Wall. Here, large numbers of army documents, relating to garrison life between the years 90-105 AD, have been recovered, preserved in waterlogged conditions. These are known as the ‘Vindolanda tablets’.
Much of the information is, as one may imagine, fairly monotonous, detailing lists of supplies and resources, but some provide tantalisingly rare insight into what life was like within the tight-knit community of an average frontier fort. One of the most interesting letters was written by one fort commander’s wife, Claudia Severa, to another, Sulpicia Lepidina, and it provides a glimpse into the social lives of those at the very limits of the Roman empire.
“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 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 him their greetings. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul.”
Another, from Lepidina’s husband Flavius Ceralis to Aelius Brocchus, Severa’s husband, relates to the masculine pursuits of army officers: “If you love me, brother, I ask that you send me some hunting-nets.” While an anonymous writer records more mundane concerns such as the sending of “pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants”.
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Other snippets from the Vindolanda tablets include quotations from the Aeneid and the Georgics, works of the first century BC poet Virgil. One contains a corrected mistake, which means the texts may preserve elementary instruction in Latin, possibly for the children of the fort commander.
The only time the native population impinges on the Roman world of the tablet writers is in a piece recording their apparent lack of fighting skills: “The Britons are unprotected by armour… their cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins”. Intriguingly, the word used for the “wretched Britons” is “Brittunculi” – a contemptuous, and no doubt racist, term of abuse.
Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University
This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed