28 August 2013

A Literate Lady in Vindolanda

A dour garrison

On the early frontier between the province of Britain and the unruly Scots (Caledonii) stood the Roman fort of Vindolanda.  By the late 80s CE, it was a permanent turf and timber fort, with a stone headquarters building, an officer's house, and a small bathhouse.

The weather there was terrible.  Tacitus (56-c.120 CE) said, the climate in Britain was "pretty foul, with frequent rain and fog...." It hasn't changed since.  Today's weather report: it's raining now, it's raining tomorrow, and it will alternate rain and low clouds all the rest of the week.  The temperature right now (in late summer) might reach a high of 16° C (about 60° F) during the day.  Winter doesn't bear thinking about.

Still, the troops up there were hardy types.  The fort was manned at the time by cohorts of Tungrians (from Belgic Gaul, now Belgium ) and Batavians (neighbouring Netherlanders). These were auxiliary units made up of non-citizen recruits who served for up to 25 years in return for Roman citizenship.  Previously stationed within their homelands, the same units had revolted against Rome in 69 CE.  It had taken five legions, commanded by Petilius Cerialis,  to put down the mutiny.  Cerialis had taken the subdued auxiliaries with him on his next tour of duty, to Britain, where they stayed on. 

A hell of a life

The fort on the Stanegate frontier, (pre-Hadrian's Wall)
Now, they were stuck on the very edge of empire in cold, wet Northumberland -- to this day the most sparsely populated county in all England -- where the climate and desolation were even more dismal than in their soggy homelands.  The frozen mud, however, had one surprising virtue: being anaerobic (airless), the muck preserved a remarkable treasure trove of wooden documents with ink-writing in Latin.  At a corner of the commander's house (praetorium) within the early fort (ca. 95-115 CE), excavators dug a waterlogged rubbish heap which produced over 400 thin tablets made from slivers of oak, alder, and birch, between one and three mm thick (about the size of a modern postcard).

Great Garbage

Thrown out on this garbage dump were personal letters,  official letters, copies of reports, old duty rosters, cash accounts, and lists of commodities from the commander's own household as well as some lists concerning the garrison as a whole.  One letter (above) addressed to an unnamed soldier, refers to a care package sent from his far-away home containing socks, sandals and underpants (surely woollies), along with greetings to his comrades:
... I have sent (?) you ... pairs of socks, from Sattua [a family member?] two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals [from?]... Greet ...ndes, Elpis, Iu..., ...enus, Tetricus and all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune. 
The documents, now totalling more than 1,000 items as new finds continue to be made, were not written primarily by a corps of scribes, nor even by an educated elite of Romans or Italians, but by soldiers of non-Roman auxiliary units -- higher-rank officers, to be sure, but also lower ranking centurions and decurions (who themselves would have risen through the ranks), none of whom would have had Latin as their original native language. Since almost all the tablets are in individually-distinct handwriting, we can say they were written by several hundred different persons.

And one of them was female.

Party Time
Front: (1st hand) 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.*
 (2nd hand) I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.
Back: (1st hand) To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.
The recipient of this invitation,  Sulpicia Lepidina, was the wife of Flavius Cerealis, prefect (commander) of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians stationed at Vindolanda.  And the birthday-girl, Claudia Severa, was wife of Aelius Brocchus, the commander of a neighbouring garrison called Briga (Celtic for 'hill'), a place which is still unidentified. As a commander's wife, Severa of course had an official scribe (perhaps a slave) to write even her private letters; most of the letter was written in such a trained hand.  Yet she was fully literate herself: the second hand (see the lower right corner of the tablet, above; translation in bold) is in her own handwriting.  While less elegant than the scribe's, it was nonetheless written in fluent cursive Latin and clearly practised.**  

It is also the earliest known example of writing in Latin by a woman.

Who's Who?

Women's names took the feminine form of their father's family name: thus, Claudia Severa came from the family of the Claudii, while her friend Sulpicia Lepidina was from the Sulpicii.  So, the women were not really 'sisters' but expressed sisterhood as a term of endearment. When non-citizens were made citizens, they often took the names of the reigning emperor, a patron or benefactor.  The family name Sulpicia suggests that one of her forebears was granted citizenship during the reign of emperor Sulpicius Galba (AD 68-69).

Her bosom-friend Lepidina was married to Flavius Cerialis, one of the commanders at the Vindolanda fort.  The nomen Flavius suggests that he came from a family that gained the citizenship under the first Flavian emperor, Vespasian (ruled 69-79 CE).  Perhaps Cerialis' father had remained loyal to Rome when the Batavian troops revolted in the late 60s.  His cognomen, Cerialis, is the same as that of Petillius Cerialis, the Roman general who ended the Batavian revolt and who governed Britain in the early 70s. Possibly, Petillius Cerialis had acted as patron when he became a Roman citizen.  At the time this letter was written (ca. 100 CE), Flavius Cerialis would have had to be of equestrian rank which means that his family had amassed a fortune of over 100,000 denarii, the property qualification for entry into the equestrian order, as well being of free birth.  Both Cerialis and his wife, despite their Roman names, were surely nobles of Batavian blood.  

Claudia Severa's name suggests that her family acquired citizenship in the reign of Claudius, a generation before that of Cerialis and his wife. 

Her husband, Aelius Brocchus, was a friend of Cerialis (they write to each other as 'brother', paralleling their wives' intimacy).  He is one of the diners recorded at a feast held at Vindolanda fort, where guests included the imperial governor of Britain, Neratius Marcellus -- a Roman of the highest rank, a senator and consul.  Brocchus may have finished his career at the other end of the Roman Empire: he is perhaps the same person as a C. (Gaius) Aelius Brocchus recorded on an inscription in Pannonia (now Hungary) who commanded the prestigious cavalry unit, Ala Contariorum.

Still in Britain, however, we get a hint that Brocchus was an easy-going character and an amenable husband.  Another letter from his wife, Severa, to Sulpicia Lepidina explains that Brocchus will always let her come to Vindolanda to visit:

Front (hand of scribe)
Back (hand of Severa)
 (Front)  ... greetings. Just as I had spoken with you, sister, and promised that I would ask Brocchus and would come to you, I asked him and he gave me the following reply, that it was always readily (?) permitted to me, together with .... to come to you in whatever way I can.
For there are certain essential things which .... you will receive my letters by which you will know what I am going to do .... I was ... and will remain at Briga. Greet your Cerialis from me. 

(Back, 2nd hand) Farewell my sister, my dearest and most longed-for soul. 

This letter tells us more about the close relations between Severa and Lepidina: unlike the birthday invitation, it clearly shows that they kept up a regular correspondence. Both were surely comfortable with reading and writing in Latin. We also learn that they were planning regular social visits from fort to fort.   Most intriguingly, there is the hint of secrets kept to themselves and away from the inquisitive eye of a scribe (albeit a different scribe this time): there was something  that Severa needed to discuss with Lepidina face-to-face rather than entrust to correspondence: For there are certain essential things which .... you will receive my letters by which you will know what I am going to do.

What was she going to do?  We shall never know.

* The reference to Severa's son in the birthday invitation indicates that their children would live with them in Briga fort, wherever that was.

** Her handwriting is seen again in Vindol. II 292 and on a small fragment of a third letter with the start of a greeting in her hand (Vindol. III 635, Vindol. III 747).

I am grateful to Artifact Archaeology Magazine of 12 August 2013 for reminding me of the  famous birthday invitation and giving me the impetus to write this post.

Sources: First and foremost, the superb site Vindolanda Tablets Online, a treasure trove of information on a par with the tablets themselves (created by the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents and the Academic Computing Development Team at Oxford University); and the British Museum who have published almost all tablets and fragments on line and generously allow their free reproduction for non-commercial purposes.   I have made use, too, of the website of the Vindolanda Trust; the BBC History page, Vindolanda by Mike Ibeji; and the BBC Home, The Vindolanda Tablets - 'Send More Socks'; R. Cribiori, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton, 2001) Chapter III: Women and Education; J. Wilkes, 'The pen behind the sword: power, literacy, and the Roman Army ', Archaeology International 5: 32-35 (2001).


Top left: Reconstruction of the wooden wall and gatehouse of the early Vindolanda fort .  Photo credit: BBC History: Hadrian's Wall Gallery 

Second left:  The location of Vindolanda in relation to the Stanegate frontier and the later Hadrian's Wall. Nearby forts and milecastles are indicated.  Photo credit: Vindolanda Trust (via Vindolanda Tablets Online).

Top Centre: Tablet Vindol. II 346 (= BM 1980,0303.35), via Vindolanda Tablets Online.

Below Centre: Writing-tablet with a letter inviting Sulpicia Lepidina, the commander's wife, to a birthday party. Tablet Vindol. II 291. Photo credit: © Trustees of the British Museum.

Lower left:  Sculptured gravestone from Murrell Hill, Carlisle, showing a lady (c AD250) holding a large round fan with radiating ribs. Photo credit: Tullie House, Carlisle.

Lowest left: Right side of a relief depicting a sacrifice scene on the Bridgeness slab (from the Antonine Wall, Scotland). In the foreground are the victims (a boar, ram and bull), with a servant and flute player. Behind them the celebrant pours a libation on the altar. Photo credit: © The Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland (Via Vindolanda Tablets Online)

Lowest Centre: Writing tablet with a letter from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina.  Tablet Vindol. II 292.  Photo credit: © Trustees of the British Museum.


  1. Ellie Rose Elliott28/8/13 19:09

    bleak indeed. not to mention drafty. goodness, how that invitation resonates even today! the strategies of how to cope with being the only expat wife for miles in any direction haven't changed, and that sort of desperate colonial isolation was common anywhere in the third world up to the end of [the British] Empire.

    nobody ever thinks how heroic it was of Caligula's mum to have accompanied her husband on his tours of duty, but it won't have been much different for her. There you are, a daughter of Empire, putting a good face on it in front of the staff while you go screaming mad with nothing to do and the lack of anybody of your own kind to talk to [you couldn't chat with legionaries' wives or ask THEM back for nibbles and a glass of white wine . . .]


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