The Woman of Vindolanda

A birch writing tablet dated A.D. 100, marked with carbon ink, found at the the site of the Vindolanda Fort, Northumberland, northern England. It’s about the size of a postcard


Greetings all! Earlier this month Archaeology Magazine posted a brief article on one of the letters recovered from Vindolanda. Since I have done a bit of research and written a paper on female voices in Roman epigraphy, I thought I would share an excerpt from that paper to give my readers a more complete picture of what the Vindolanda Tablets are and why they are important as archaeological evidence.

I’m a feminist in both science and politics, so my major interest in the study of ancient Latin epigraphy is to recover the lives and voices of real women from the archaeological record. For this reason, I tend to look for what I call “The First Person Feminine”–inscriptions and writings which are preserved in clay, wood, stone, metal, and papyrus which were actually WRITTEN by women and represent their own voices, thoughts, feelings, ambitions and intentions.

This is more difficult than it sounds. In the corpus of Latin historical sources, the silence of Roman women is downright deafening.  The poetry, plays, orations and letters which have come down to us through the ages present a chorus of voices which are overwhelmingly male.  While women and girls are frequently talked about, they rarely speak for themselves. They are “objectified”, essentially–they are the subject of discourse rather than being allowed to participate in discourse.  And this  silence of women in the historical record poses a serious problem.

Fortunately, there is at least a partial solution.  Although the epigraphic record is not egalitarian by any means, it can give us one thing that the historical record does not:  a multitude of authentic female Subjects, speaking in the “first person feminine” voice.  Roman epigraphy is full of literate women.  Their voices ring out from monuments and tombstones, from the alleys of Pompeii and the tops of pyramids, speaking about their lives, agendas, thoughts and feelings.

And although there are many epigraphic sources which give us vibrant, wonderful female voices from the Rom world…no survey of the First Person Feminine in Latin epigraphy would be complete without the letters of Claudia Severa.  Written around 100 AD, these brief personal notes were discovered in 1973, during the excavation of a former Roman fortress along the Tyne-Solway frontier, in the Pennines of northern England.  They were found in a rubbish dump deposit, just two of over 250 significant texts which have been derived from nearly 1000 wooden fragments.  In many respects, the Vindolanda tablets are the greatest hoard of Latin epigraphic material to be discovered in recent history—at least in part because the letters of Claudia Severa are the earliest known sample of the pen-and-ink handwriting of a Roman woman in the archaeological record.

In terms of material, the tablets recovered at Vindolanda are a northern analog to Egyptian papyrus, a cheap and easily available medium for writing letters, keeping accounts and documenting business transactions.  Papyrus was so common in Egypt and the Greek east that the surviving corpus of preserved papyrus fragments have fueled an entire philological sub-discipline all their own.  By contrast, good preservation of the wooden tablets which were used in the northern empire is extremely rare, and the Vindolanda tablets are a unique treasure trove for this reason…not to mention the fund of information they offer about Latin literacy in the first century AD, and military life on the northern frontier.

The Vindolanda tablets are delicate slabs of wood, generally made of birch, alder and oak, cut into rectangles roughly the size of a modern postcard, and about 1-3 millimeters thick.  The surface was carefully smoothed for use as parchment.  Messages were written with cursive strokes of a reed pen, in a fairly standardized ink mixture of carbon, gum arabic and water.  In many cases two tablets were folded together after the text was written, to protect the inked surfaces; this sometimes produced “off-set” prints on the facing surfaces of wood, which occasionally allow the texts of missing tablets to be reconstructed

Claudia Severa was writing her letters to a personal friend, a woman named Sulpicia Lepidina, and Lepidina was the wife of Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians.  The letters that Claudia sent to Vindolanda would be been received during the years that F. Cerealis and his family lived in the praetorium of the fortress.

Claudia herself was the wife of Aelius Brocchus, another officer of the equestrian class who had been stationed nearby; although we don’t know where Brocchus and his lady lived, he and Cerealis were frequent correspondents and definitely on friendly terms.  The friendship between the two women was an outgrowth of the professional relationship of their husbands.  Lepidina, Claudia and other Roman women in the area were practicing a networking strategy which is common to military wives in many times and places.  When imperial soldiers are stationed abroad, peer relationships between their military wives help to create a bastion against social isolation and all the potential problems of being friendless, foreign and far from home.

To dissect the content of Claudia’s letters, we have to first recognize that the text on these tablets was written by two different hands.  The bulk of the writing was done by a slave or freedman servant who was tasked with the role of amanuensis; Claudia used more than one scribe to write her letters, and the majority of any given message was written by someone taking her dictation.

Tablet One of the first letter reads:

  “Cl Severa Lepidinae [suae

  sa] l [u] tem.  III Idus Septembr[e]s soror ad diem

 sollemnem natalem meum rogo

 libenter facias ut venias

 ad nos iucundiorem mihi” [Bowman 1994: 127].

 

Tablet Two is somewhat fragmentary, but continues in the hand of the scribe:

“[diem] interventu tuo facture si

  [….]s 

 Cerial[em t]uum salute Aelius meus

 et filiolus salutant” [Bowman 1994: 127].

 

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings.  On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the celebration day of my birth, I happily ask that you will come and make the day sweeter for us.  The day by your coming will be made if…[?] Say hello to Cerealis; my Aelius and my little son give greetings.”

 

The last few lines are added when Claudia herself took up the pen, to put her own personal touch on the message:

“…sperabo te soror

 vale soror anima

 me ita valeam

 karissima et have” [Bowman 1994:  127].

 

“I will hope [to see?] you, sister.  Farewell, sister, soul dearest to me as I live and breathe, and hail.”

 

The second letter is even more fragmentary, but just as touching in its way.  Using a second scribe, Claudia wrote on five different tablets.

Tablet one reads:

  “…salutem

 ego soror sicut tecum locuta fueram et promiseram

 ut peterem a Broccho et venire at te peti

 et res[po]ndit mihi [i]ta corde semp[er li]citum una” [Bowman 1994: 127-128].

 

Tablet two continues:

  “quomodocumque possim

 at te pervenire sunt enim

 necessaria quaedam qua[e]” [Bowman 1994: 128].

 

“…greetings.  Just as we had discussed, sister, and as I promised that I would petition Brocchus and ask that I might come to you, so I did.  He replied that was always permitted to me… in whatever way I am able, to come to you.  For there are vital things which…”

Tablet three:

rem meum epistulas meas

accipies quibus scies quid

 sim actura haec nobis” [Bowman 1994: 128].

 

Tablet four is missing, but tablet five concludes the scribe’s portion:

“…rea eram et Brigae mansura

 Cerialem tuum a me salute” [Bowman 1994: 128].

 

“…my business.  You will receive my letters by which you will know this thing that is to be done by us… I was and will remain at Briga.  Say hello to Cerialis from me.”

 

On the back of Tablet Five, Claudia adds her postscript in her own handwriting:

  “[val]le m… soror

 karissima et anima

ma desideratissima” [Bowman 1994:  128].

 “Be well, my sister, dearest soul to me and the one I long for most.”

 

 

About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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2 Responses to The Woman of Vindolanda

  1. jude paxton says:

    It was moving, and evocative of the lives the must have experienced. Thanks for showing this to all of us.

  2. Sulpicia Lepidina was the wife of Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, stationed at Vindolanda in Period 3. She received two letters from Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus ( 291 , 292 ), and one from a woman whose name is perhaps Paterna ( 294 ). Another scrap with a closure written in Severa’s hand must also be assumed to belong to a letter to Lepidina ( 293 ). These tablets are all assigned to Period 3 but it is noteworthy that they were not found together (one in Room IV, two in Room VIA and one on the via principalis). The subject-matter of the letters is social and personal and it is notable that Claudia Severa herself writes very full and intimate closures in her own hand. The evidence for correspondence between literate women of the equestrian officer class is of no less interest than their presence itself at Vindolanda.

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