Roman Wall Blues

Peter Parsons

  • Vindolanda: The Latin Writing-Tablets by A.K. Bowman and J.D. Thomas
    Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 157 pp, £16.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 907764 02 9
  • The Christians as the Romans saw them by Robert Wilken
    Yale, 214 pp, £12.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 300 03066 5
  • The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne Meeks
    Yale, 299 pp, £15.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 300 02876 8
  • Life in Egypt under Roman Rule by Naphtali Lewis
    Oxford, 239 pp, £15.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 19 814848 8

It takes a true patriot to love Roman Britain: all those water-filled ditches, and nothing at the bottom but a few centuries of provincial tat. Boots and bricks survive, but little that is articulate – just a few formal inscriptions on stone, a few lead tablets inscribed with curses and buried for the attention of the powers below. Everyday communications, on wood or papyrus, have rotted away. Or so it might have been thought, until in 1973-5 the Vindolanda tablets turned up, preserved anaerobically in an ancient floor of impacted bracken and human wastes. That find allows us to dip into a military waste-paper basket of 100 AD. The originals can be seen at the British Museum. Bowman and Thomas provide the first and the final publication. Their book does more than decipher the faded and broken scrawl (difficult enough in itself): it provides, with enviable erudition, the whole necessary context, linguistic, historical and palaeographic. The texts owe most of their interest to their ordinariness; the edition is an achievement of eye and mind of which any scholar could be proud.

Vindolanda lay on the northern frontier of empire. The fort, built and rebuilt over the years, guarded the east-west road now called the Stanegate; this was the front line, until a generation later, when Hadrian had his wall built a dozen miles to the north. The garrison consisted, not of legionaries, but of auxiliaries, provincial back-up troops, Batavians and Tungrians brought in from the lower Rhine and Maass. It was a remote enough posting. The tablets show officers in touch with colleagues at Carlisle and Ribchester; one private letter mentions a gift of oysters, another the despatch of socks and sandals. But in much the fort had to provide for itself. In one tablet, a roster, we see a bath-house under construction: 343 men are detailed to the workshops, to process lead, brick, plaster and rubble. The quartermaster needed substantial stores; his notes record issues or purchases (whether for officers or men, normal days or special occasions, we can’t tell) of wine and beer, salt and spices, grains for men or horses, meat (pork, ham, venison) in greater amounts than we would have guessed (the ancient world didn’t normally eat meat – it’s part of the superman image of Homer’s heroes that they eat it every day); there was also the universal fish sauce (made from concentrated brine), and ‘axle grease’, the pork fat which you used to cook food or treat frost-bite.

The tablets themselves represent another tribute to self-sufficiency. Writing on wood was common enough in the Greco-Roman world. Normally, to judge from the survivals and from the comments of their literary users, the flat surface of the tablet held a shallow central depression, which was filled with wax. Such wax tablets, where the writing was inscribed and erased with a metal stylus, served for notes and drafts, but also, in Roman tradition, for the solemn documents – birth-certificates, wills and the like – of the citizen career. Few of the Vindolanda tablets belong to this type; and they, being of larch or spruce, must be imported. Most are just thin slices (about 7 × 3½ inches) of local wood (alder, birch), smoothed to take ink direct. When new and sappy, they were flexible; the writer of a letter set out his text in two columns, lines parallel with the longer edge, then folded the slice in half, tied it round with string, and added the address on the outside. Cicero would have used Egyptian papyrus. But at Vindolanda they were a long way from the Nile: so they improvised.

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