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.

It was the back of beyond: but the patterns of social life persisted. The Roman governing class wove a web of influence and patronage; and letter-writing was a main thread in it. (Later, at least, we find books of model letters for all social emergencies – how to congratulate an acquaintance on a large legacy, or commiserate with him on a small one.) Vindolanda produces its share of bread-and-butter correspondence. A nameless arriviste drafts an appeal for favours: ‘Fulfil what I expect of you ... provide me with friends, so that thanks to you I can enjoy a pleasant term of service.’ Niger and Brocchus send Cerealis, the fort commander, a good-luck letter, as he sets off to face the governor. Karus writes to him, and recommends his friend Brigionus. This exercise, the testimonial letter, was the commonest of chores; many examples in Cicero and Pliny. Karus (‘you will place me in debt to you both in his name and my own’) puts a less elegant spin on his clichés than Pliny (‘you will make me, you will make him your ever-grateful debtor’). In general, the letters represent several levels of literacy. The arriviste is mannered and spells well (he has an unclassical preposition, but there the Emperor Augustus had already set the precedent); others look like harbingers of barbarism, for they confuse QVID with QVOD and fluff the declension of ‘underpants’.

These are routine documents, reflecting a routine life; they sound a drone base to the Roman Wall Blues. But they have a more than routine significance for the history of Roman script. Palaeography studies the style and development of letter-forms, singly or in combination; and since we don’t know what the ancients called these styles, or how they would have analysed their differences, it tends to the condition of abstract dynamics. We can see a given letter as a function of the number, order and direction of the strokes which compose it, conditioned by technology (the cut of the nib, the angle of the pen) and psychology (minimum effort versus maximum legibility). If its shape changes with time, we can seek the explanation in the internal dynamics, or in intervention from outside. Palaeographic Lenins tend to assume a coup de plume: some authority must have imposed a new unitary character-set, which displaces the old. Palaeographic Burkes look for organic development: there is a kind of alphabet soup always simmering, which gells now one way, now another. Certainly graphic revolutions do occur, as in France in the eighth century and Byzantium in the ninth: in each case a new calligraphic script (for copying books) was deliberately created from the old cursive script (for writing documents), to serve the needs of a cultural revival. But Latin documentary writing is a much harder problem. At some time between the second and the fourth century it changed its character completely: you can adduce social factors (war, despotism, bureaucracy), but the basic cause, evolution or revolution, remains in dispute. The Vindolanda tablets solve nothing. But they do show how many variants of the same letter were available to one small group within one decade: a continuum of choices, rather than a unitary canon. That is certainly one up to organicism.

Meanwhile, at the civilised end of the empire, the governor of Bithynia, a fusspot with literary leanings, was writing to his emperor. He has no experience, he says, of trying ‘Christians’: is the name itself punishable, or only the crimes associated with the name? Trajan’s reply, though it warns against unprovoked persecution and anonymous denunciation, makes it clear: the name was criminal enough. Pliny stands as first witness in Robert Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans saw them, a relaxed survey of some familiar texts and their backgrounds. The exposition is clear and open-minded, though not always reliable in detail (‘Thystes’ for Thyestes’, ‘chriophoros’ for ‘kriophoros’); especially valuable in its realism. Early Christians had to live with the world; they had to live in the shadow of much larger Jewish communities; they had to think of the outsider and his criticisms in formulating doctrine and directing propaganda. By and large, criticism ran in three channels. One was social. To a society which was village in tone, if urban in scale, outdoor, gossipy, polytheistic and anxious for the security which conformist citizens and placated gods could guarantee, the Christians seemed standoffish, fanatical and revolutionary; their closed doors must conceal something – no doubt (a time-honoured schema of invective) promiscuity and cannibalism. Another was political. The Roman government saw the churches as clubs, like the many other trades unions, religious guilds and burial societies which flourished all around them; and clubs, which might develop into parties or pressure-groups, were always suspect. Pliny has both viewpoints. But with time a third strain emerges: intellectual comment on the Christian position. In the later second century the imperial physician Galen put the Christians alongside the Greek philosophers, and found – except in asceticism – nothing in common: a god who creates from nothing, a sect which believes by faith, not by reason, stand outside normal categories. His contemporary Celsus took a still more conservative stance. Christianity was a social danger, for its followers refused civil and military service, and proselytised among the low and ignorant; it was also an intellectual fraud – its founder a sorcerer, fathered on Mary by her soldier lover; its true doctrine stolen from the old philosophers, the rest novel and therefore wrong (of course, Christians said it was as ancient as the exodus, but how could they claim Moses when they rejected the Jews?). It was seventy years before Origen replied to this comprehensive onslaught. By that time the Christians were no doubt more numerous and prosperous; in Egypt economy copies of scripture give way to gospels de luxe, elegant parchment miniatures which presuppose a market of well-heeled piety. Origen appealed to the pagan intelligentsia. The intelligentsia replied, in the person of Porphyry. As a philosopher, he was tolerant; he regarded Jesus, like Herakles, as a heroic mortal deified after death. As a scholar, he applied to Scripture the techniques he’d learnt on Homer; he dwelt on the discrepancies between the gospels, re-dated the Book of Daniel as a political pamphlet, not a prophetic inspiration. Christian scholarship rose, and has continued to rise, to the challenge. But meanwhile politics took a hand. In 313 the Emperor joined the Church. By the time Julian came to power, and put imperial weight behind the pagan argument, it was too late: revelation was underpinned by vested interests.

The triumphant Church wrote its own history, which naturally plays down the internal divisions and external compromises of the early days. With hindsight we see St Paul’s mission to the gentiles as the turning-point of the first Christian century. At the time it would not have been so clear. Paul quarrelled with Peter and Barnabas, and set up on his own. He and his staff founded and guided, by letter and visit, Christian groups in a dozen cities of Asia Minor and Greece. Jesus had asked his followers to give up home, family, worldly goods: Paul had to temper this message for his settled urban communities. His history would no doubt read like Lenin’s, if we had the other side. He had to create his own charisma (he was not one of the Jerusalem twelve); he had to combat his rivals, Cephas and Apollos, old-fashioned circumcisers and newly fashionable speakers-with-tongues; he had to persuade, consulting the prejudices, exploiting the categories and commandeering the authorities which his audience accepted. This struggle we see dimly through the only documents available: the Epistles. These present special problems to the historian, as literary documents always do. They are real letters, therefore allusive and tendentious; they are exhortatory letters, therefore draw something from the long traditions of philosophical protreptic; they are literary productions, and deal (like all ancient writing) in rhetorical polarities. All this has to be allowed for.

It’s the world of the Epistles which Wayne Meeks sets out to re-create in The First Urban Christians. Half the book deals with the external world: roads and cities, the Jewish diaspora which might provide access or enmity, the social classes and social structures (clubs, households, synagogues, philosophical schools) to which the new groups might approximate. The rest looks outwards from the assumption which united the groups against the world. The ‘brothers’ help one another on journeys, settle their quarrels among themselves, yield to the same authorities of scripture, tradition and revelation, share the same symbolic acts of baptism and eucharist. They have a private language – ordinary Greeks have the word Ekklesia, but not in the meaning ‘church’. They confuse Christos (‘anointed’) with its homophone Chrestos (‘good’). They apply to Hellenic pagans the epithets which Hellenes reserved for orientals – ‘faithless’, ‘licentious’. There is no compromise on the monopoly of salvation – and yet no withdrawal from the world, since ‘each outsider is a potential insider.’

The book has a sociological skeleton, and a general argument. The social status of the early Christians has been much debated. Meeks concludes that Pauline congregations embraced neither the top nor the bottom of the scale; many members – rich freedmen, for example – had money without status, and so, unrecognised in existing structures, welcomed the message of a new world order shortly to be consummated by the Second Coming. Given the thinness of the evidence, this is as difficult to confirm as to refute. But the argument is secondary to the detailed documentation. Each small specialist will find something missing. I should have liked to hear more about the collegia, the social clubs to which Tertullian no less than Pliny would compare the Christian churches; more about the background which the Egyptian papyri provide (the Egyptian Greeks call all their friends ‘brother’: does that make it less striking that Pauline Christians do so?); more about the linguistic level of the Epistles, since in that age, when puritan grammarians were trying to reassert classical standards and so bolster the cultural hegemony of Greece against the political hegemony of Rome, personal persuasiveness might depend on syntactic snobbery. But there is nothing here to detract from the excitement of this dense and brilliant synthesis.

In Egypt we are back with documentary documents – about twenty thousand of them for the three centuries of the Roman province. These papyri, preserved in the dry sand, represent a miscellany of unselected waste paper. One use is anecdotal: we see ancient life, through its salvage, with the worm’s eye. Another might be sociological, even statistical; that makes difficulties; the material looks bulky, but the survival rate is in fact tiny, and skewed in time, place and class. Naphtali Lewis’s Life in Egypt under Roman Rule sticks mainly to the anecdotal: it is a wide-ranging and sharp-eyed ramble through towns and villages, farms and factories, banks and temples, law courts and government offices. The reader will find a general narrative well balanced by direct quotation; an extraordinary range of detailed information, from books and bricks through death and diet to wine and wet-nurses; and an appealing emphasis on the practicalities – the winter coats in the store-room, the douceurs to policemen on the household accounts; five citizens in six leave their census return to the last moment, one petition a minute falls on the desk of the governor. Much is not Roman, but sempiternal. Egypt had always been a totalitarian economy run by a professional bureaucracy which, with its files and forms in sextuplicate, counted every head and exacted every penny. ‘Recall the condition of the farmer,’ writes a pharaonic satirist:

when the snake has carried off half the corn, and the hippopotamus has eaten up the rest ... The taxman lands on the river banks, the policemen with him carry sticks ... They say ‘Give corn.’ There is none. They beat him furiously. He is bound and thrown into the well. His children are in fetters. His neighbours abandon him and are fled. Thus their corn is gathered. But the taxman, he is at the head of everybody’s work.

The Romans took Egypt, since it was rich and strategically important; it remained an excrescence within the empire, isolated with its own calendar and its own currency. They did things to it: to ensure stability, they imposed a rigid class structure; to save running costs, they drafted unpaid amateurs to replace the professional administrators. But they altered nothing basic, even when, in pursuit of higher revenue, they might have wished to; the familiar cycle – poor harvest, unpaid tax, flight from land, diminished tax-base, amnesty and self-styled reform – comes round again and again. What makes the Roman province exceptional is the richness of the sources: marriages and wills, letters and memoranda, loans and leases and tax-receipts. Naphtali Lewis is the doyen of papyrologists: his mastery of the material makes this book the best – indeed by far the best – introduction to that waste-paper world.