Reading the earliest writing from Roman Britain
Among the remarkable artefacts recovered by MOLA archaeologists on the site of the new Bloomberg headquarters in London were 405 writing tablets. Of these, 87 have now been deciphered, providing a tantalising insight into the lives and legal wrangling of the first Londoners. Roger Tomlin and Sophie Jackson told Matthew Symonds what Britain’s earliest authors had on their minds.
A modern audience could be forgiven for feeling that the advice offered in the oldest readable document from Britain has timeless appeal. The text is scored into a broken wooden tablet, which is addressed to Titus, who appears to be a poultry-keeper. In the enigmatic, only half-familiar lettering of Latin handwriting, Titus’ anonymous correspondent observes ‘because they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money. Therefore I ask you in your own interest not to appear shabby… you will not thus favour your own affairs…’. If this letter ever carried a date it has long since been lost, but the layer it was deposited in belongs to AD 43-53. Seemingly, then, within a decade of the Roman invasion of Britain, and perhaps five years of the foundation of London, its market was rife with gossip about the perils of bad debt.
‘We do get glimpses of a carpet-bagger business community in the very early years of London,’ explains Roger Tomlin, a specialist in Latin handwriting at the University of Oxford. ‘This tablet is obviously describing an ill-judged loan, and the writer goes on to offer some obscure moralising comfort. He’s saying that you must face up to this as a gentleman, and don’t worry too much about it. What exactly the disaster is – perhaps he’s not going to get his money back because he’s lent it to crooks – we simply don’t know. The allusion to the market may be a reference to the new forum of London, or even a metaphorical reference to “the market”. But it is an extraordinary example of activity that we can only see the tip of the iceberg of.’ Many equally evocative snapshots of life in Londinium are preserved in the Bloomberg tablets.
Lost wax method
Unlike the famous Vindolanda tablets, which overwhelmingly comprise ink writing on thin strips of wood, the Bloomberg examples are mostly fragments of the famous Roman waxed tablets. ‘They consist of a thin strip of silver fir, a regular grained soft wood, which was recessed and filled with a black wax,’ says Roger. ‘This was a mixture of beeswax and matt black, very fine carbon. The writing was etched into it using a stylus, which cuts through the wax and exposes the paler wood behind. So you’re reading paler coloured handwriting against a black background’. Such tablets rarely survive complete in Britain, because the same waterlogged deposits that preserve the wooden backing tend to make the wax perish. Apart from a few tenacious traces of the substance, the Bloomberg site was no exception.
One of the advantages with using wax is that heating it allows the existing message to be erased, creating a literal tabula rasa, or blank slate. Given that the whole point of the tablet is that the wax holds the message, it seems inevitable that once the wax leached away it would take the text with it. Fortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes the scribes wielded their styli with such vigour that they sliced through the wax and pierced the soft wood beneath, engraving the text into it. If this happened every time a new message was added, the result was an unintelligible mass of superimposed letters. Fortunately, 87 of the Bloomberg tablets survived in what could be thought of as a ‘Goldilocks’ state: text had been scored into the wood, but not too many times.
In order to make the stylus strokes as visible as possible, the tablets were photographed repeatedly, while raking light was directed from numerous different angles. Armed with composite images of the tablets, it took Roger about a week to make sense of each one. ‘When I decipher their handwriting’, he remarks, ‘I think of my own heroes, the wartime academics who worked at Bletchley Park.’ Rather than intercepted enemy transmissions, though, the Bloomberg tablets were recovered from the mud beside the former Walbrook river. This has long since vanished beneath modern London, but its valley would have been a major feature of the Roman town. Although some of the tablets were broken fragments that had been unceremoniously dumped in the Walbrook, others may have been found by the MOLA team in the room where they were once archived.
‘The site is right in the heart of the City’, says Sophie Jackson, a Director at MOLA, ‘which is one of the richest archaeological areas in the country. The Walbrook may initially have been used as a boundary for the original Roman settlement, but as Londinium expanded across the Walbrook valley, it had to be managed. So they brought in what was essentially landfill in order to raise ground level and create platforms, which they built on. In one of the buildings, there was a small room with a clay floor, where we found 19 writing tablets. Text was visible on some of them, and it looks like they were legal documents. One may be a Roman army officer’s will, dated to AD 67. We like to think this is London’s first identifiable office.’ All told, the cache of forgotten and junked tablets from the Bloomberg site is the largest ever recovered from a non-military context in northern Europe.
The earliest Bloomberg tablet that still carries a date was written ‘in the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the sixth day before the Ides of January’, which is a long-winded way of saying 8 January AD 57. The text goes on to deliver an eye-watering IOU: ‘I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise, which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern…’.
‘This was my favourite tablet’, says Roger, ‘because it was possible to read the whole of the surviving text. It concerns two freedmen, that is manumitted slaves, of Roman businessmen, who are probably now acting as partners of their former owners. Tibullus is a rare name, though it is also the name of a poet, so it is possible that his master had literary inclinations and named him after the poet. Tibullus writes to say that he will continue to repay the money that he owes, with interest, in due course. During this period, 105 denarii is about half of what a Roman legionary soldier would earn over the course of a year. One denarius is roughly one man’s skilled work for a day, so this was a considerable sum.’
Perhaps the most historically significant tablet is dated 21 October 62. Although only a little under six years had passed since Tibullus issued his debtor’s contract, Londinium’s fortunes had seen a bloody and brutal reversal in the interim. It was only a year or two since Boudica’s warriors had rampaged through the town, and also devastated Colchester and Verulamium. The AD 62 tablet, though, suggests that the recovery was well under way. It states: ‘I, Marcus Rennius Venustus, [have written and say that I] have contracted with Gaius Valerius Proculus that he bring from Verulamium by the Ides of November 20 loads of provisions at a transport-charge of one quarter denarius for each…’.
‘There is an interesting correction in this tablet,’ Roger observes. ‘The writer initially says that the provisions are to be brought from London, but then realises his mistake, and writes Verulamium instead. So we know that in October 62 London and Verulamium are up and active and exchanging foodstuffs. According to Tacitus, 70,000 lives were lost in the disaster, and yet here we find signs of a rapid recovery.’ Such tablets also go a long way to vindicating Tacitus’ characterisation of London in the Annals as being ‘very full of businessmen and commerce’.
Soldiers and slaves
Although Boudica herself is not mentioned in the tablets, emperors and consuls are not the only celebrities from the ancient literature to be name-checked in the Bloomberg documents. One tantalisingly brief snippet mentions ‘Classicus, prefect of the Sixth Cohort of Nervii’. This appears to be an early reference to a soldier famous for going – from a Roman perspective – rogue. ‘The Nervii are a battalion 500- strong,’ says Roger, ‘which we know from other sources was drafted into Britain just after the defeat of the Boudican revolt. Classicus is a rare name, and the only other Classicus known to us is one of the leaders of the great revolt against the Romans in the Rhineland, in AD 69/70. Like the other leaders of the revolt, Classicus was a member of the tribal elite from the Rhineland.’
‘Classicus is almost certainly a cousin of Classicianus, who was the new procurator – financial official – of Britain following the Boudican revolt. Tacitus didn’t like him, because he had rather more sympathy with the Britons than the governor, an Italian called Suetonius Paullinus. Classicianus even secured Paullinus’ dismissal in favour of a more compliant Roman aristocrat. It seems pretty certain that Classicianus also got Classicus his first job commanding this battalion in the British garrison. He is one of the most interesting resonances in these scraps of writing from the Walbrook silts.’
Not all of these tablets document financial wheeler-dealing or nepotism in the fledgling province, however. A sense of humour shines through in a message seemingly addressed to ‘Attius, [son] of Optatus, the thief’, assuming that this is gentle joshing by an acquaintance, rather than an actual job description. Another tablet lays out the letters of the alphabet from A to T. This may be a demonstration of ability by an aspiring scribe, but it is equally possible that this is evidence for schooling in a world where there was a sudden new demand for literacy. Mastering this skill was no guarantee of riches, though, and some tablets seem to carry writing by slaves conducting their masters’ business. In one case, the recipient appears to be identified as simply ‘slave of’ rather than by name.
If there is one subtext that shines strongly through the intelligible tablets, it is Londoners’ ease and familiarity with the Roman way of doing things. ‘There’s one tablet documenting a pretrial hearing between litigants, and it’s within a decade of London being founded,’ says Sophie. ‘So already you have a complex legal system set up where people are being called to pre-trial hearings. In a way it’s not that surprising, as we’ve seen similar arrangements in the more recent imperial past. Even so, it is remarkable how quickly everything is established. London is up and running very fast.’ All of this begs the question of whether we are hearing any British voices among the Bloomberg tablets, or if the masters – and even the slaves – of this newly literate world are Roman or Gallic businessmen, elites, and their servants following in the wake of the legions.
‘It’s very difficult to distinguish a Briton’, says Roger, ‘as the British population are Celtic-speaking, just as the Gauls are. Some of the names in the tablets are Celtic, but whether they are Gaulish Celts or British Celts is hard to say. Probably they are mostly incomers, because there was no London before it was founded by the Romans, and the inhabitants are businessmen who were supplying the army. There is an inscription that was found in Southwark a few years ago that illustrates the situation nicely. It is dedicated to the god by Tiberinius Celerianus, who calls himself a Londoniensi – a Londoner – but he comes from Reims in France. So there may be Britons among the tablet authors, but it’s frankly a bit unlikely.’