Letters From the (Distant) Past: The Vindolanda Tablets

Letters From the (Distant) Past: The Vindolanda Tablets

By William Dawson

Edited by Jon McGregor and Kristin Schanke

Photo by Michel Wal: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Gallo Roman writing tablet from the Vindolanda Roman fort of Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland (1st-2nd century AD). Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews. British Museum (London)

All roads lead to Rome, they used to say – and down those roads, came letters. 

The Vindolanda tablets are a set of writing tablets, dating from the late 1st to early 2nd centuries AD and unearthed in northern England in the 1970s. They form a remarkable cache of correspondence received by the garrison of the Roman fort of Vindolanda, close to what would become Hadrian’s Wall. They are made of wood shavings, written on with pen and ink. (It is worth reminding ourselves that, whilst the pen and paper of today are starting to be seen as old fashioned, other methods of letter writing have also fallen by the wayside.) Over 1600 have been found over the decades since the first discovery. Together, they are among the oldest letters in British history. 

Although the Roman Empire was a largely illiterate society, there was a significant proportion of the population who were literate enough. For example, the walls of Pompeii are known to have been covered with everything from lewd graffiti to business advertisements, showing that there were significant pockets of literacy. Certainly there was enough literacy to support a busy written correspondence to and from the far-flung garrison at Vindolanda. 

Many of the tablets only survive in fragments, a sentence or two in length; but what a picture they provide! As the correspondence of a military outpost, many of them deal with straightforward military business: 

‘… the Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins’

The brutality of Roman rule is also clear to see: 

‘I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods and, my lord, inasmuch as I was unable to complain to the prefect because he was detained by ill-health I have complained in vain to the beneficiarius and the rest of the centurions of his unit. Accordingly I implore your mercifulness not to allow me, a man from overseas and an innocent one, about whose good faith you may inquire, to have been bloodied by rods as if I had committed some crime.’

But for all that, the humanity of their writers shines through. The first to be discovered, no. 346, turns out to be a request for sandals, underpants, and woollen socks; an eminently understandable concern for anyone having to conduct extensive military duties around Northumberland.  

People chide each other for failing to correspond: 

‘Sollemnis to Paris his brother, very many greetings. I want you to know that I am in very good health, as I hope you are in turn, you neglectful man, who have sent me not even one letter.’

They ask after old friends:

‘Chrauttius to Veldeius his brother and old messmate, very many greetings. And I ask you, brother Veldeius – I am surprised that you have written nothing back to me for such a long time – whether you have heard anything from our elders, or about …’

And perhaps most famously, there is an invitation to a birthday party: 

‘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.’

This was a military outpost of a far-flung empire; but it was also an area considered stable enough for officers to take their families and children. There is even an example of someone doing a writing exercise and being chided for ‘sloppy work’. 

Scholars have also been able to piece together further details about some of the correspondents. Reviewing the names of the writers, most of them appear to have been from modern day Germany, Belgium, northern France, the Netherlands, or Luxembourg. A few of the soldiers have Greek names – but historically, so did many Germans by this period. A number of letters are also sent referring to London, the main point of entry for luxury goods found around Vindolanda, as well as Gaul. Reference is made to the dispatch of gifts (including oysters), and what might be an expenses list for costs incurred on a journey. The Roman Empire was a multinational project; and this shows in its personnel, and how quickly even northern Britain was linked into its communications network. 

The Roman civilisation, with its sandals, javelins, and lonely defence of a northern frontier, may seem a long way from our contemporary society. Nevertheless, we still try to contact our loved ones, discuss business, and invite each other to parties. (Indeed, Roman birthday parties even included cakes!) We still communicate by tablet, even if our own are made of pixels and silicon rather than wood shavings. And sometimes, there’s still really nothing like a handwritten letter from a distant friend.  


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