I’m doing a charity walk to celebrate the 1,900th anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall, so during September I’ll be trying to walk 84 miles – the length of the Wall – but without actually visiting (which also nicely avoids treading on all that archaeology). So what better excuse for a post on writing and literacy in this northern outpost of the Roman world?
First a note on my charity walk, and then on to the inscriptions! This is quite special to me because I grew up visiting Hadrian’s Wall frequently but haven’t been back since 2011 (how is that over ten years ago?!). So I’ve got my pedometer and I’ve measured my steps so that I can tell how far I’ve gotten each day, and even if it’s a challenge (because of some ongoing medical issues and not getting much of a chance to go walking) I’m determined to keep going. Partly that’s because I’m doing it for a charity I really believe in, Classics For All, who aim to bring teaching on the ancient world to a much wider proportion of schoolchildren than currently have access to it. You can find out more by clicking below, and if you feel inclined to donate I know it will be much appreciated by me and by all the amazing people working for Classics For All.
Considering how huge the Roman empire was, it’s interesting that some of the best evidence for literacy comes from one of the most northern areas of Roman occupation. You may have come across Hadrian’s Wall as a backdrop in films (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves springs to mind), a romantic setting for a novel (Eagle of the Ninth is a classic!) or simply a tourist destination if you’re holidaying in Cumbria or Northumberland. But did you know that this far-flung military outpost has preserved some incredibly rare examples of Roman handwriting, including a famous one written by a woman?
We tend to think of Roman writing as the big impressive ‘capital letters’ (not that the concept of upper/lower case had been invented yet) on stone monuments, but actually Roman writing was incredibly diverse. Some materials survive well, such as stone, metals and ceramics, so certain types of inscription are widely represented. But most of the Roman empire has pretty awful soil conditions if you want to preserve more fragile materials such as wood or papyrus, and it is only in very rare circumstances that they survive. The dry heat of Egypt has preserved impressive amounts of papyrus, and the eruption of the volcano Mt Vesuvius preserved incredible remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum, including wall paintings and graffiti as well as carbonised scrolls in the famous Herculaneum library (which remain fragile but some have been ‘virtually unrolled’ with the help of new technology). What is the superpower of the north of England then? Well if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know it’s the rain.
You might think yourself unlucky if you visit one of the sites on Hadrian’s Wall and it’s pouring down, but we are actually very lucky that the damp climate up there has created soil conditions that preserve perishable materials very well. And if the rain forces you indoors to look round the museums, rather than the stone outlines of lost buildings at the sites, then it’s doing you a favour. Vindolanda is a particular treat, where you will find preserved cloth and hair and some ancient shoes that are in considerably better condition than some of my own. And best of all, you’ll see a few of the Vindolanda Tablets, a treasure trove of precious documents that show us what ancient Roman handwriting really looked like (others are in the British Museum).
The Vindolanda tablets were a bit of a surprise, because these are thin slivers of wood bearing ink inscriptions (which now have to be read under special lighting) – not the folding wooden tablets filled with wax that were previously the better known type. Because they are written in ink, the writing is more flowing than what we see in stone and many other inscriptions, and is usually known as Cursive Latin. We have a worksheet on Cursive Latin HERE if you would like to try writing in it, or indeed reading some of the tablets. I also highly recommend the excellent resources provided by the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford, including a lot of information on the tablets and pictures and transcriptions of all of them, which you can find HERE.
The example of a woman’s handwriting that I mentioned is the famous birthday party invitation sent by Claudia Severa to her sister Lepidina, asking her to make it a happier day by coming along. The letter is sweet, personal and an extremely rare and fortunate find. As you can see, this cursive writing is not easy for us to read, but would presumably have been second nature to literate Romans.
I would also very much recommend having a look at some of the resources and publications of our friends at the LatinNOW project, who have lots on language and writing in Roman Britain, and two very nice manuals on scripts and texts and writing equipment from the Roman provinces.
There are also many examples of stone and other inscriptions from sites around Hadrian’s Wall. One of the most famous is this gravestone from South Shields, which commemorates a woman named as Regina, a British woman married to a man called Barates associated with the Roman army, who was from Palmyra in Syria. Below the Latin inscription is some extra text in Palmyrene, presumably Barates’s first language.
If you are visiting the Northumberland end of Hadrian’s Wall, my top tip is to make time for Chesters Fort, which is a perhaps less well known site that was once a cavalry fort. The ruins are interesting, but my favourite part is the museum, which is absolutely packed with inscriptions!
It’s not all altars and tombstones either – there are examples of graffiti on sherds of pottery, an inscribed ceramic altar and lots more. And if you are into iconography, it’s an excellent place to look at relief sculptures from Roman Britain with their interesting motifs and figures. I was honestly so excited the first time I set foot in that place!
The Cumbrian side of the Wall has also produced some wonderful inscriptions, of which perhaps my favourite is this one from Carrawburgh, which is associated with the worship of the eastern god Mithras. It’s not just the inscription that is interesting but also the way the image is formed from relief carving but with cut-out sun-rays above the head, and vertical panels of mystical-looking relief decoration.
Well this post has got me feeling rather nostalgic for old times spent on Hadrian’s Wall, but it’s helping me to build some motivation for a walk this evening to contribute to my charity endeavours! And I hope it has been interesting to look at some of the amazing remains of Roman writing found on the far northern fringes of the empire.
~ Pippa Steele (PI of the CREWS project)