Decide about the wagons, send the sheers, the wretched Britons…

Decide about the wagons, send the shears, the wretched Britons…

Work on the Vindolanda writing tablets or tilia continues, with a completed article intended for a journal now in sight. It’s been one of those ‘mull on it vaguely for weeks, then out it comes in just two or three days’ occasions.

These Roman writing tablets from CE 85-130, predominantly but not entirely letters, are fascinating and striking in a host of ways. Their tone and content if not their form are so familiar, it makes time shimmer or rather do that strange thing of intimating that the past, in spite of what ‘they‘ say about it being a foreign country, is actually home territory. And their concerns and content are uncannily like that of so many letters by white settlers in South Africa that have been analysed in much WWW project research. And indeed so like the organisational email that pours out of my computer everyday.

As the short snatches from letters used for the title of this week’s blog have it, the addressees need to decide about the wagons needed to cart some stone for building work, to get the cohort vet to send the castrating shears, and to realise that the wretched Britons use horses but do not throw the javelins from them. And these things go on, with almost every letter and also the reports, accounts and lists  having commands, requests, questions, expectations, about things that need to be done or which have been completed. The letters here are overwhelmingly performative in character, although their form is located within the requirements of what a letter was at the time expected to be like.

And yes, there are examples of what we now think of a ‘personal’ letters. But these are exceptional – there are no more than a handful among many hundreds. What predominates are the routine, public letters of men writing to each other about the organisational business in hand. This was the business of empire, of Roman control, regulation and governance at its northernmost frontier. The Britons were part of it, although on the surface ‘outside‘, for they were not only observed and recorded but were also tied into a network of economic activities and exchanges, of goods produced, bought and sold and carried and delivered and the payment of taxes on all this. How mundane most of these things were, for the Roman bureaucratic system of communication, record-keeping and archiving encompassed many small and seemingly inconsequential organisational activities, not just large matters of strategy and government.

Last updated: 14 August 2020