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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Letters from the Wall

Hadrian's Wall, ruins of Milecastle 39

A few years ago I came across the site of the Vindolanda Tablets, a huge cache of what we might call postcards written by Roman soldiers and their families who were stationed along Hadrian's Wall in the north of England.  And it's an absolutely fascinating story, this astonishing find of all sorts of everyday communications between Roman citizens in the heyday of the Empire, at a remote outpost on the far frontier. 

Party invite from Claudia Severa to her sister, Lepidina

And yet, as humans always manage somehow to do, they made the most of it.  Here's a link to one of the most charming messages, a note from one officer's wife to her sister, saying in effect, "Do come to my birthday party, it'll be fun."  These are everyday messages, not formal inscriptions or ponderous manuscripts, but scratched out with pen and ink on little thin slips of wood:  nothing meant to be saved for the ages, although by great good luck, they were.

On that same site is a little crib sheet to help you decipher the Roman cursive handwriting - one of their least successful inventions, I might add - and I have to tell you, fellas, it was a real hair-on-end moment when, poring over the letter with the help of the crib and my long-ago high-school Latin, I suddenly realized I was able to actually read it - and in that moment, the veil of antiquity fell away and it seemed the lady herself was right in the room with me, no distance between us.  Sperabo te soror:  "I'll be looking for you, sis."

If your Latin is even rustier than mine and you can't make heads or tails of the letters, here's a very cool BBC video that gives you the whole picture of where and why the wall was built, and who lived there and how they lived - which was pretty comfortably for the times, with running water, central heating, designer shoes, and everything.  Enjoy.


Tim said...

This brings back many happy memories Russ. In the 70's & 80's my partner and I used to walk the wall and the nearby lake district regularly during our Easter breaks. In many places the wall follows a natural escarpment, and the views are quite stunning.

Like the US forces of today, the Roman Army took home with them wherever they were posted, hence the plumbing, baths, and luxury goods, etc. Not for the locals north of the border!! ;)

Russ Manley said...

"They took home with them" - yes, that sort of thought crossed my mind too. Human nature doesn't change, you see.

But as for the howling Scots, I suppose they felt haggis and rainwater were good enough for the likes of them, what?

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