Saturday 8 September 2012

Postcards from the Edge

Roman mail, the grain supplies are a problem again

In 1973 archaeologists excavating the pre-Hadrians Wall fort known as Vindolandia discovered a horde of partially burnt but well preserved wooden postcards in the 1900-year old fort's rubbish. These postcards were the standard for sending or receiving dispatches across the Roman Empire, hardy and relatively water resistant this was the postal standard of the era...address on one side and the message on the other. Being a military fort, most of the 500 surviving cards deal with the day to day issues confronting the fort commanders - sick leave, grain supply and incidentals. However some are far more personal, and given the fort's location, paint a picture of life on the edge of the world.

This is northern England between 92 and 102AD, there is no Hadrians Wall yet, and the wilds of Pictish Scotland are mere miles away. This is South Dakota in the 1860s or Siberia in the 1900s. The fort is garrisoned with a cohort - about 480 - German speaking Batavians from the modern day Netherlands - commanded by Latin and Gallic officers. And yet life goes on. The senior officers have brought their wives with them, and in this man's world, the girls reach out to each other, just as army wives do today...and we know this because we have their letters.

From a neighbouring fort to Vindolanda, Claudia Severa sends a postcard to her friend, Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Vindolanda's commander, Flavius Cerialis in 100AD...just 1912-years ago...

Currently the world's oldest known Latin document
written by a woman - Claudia Severa 

"Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On September 11th, sister, for the day 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 and your presence. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius (her husband) and my little son send Cerialis their greetings too. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail."


"To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa."

Tomorrow, thanks to the University of Oxford, we'll see another of Claudia's letters to her frontier friend.

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