Vindolanda Tablets Online Tablets Exhibition Reference Help

Volume One (TVI) material for tablet 299 (TVI tablet number 39)


References: Birley, Vindolanda, pp. 153-4, pl. 78; Bowman-Thomas, Historia 24 (1975), p.474

Part of a diptych, scored and folded, with the main text of the letter on the inner faces. The two broad V-shaped notches cut in the left and right-hand edges are aligned and must have functioned as anchors for a binding cord. The format is the normal one for a letter, with the text written in two columns and the address on the outer face of the right-hand portion. The part which survives is the middle section of the left-hand column and the feet of a few letters from the end of the right-hand column; the latter was clearly quite short because the majority of the right-hand section is blank (though defaced by faint offsets from the writing on the left-hand side, cf. No. 21 (248), introductory comments). It is noteworthy that, unusually, the left-hand piece also has writing on its outer face; there are traces of five lines, much abraded and written across the grain. This probably has no connection with the letter, but is a casual notation of some kind. We have not attempted a transcript. It is worth emphasising that this is one of the very few substantial texts from the later archaeological context (ca. A.D.105-15).

The text was described briefly in Birley, Vindolanda, pp.153-4 (see line 4 note). The main points of interest in the letter are the reference to a gift of fifty oysters and the occurrence of an apparently new place-name, from which the oysters were sent. The letter is addressed to a decurio named Lucius. We are unsure what, if any, connection he had with the unit serving at Vindolanda. We hesitate to connect him with cohors viii Batauorum (which we think was equitata) because of the archaeological date which must be assigned to this tablet (see above). We have suggested that by this time the Batavian cohort may have been replaced by cohors i Tungrorum (which was not equitata), see Vol. 1., Ch. 3.

The writing is very clear, even to the naked eye. The lines in column i scarcely overrun the central fold. The hand is neat and regular with well-formed letters made with thick strokes. i regularly has a serif at the top right; r appears with a short and a long tail (the latter curling emphatically to the left); h has two short verticals and a cross-bar (see Vol. 1., Ch. 4); f has a pronounced flourish at the top. There are several ligatures, e.g. la in epistulae (line 1), ea in meae (line 2), cus in amicus (line 3), ia in ostria (line 3). There may well be a conscious attempt in some places (especially line 3) to leave small spaces between words, which we have tried to indicate in the diplomatic transcript. It is noteworthy that the address, although written in large letters, is not in the elongated style normally used for addresses in these tablets.



1. It is rather surprising that there is no sign of the bottoms of letters in the preceding line of writing, but the writer has allowed a fair amount of space between lines. We suppose that, preceding the clause which begins with quod, there stood a verb on which the phrase te fortem esse depends.

2-3. Cordonouis: this must be taken as a place-name. Cordono, as a name, seems equally plausible, but this would leave the first three letters of the next line (which cannot be read in any other way) impossibly isolated. We have not been able to identify the place. Cordanum is the name of an island at the mouth of the Gironde (Corduan) which appears in the Ravenna Geographer and is an appropriate place from which oysters might come. Professor A. L. F. Rivet was kind enough to write to us in answer to our enquiry: ‘-dono for -duno is so common that, assuming an origin in the Celtic provinces, I would certainly expect the place to be Cordunum or something similar . . . If one assumes an origin in Britain and looks for a place suitably situated on an estuary, a tempting possibility might be Ptolemy's Dounon Kolpos (Tees Bay, and Ptolemy may well have got it wrong). There ought to have been a fort, or at least a settlement, somewhere here but none has been identified; so it is a very long shot.’ Unfortunately, the letters -uis at the beginning of line 3 seem to rule out this suggestion and Cordanum. We are therefore compelled to regard Cordonoui (-uae) as a hitherto unattested place-name. On the use of the preposition with place-names see Vol. 1., Ch. 5.

3. missit: this must be taken as misit but gemination after long i is unexpected; for a possible explanation see Vol. 1., Ch. 5.

ostria: for the form ostria instead of ostrea see Ed.Diocl. 5.6 (cf. Vol. 1., Ch. 5. For a gift of oysters we might compare Ausonius's acknowledgement of thirty (Ep.15 [Prete]) which he regarded as rather stingy (we are grateful to Mr. R.P.H. Green for drawing our attention to this reference). Oyster shells are not uncommon at military sites; for a summary account of the evidence see R.W.Davies, Britannia ii (1970), pp.128-9, with references to several sites including Benwell and Waddon Hill in Britain and Vindonissa in Switzerland. Oysters could evidently be transported over considerable distances inland and could also be transferred to new habitats (Pliny, NH 32.61, gaudent et peregrinatione transferrique in ignotas aquas; and Athenaeus, Deipn.7d for the story that they were conveyed to Trajan whilst on campaign in Parthia). The large number of oyster-producing areas in the Roman period (see Pliny, NH 9.169, 32.62-3) prevents us from narrowing down the possible identification of the place of origin (see previous note). Within Britain, Richborough (Rutupiae) was particularly noted (cf. Juvenal 4.140 with the additional references given in the edition by Mayor, ad loc.), but they are attributed to the Britannica litora generally by Pliny, NH 9.169, cf. 32.62. On oysters in the Roman cuisine see in general André, ACR, p.108, A.C. Andrews, CJ 43 (1948), pp.299-303.

4. quinquaginta: the description of this text in Birley, Vindolanda, p.154 implied a reading of quadraginta, which was an error induced by a piece of dirt on, the wood which, on an earlier photograph, looked like ink. For the number, compare the reference in Ausonius (see previous note); a gift of fifty might be quite generous in military circles, as opposed to affluent fourth-century Bordeaux.

fir: the most obvious restoration would be some part of firmus, firmo or firmitudo. The writer may well be referring to recovery from some minor complaint. Our text takes the last three words in this line as the beginning of a new sentence, but it is possible that we should not assume a full stop after quinquaginta. The writer would then be saying that the gift of oysters was intended to aid a speedier recovery; Pliny, NH 32.64-5 gives a list of the supposed medical properties of oysters, and Galen (Kühn) xii, p.345-6 writes of the use of the ash made from their shells; cf. in general Andrews, op.cit. in previous note.

5. One might expect to find the closing greeting here. We have only remains of the bottoms of letters. It might be possible to read at the end c]arissim[e; less probable is k]arissim[e since we should expect to see something of the k. Below this are offsets from the left-hand column.

6. decurion[i]: we are unsure whether there is a very faint trace of the final letter on the photograph. The addressee, who does not appear elsewhere in the tablets, was presumably serving either in an ala or a cohors equitata (see Vol. 1., Ch. 3.

12 .]..teri: the writing slopes up to the right (cf. Nos. 42 (324), 45 (341)) and is almost certainly in another hand. The reading is fairly clear but we cannot explain it.