The Content and its Significance: The Documents

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The Documents

The Letters

From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, Vindolanda: the Latin writing tablets London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1983, pp. 49-50

Under this heading we may begin with the archives. We use this term in its conventional sense as referring to a group of documents which are linked by virtue of having the same author, recipient or place of origin. We have distinguished three small archives - groups of letters addressed to a particular individual. We can say little about the origins of these letters (this is, indeed, also true of the letters which do not belong to the archives). We assume, on no other basis than that of general probability, that they are unlikely to have come from very far afield. The context may be limited to Britain; we think it likely to be limited, at most, to the north-western part of the Empire. The exceptions (those letters whose origins we can specify) are Nos. 21 (248) and 30 (295) which may have come from Ribchester and No. 37 (225), a draft of a letter written at Vindolanda.

Most of the letters come from Layers 10 and 8, which indicates a date of ca. 95-105 for the deposit. This fits admirably with the mention of the governor (Neratius) Marcellus in No. 37.14 (see note) (225). It is impossible to be sure whether any of the letters predate this limit significantly; letters may have been kept 'on file' for a considerable period after they were written13. Only one letter with a significant amount of text (No. 39 (299)) comes from the later Layer 6 (ca.A.D.105-115).

The largest of the archives is that of Flavius Cerialis, praefectus of cohors viii Batauorum (see Nos. 2 (151), 23 (263)). It includes an interesting documentary example of litterae commendaticiae from a man named Karus (see above, p. 48(I3wp11)) which is a particularly valuable addition to the small number of extant examples of this genre. There is also a complete letter from Niger and Brocchus (the former probably identifiable as Oppius (?) Niger, who was probably the commander of the unit at Ribchester, see No. 30 (295)) in which they refer to an impending meeting between Cerialis and the governor (No. 21 (248)). In the fragmentary text of No. 23 (263) there is perhaps a reference to Cerialis having sent letters by the hand of a centurion of cohors viii Batauorum. Although examples of the name Flavius Cerialis can be discovered in our extant sources14, there is no reason to think that our praefectus is identifiable with any other known person of this name.

The second archive is that of Crispinus, the praefectus of cohors i Tungrorum. Only two texts have significant portions of letters. No. 30 (295) comes from Oppius (?) Niger at Ribchester and refers to the fact that Crispinus had sent two soldiers from the Tungrian cohort with letters to the governor. No. 31 (297) is a more personal message, somewhat apologetic or defensive in tone. We cannot make any attempt to identify this Crispinus elsewhere; No. 37 (225), the draft letter written at Vindolanda, mentions two people with the name Crispinus, one of them being the addressee, but it is difficult to imagine that either can be the praefectus of the Tungrian cohort (No. 37.1-2 notes (225)).

The third archive, that of Flavius Genialis, barely deserves the appellation, but it is technically required since he probably turns up in three fragments (Nos. 34-36 (218) (171) (223)). Of these the last two are merely addresses. The first has a more substantial part of a letter which again refers to the despatch of an unnamed person or persons to Genialis. We cannot further identify Flavius Genialis and none of the texts gives us any solid clue to his rank or position, though the tone of No. 34 (218) suggests fairly strongly that he is in the officer class.

The other letters, with the exception of Nos. 37 (225) and 39 (299), contain very few clues to author or recipient. No. 37 (225) is probably to be placed firmly in the officer milieu. No. 39 (299) is addressed to a decurio named Lucius. As to the rest, we are in the dark, but there are slight clues in Nos. 38 (346) and 45 (341) which lead us to believe that we have examples of the correspondence of people of much lower rank and status (the names and subject-matter, the use of the term contubernales in No. 38 (346), the name Trophimus and the term conlega in No. 45 (341)).

A handful of letters are of considerable interest. No. 37 (225), the longest letter in the collection, is a draft written at Vindolanda. It is addressed to a person named Crispinus and refers, at the beginning, to another person with the same cognomen (and a nomen ending -rattius) who is apparently to act as letter-bearer. It seems difficult to identify either of these with the Crispinus who was praefectus of the Tungrian cohort, though it is perhaps just possible that he was the -rattius Crispinus who was returning (redeunte) from Vindolanda. One major point of interest in the letter is the mention of the governor (Neratius) Marcellus, clarissi[mum uirum] consularem meum; he is known to have been in office in 103 and this provides important confirmation for the relative accuracy of the archaeological dating (see No. 37.14 note (225)). Since the writer evidently refers to the exercising of influence with the governor, it is again obvious that we must be dealing with people of the officer class. The unnamed writer also mentions that his unit is stationed in winter quarters at Vindolanda. We may also note here that the fragmentary text in No. 42 (324) also appears to refer to the arrival of the addressee at Vindolanda.

Nos. 38 (346) and 39 (299) are concerned with more mundane matters. In the former there are several references to the despatch or purchase of clothing, including sandals, socks (udones) and underpants (subligaria). In No. 39 (299) the writer mentions the fact that a friend has sent him a gift of fifty oysters from a place called Cordonoui (or -ae), which we have not been able to identify. It is perhaps worth noting, finally, two tantalisingly obscure bits of information: a fragment of a letter in No. 41 (323) refers to the purchase of some items at a price of three uictoriati each; and the writer of No. 40 (283) appears to make reference to a trip to Rome - perhaps not so very surprising, but titillating to find the name of the metropolis turning up at the furthest boundary of the Empire.

All the letters, so far as we can judge, begin with the name of the sender in the nominative (usually both nomen and cognomen, but note the exception in No. 21 (248) where there are two senders, identified by the cognomen only) followed by the name of the addressee (cognomen only) in the dative; this is followed by suo salutem. In most cases salutem is written alone in the second line at the right, the rest of this line being left blank. In No. 21 (248), however, suo is also written in this line and the same may be true of no. 22 (see note to line 1). It is only rarely that the end of a letter is preserved. When it does survive it almost always shows the writer adding a brief greeting in what we take to be his own hand (a well-known habit of St. Paul, e.g. I Cor.16.21). This can be as brief as uale, frater (No. 22.17 (250), cf. No. 30.9-10 (295)) or more elaborate, optamus, frater domine, [te] bene ualere (No. 21.12-3 (248)). Note that in No. 22 (250), where it is simply uale, frater the main body of the letter itself ends with the phrase opto te felicissimum bene ualere (lines 14-6). We might also note the interesting variant in No. 38.11 (346), opto felicissimus uiuas.

We are confident that all of the letters will have borne an address on the back, but so few of these survive in anything like a complete form that it is impossible to be sure whether there was a standard format. Our most complete example is in No. 23 (263) and here we have the name, Flauio Ceriali, followed by the rank, praef(ecto) and the name of the unit, coh(ortis) viii Bat(auorum). In No. 39 (299) the name of the addressee, Lucius, is followed by his rank, decurioni; something (we are not sure what) is written in a line below this. In several cases (e.g. Nos. 24 (270), 40 (283)) we have the name followed by praef(ecto) and we cannot exclude the possibility that the name of a unit will also have been there. Obviously, there would need to be sufficient information to identify the addressee, and we must allow for possible variation in the practices of different writers15.

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