The use and formats of writing tablets
The letters are perhaps the most interesting of the documents,
as they allow the voices of individuals to be heard most clearly.
To begin the letter the named sender (in the third person) greets
the recipient, the salutation taking up the first two lines (e.g.
'Severus to his Candidus, greetings' (Severus Candido suo salutem)
Letters are not dated, although dates are sometimes included in
relation to instructions in the letter. For example 242
instructs the recipient to 'come to Vindolanda tomorrow', where
the date seems to be supplied. News of the sender's health or wishes
for the well-being of the recipient often follow the opening, although
in one intriguing instance the sender wishes the recipient the worst
of fortune (321).
The letters close by bidding farewell (uale), (often 'farewell
lord', domine, or 'farewell brother', frater) and
sometimes again wishing good health. A typical closure is:
Once complete the letter is scored down the middle, folded and the address written on the back of the right-hand half (See Reading the tablets: Scripts at Vindolanda). Several leaves have matched notches cut in the left and right hand edges, which probably served as anchors for binding strings to tie round the letters. Tie holes also served the same purpose.
Other formats were possible. One letter began on the right half of a diptych, perhaps written by a left-hander who wanted to avoid smudging (343). Part of one letter is not split into columns but spans the whole diptych (292). Left short of space, some writers finish their texts in the margin (302) or on the back (305).
Addresses on letters specify the name (sometimes also rank and the unit) of the individual to whom the letter is sent. Often the name of the sender is also supplied, below the addressee, in the form 'from .'. In a minority of instances the place to which to send the letter is also written. Those letters at Vindolanda which name other places in the address, for example London, York, Catterick or Corbridge, must have been brought by their recipients with them to Vindolanda. In the relatively small societies of Roman forts, usually numbering no more than a few hundred, a name and sometimes an indication of the unit must have been enough to indicate the recipient.
Military correspondence was carried by soldiers acting as couriers (252), other official letters as well as individuals on official business by the imperial 'postal service', the cursus publicus. Messengers and travellers on imperial business were issued with vouchers that permitted them accommodation at hostels (mansiones) and changes of animals at stations (mutationes) en route. For their own letters rich individuals might maintain their own courier, but most people depended on travellers going in the right direction. That such a system could work over great distances is shown by the many surviving letters from Egypt that were dispatched from Greece and Italy. Individuals on the move, for example soldiers going on leave or to other postings and carriers moving supplies could have conveyed the personal letters between lower-ranking soldiers.
On good roads in Italy messengers in a vehicle, supported by changes of animals, could achieve speeds between 50 and 80 miles a day, messengers on horse back rather more. Such figures may be optimistic in northern Britain, but messages could have been sent to Corbridge and possibly Carlisle and a reply received within a day. A message could have reached York within two days, London within a week, the Vindolanda regiments' homelands in northern Gaul in two.
Many letters refer to an exchange of correspondence: sometimes complex transactions depended on the rapid exchange of information. The business letter from Octavius to Candidus mentions receiving or sending letters several times, but also indicates that sometimes communications could break down (343).
'... I have several times written to you that I have bought about five thousand modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least five hundred denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about three hundred denarii, and I shall be embarrassed '