Vindolanda Tablets Online Tablets Exhibition Reference Help

Clerks, Latin and education

Vindolanda and its setting


Forts and military life



Writing tablets - forms and technology

Writing instruments and equipment

The use and formats of writing tablets

Other documents at Vindolanda

Clerks, Latin and education

Reading the tablets

about this exhibition


The tombstone of Caecilius Avitus, optio in the XXth legion based at Chester. In his left hand he carries a case of stylus tablets,in his right is a staff.

Click on the image for a larger version.

Image details:

The tombstone of Caecilius Avitus, optio in the XXth legion based at Chester. In his left hand he carries a case of stylus tablets,in his right a a staff.
The inscription reads:


D(is) M(anibus) / Caecilius Avit / us Emer(ita) Aug(usta) / optio leg(ionis) XX / V(aleriae) V(ictricis) st(i)p(endiorum) XV uix(it) / an(nos) XXIIII / h(eres) f(aciendum) c(uravit)


To the spirits of the departed, Caecilius Avitus from Emerita Augusta, optio of the 20th legion Valeria Victrix, of 15 years’ service, lived 34 years. His heir had this erected.

Image ownership:

Grosvenor Museum, Chester

We have already seen how closely the army monitored its men and materials through the use of documents and how official and personal communications were conducted through writing. A late Roman writer comments on the numbers of documents that were produced by the military bureaucracy:

'For the administration of the entire legion, including special services, military services and money, is recorded daily in the Acts with one might say greater exactitude than records of military and civil taxation are noted down in official files. Daily even in peacetime, soldiers take it in turns from all centuries and 10-man sections to do night watch duties, sentry duty, and outpost duties. The names of those who have done their turn are entered in lists so that no one is unjustly overburdened or given exemption. When anyone receives leaves of absence and for how many days, it is noted down in lists.'(Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris, 2.19, trans. Milner).

Soldiers seconded to clerical duties were part of any garrison. Clerical staff and archives were probably based in the tabularium, in the principia. This was supervised by the cornicularius (301), assisted by his deputy (actuarius) plus clerks (librarii). Also in the principia was the office of the standard bearers, responsible for financial affairs. Officers are also likely to have had a share in the bureaucratic tasks. We can sometimes calculate how many records might have been produced, and how many have perished. Between the reigns of Augustus and Diocletian (27BC - AD 305) the army may have produced as many as 225,000,000 pay records, of which three survive in reasonable condition.

No such clerks are explicitly identified in the Vindolanda tablets, but the presence of scribes is indicated by a difference between the hand that writes the body of a letter and the hand that finishes it (291). Among the letters of Cerialis seven different hands have been identified, one of which is plausibly his own. The skills of literacy were not exclusive to clerks. As well as the prefects themselves, members of their households were also capable of writing documents. The correspondence of Lepidina reveals letters written to and by women: indeed the closure of Severa's invitation to Lepidina is the earliest recorded Latin handwriting by a woman (291). Slaves writing letters appear also to belong to such households (301, 347). The standard forms submitted by junior officers reporting 'all present and correct' reports are all written in different hands, as too are requests for leave submitted by individual soldiers. Civilian traders also made extensive use of documents. Overall, the existence of several hundred different hands among the Vindolanda documents testifies to the widespread use of writing.


Before Vindolanda military documents on papyrus and ostraka had been excavated in the south and east of the Roman empire, at Dura Europos on the Euphrates in Syria, from several sites in Egypt and at Bu Njem in Libya. These sites were in areas that had long traditions of literacy, albeit mostly in Greek rather than in Latin, the language of the army. The pre-conquest peoples of Britain and northern Gaul were almost entirely non-literate.

Documents from Vindolanda and Carlisle show that recruits from such areas had acquired a competence in reading and writing Latin nevertheless one or two generations after the conquest of their homelands. The Latin written at Vindolanda is standard for the period, with some elegantly written examples, especially in the correspondence of Cerialis (225), although there are exceptions in which the Latin is poorer (343). There is little detectable trace of the native languages of the Vindolanda units. Some Celtic words occur that had long been borrowed into Latin, for example cervesa (beer), raeda (carriage) or sagum (cloak). Other Celtic words in the tablets represent borrowed terms that are less well known, for example bedox (192) and tossea (192, 439), terms for textiles.

Other languages were surely spoken at Vindolanda, including the Germanic and Celtic languages of the garrison homelands and the Celtic language(s) of the British tribes. On Hadrian's frontier the linguistic mix was drawn from the entirety of the Roman world. As well as those of western Europe, Greek, the languages of Syria, Palmyra and North Africa, as well as the Danubian provinces (Illyrian, Thracian, Dacian) would also have been heard. In this polyglot world Latin was the lingua franca. Service in the army was one route by which Latin spread to different parts of the empire.


Dido and Aeneas take refuge from a storm in the cave. The scene is taken from a fourth century AD mosaic from Low Ham Roman villa, Somerset, which depicts several episodes from Virgil's Aeneid

Click on the image for a larger version.

Image details:

Dido and Aeneas take refuge from a storm in the cave. The scene is taken from a fourth century AD mosaic from Low Ham Roman villa, Somerset, which depicts several episodes from Virgil's Aeneid

Image ownership:

Vroma, Photo Barbara McManus, Taunton County Museum

The army seems the most plausible context in which most of the soldiers would have learnt Latin. The sharing of script and conventions among the tablets, including layout, abbreviations, symbols and punctuation, as well as the correct, sometimes archaic, spelling, indicate the probable existence of a scribal training.

Otherwise an education in Latin was available only to those rich enough to afford it. From Britain evidence for schools is scarce, although Tacitus tells us of Agricola's encouragement of education among the indigenous elites (Agricola, 21. trans Mattingly):

'furthermore he trained the sons of the chiefs in the liberal arts and expressed a preference for British natural ability over the trained skill of the Gauls. The result was that in place of distaste for the Latin language came a passion to command it.'

For the few to whom education was available, basic training in reading, writing and arithmetic was followed from the age of 11 or 12, studying Latin and possibly Greek grammar, literature, history and philosophy, with the grammaticus and later the rhetor. This was intended to cultivate the skills of public speaking necessary to advance in civic life. It is plausible that individuals such as Cerialis had had such an education, and there is possible evidence for teaching Latin at Vindolanda, perhaps by a tutor in the household. 118 and 452 have lines from books one and nine of Virgil's Aeneid. This epic poem described the foundation of Rome and was the core 'set-book' of the Roman curriculum. Perhaps there was a copy of the poem at Vindolanda, used in the education of Cerialis' children. These scraps are perhaps the remnant of writing exercises (see also 119), while another text refers to books, libros (333). Graffiti and artistic evidence, for example mosaic depictions also show that Virgil was known in the provinces. Reading matter at Vindolanda potentially included the highest products of Latin literature as well as writing tablets, graffiti and inscriptions. The education to which high social status gave access perhaps inculcated the values of Rome in the native elite, through studies of set books like Virgil's Aeneid, a 'mission statement' for Rome's role. The same education also instilled esteem for appropriate literary conventions and elegant expression.

Previous page

Top of page