Vindolanda Tablets Online Tablets Exhibition Reference Help

The Content and its Significance: The Documents

Search database

View tablet number (118-573):

Search Tablets

Browse Tablets

Search Tablets database

Browse Tablets database

Tab. Vindol. II Introductory chapters

Tab. Vindol. II Category introductions

Tab. Vindol. II Abbreviations and Bibliography

Digitising Vindolanda

Tab. Vindol. II Addenda and Corrigenda

Tab. Vindol. I Introductory Chapters

Archaeology and Conservation

Writing on wood

The Content and its Significance



List of abbreviations

The print publication and the online edition

Print-friendly Tablet display

Tablets guide

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. 46-49

Following the arrangement of the texts in Part II, the content of the writing-tablets may best be discussed under the headings of Documents and Letters. Here we give only a general account of the importance of the information to be derived from the tablets; for more detailed analysis we refer the reader to the introductory comments and the notes accompanying the texts.

A. The Documents

The military records preserved at Vindolanda invite comparison with the papyri from Dura-Europos on which are preserved documents of the cohors xx Palmyrenorum1. Other military papyri from different periods and locations also help us to explain and interpret our texts2. and there is, in addition, a certain amount of literary evidence (particularly the treatise of Vegetius3) which casts some light on the processes of documentation in the Roman army. It must be emphasised, however, that the Vindolanda texts do not approach the Dura material in quantity or degree of detail and that, for the most part, we have to explain the Vindolanda material in the light of the evidence which we already possess. That is not to say that it does not offer us any new evidence, but rather that most of the texts are so damaged or difficult to read that we must be cautious in interpreting texts which appear to diverge from the established corpus of military documentation.

A small number of the Vindolanda texts appears to bear on the recording of unit strength, noting the assignment of individuals or groups of soldiers in relation to the overall strength of the unit (Nos. 1 (155), 2 (151) and perhaps No. 3 (160)). We are unsure how precisely to classify these texts but it is interesting to note that No. 1 (155), which appears to record a total of 343 men assigned to the workshops (fabricae), is very similar in form to an ostrakon recently published by Marichal4. The absence from the Vindolanda texts of the elaborate detail and titulature which is often present in papyrus records of this sort may be explained either by the variation in the practices of individual record-keepers or by the supposition that our texts are, as it were, working notes which might later be incorporated in a more elaborate final version. It is perhaps worth noting that two of the texts which we have tentatively put into this category are written parallel with the broad edge of the leaf and along the grain of the wood, unlike some of the other documents (Vol. I Ch. 2); but whether they were originally part of diptychs we cannot say for certain (see Nos. 1 (155) and 2 (151), introductory comments).

Apart from the question of the identity of the unit or units involved, which is discussed below, the texts present some interesting, though tantalisingly fragmentary, information. It is a striking fact that the detailed assignments recorded in No. 1 (155) are mostly connected with building and construction work; no other military record of this sort exhibits such a degree of coherence in the activities recorded. This tablet was found in Layer 10, which must mean that it belongs to the earlier part of the period represented by Layers 8 and 10 (i. e. ca. A. D.95-105) and thus it can perhaps be assigned to the earliest phase of the second fort at Vindolanda (Vol. I Ch. 1). We are therefore tempted to suggest that it records activities connected with the actual construction of the new fort. References to the building of a bath-house, to the collection or processing of lead, to clay, rubble and possibly pitch, plastering and the working of kilns are all appropriate to major construction-works. If we are correct in our belief that this text may refer to the personnel of the cohors viii Batauorum, it casts an interesting light on the range of activities performed by the soldiers of an auxiliary unit.

Activities connected with the fabrica at Vindolanda are perhaps also recorded in No. 3 (160). Here we have references to fabri and perhaps to the manufacture of shields and swords. We cannot doubt that manufacture of this kind was an important part of the activity at auxiliary forts, though our documentary and literary evidence is largely silent about such matters, normally discussing it only in connection with legionary soldiers5.

It is fair to say that, apart from the pay-records on papyrus, the Vindolanda tablets which contain accounts (notably Nos. 4-6 (190) (191) (205)) are now our best examples of this kind of document. Vegetius (2.19) writes: totius enim legionis ratio siue obsequiorum siue militarium munerum siue pecuniae cotidie adscribitur actis maiore prope diligentia quam res annonaria uel ciuilis polyptychis adnotatur. What was true for the legions must also have been true of the auxiliary units and our Vindolanda texts are particularly valuable for the light they cast on what we might call the quartermaster's department. The system of accounting for receipts or disbursements of commodities on a daily basis is attested in No. 46 (190), the longest document in the collection. The account is evidently not only concerned with food supplies but also records transactions in cash. Its main value, however, lies in its attestation of the range of commodities in use: hordeum, ceruesa, uinum, acetum, muria and axungia are all mentioned. No. 5 (191), which appears to record purchases of commodities, includes a large number of different meats, as well as sal, condimenta, frumentum and bracis. This does give us some reason to be sceptical of the common view that meat was eaten only rarely in the Roman army7. These isolated examples serve to provide some notion of the extent and complexity of what must have been a truly massive bureaucratic operation within a unit in the army.

In dealing with the documents we have operated on the assumption that these records originate at Vindolanda and refer to the military units which occupied the fort. At any rate, there is no positive reason to think that any of them originated elsewhere. We must now attempt to summarise the information to be gleaned about the identity of the units and the personnel who served with them. In doing so, we must also draw upon the evidence of the letters, which are more fully described in the next section of this chapter.

We have confidently identified two auxiliary units in the tablets. There is cohors viii Batauorum, commanded by a praefectus named Flavius Cerialis (Nos. 2 (151), 23 (263)) and cohors i Tungrorum, commanded by a praefectus named Crispinus (No. 30 (295)). The existence of cohors viii Batauorum was not previously attested but there is no difficulty in fitting it into the series of Batavian units already known (see No. 2 (151) introductory comments and line 2, note). We think that there is good reason to believe that it was equitata. Cohors i Tungrorum was already well known8. It appears on a diploma of A.D. 103, where it is milliary, but by 122 it had been reduced to quingenary size (how long before that date is uncertain). It is attested at Carrawburgh in the reign of Hadrian, at Castlecary under Antoninus Pius and in the third century it became the garrison of Housesteads (No. 30.4 note (295)). A more interesting piece of evidence for it is a fragment of a diploma found at Vindolanda; this dates to the reign of Antoninus Plus and names a soldier of cohors i Tungrorum9. There is no evidence to suggest that this unit was equitata (though its sister unit, cohors ii Tungrorum, was part-mounted10).

Since the praefecti of both these cohorts were evidently receiving letters at Vindolanda, we begin with the supposition that each unit garrisoned the fort at some time. The main difficulty lies in deciding on the sequence of occupation. The archaeological evidence is only circumstan-tially helpful. Of the tablets which refer to the Batavian cohort, No. 2 (151) comes from Layer 8 and No. 23 (263) from either Layer 8 or Layer 10; No. 9 (511), which may also refer to it, comes from Layer 8. The only text which mentions the Tungrian unit (No. 30 (295)) also comes from Layer 8. Layers 10 and 8 taken together represent the period ca. 95-105 and within this period Layer 10 is the earlier deposit. The evidence of tablet No. 1 (155) now becomes crucial. We know that this comes from Layer 10, the earlier part of the deposit. If, as we suggest, it reflects the strength of an unnamed quingenary unit, the probability is that it is to be referred to cohors viii Batauorum. It thus makes sense to suppose that the Batavian quingenary unit was in occupation in the middle 90s (it may, indeed, have built the second fort (Vol. I Ch. 1) and was succeeded within a few years by the Tungrian cohort. This unit may have been moved forward after the construction of Hadrian's Wall, but the evidence mentioned above has always made it difficult to believe that it went direct to Housesteads. The diploma from Vindolanda complicates the matter even more and we refrain from further discussion, except to point out that the sequence of units which we propose at Vindolanda between A.D.95 and 105 leaves open the possibility that the Tungrian cohort's occupation continued for a longer period11. There is no other evidence at all for the fate of the Batavian cohort.

One piece of evidence is difficult to explain if this sequence of occupation is correct. Tablet No. 39 (299) comes from Layer 6 (ca. A.D. 105-15) and contains a letter addressed to a decurio named Lucius, who must belong to an ala or to a cohors equitata. Our occupation-sequence would preclude the possibility of his being a decurio of cohors viii Batauorum (equitata?), and cohors i Tungrorum was not equitata. However, Lucius's unit is not named and, in view of the many possible explanations, it seems pointless to speculate further. Suffice it to say that this evidence is far too indefinite to disprove our suggested sequence of occupation.

Finally, there are three other important pieces of evidence which are relevant to the military establishment and need to be mentioned here despite the fact that they are all supplied by letters rather than by documents. First, there is the attestation of a centurio regionarius at Luguvalium (No. 22 (250))12.This serves to emphasise the strategic importance of Carlisle in the military establishment during the period which saw the Roman withdrawal from southern Scotland. The second point concerns the identity of the writer of the letter in No. 22 (250). Only his cognomen, Karus, survives in full and we have proposed the hypothesis that he might be C.Iulius Karus, praefectus of cohors ii Asturum, who was decorated for his service in Britain. We recognise, however, that there are difficulties in this hypothesis which are insoluble in the present state of the evidence (see No. 22.1 note (250)). Finally, we note that No. 30 (295) supplies us with the name of the man who was probably the commander of the unit stationed at Bremetennacum (Ribchester), Oppius (?) Niger; it has been conjectured that the unit was probably an ala (see No. 30.6 note (295)).

Previous page

Top of page

Next page