Literacy on the Roman Frontier

This week all of the Field Schoolers will be giving presentations on an artifact in the Vindolanda Museum. The artifact (or, really, collection of artifacts) that I chose are the Vindolanda Writing Tablets. They are wooden leaf tablets, between 1-3mm thick, that the people occupying Vindolanda in the 1st-2nd Centuries AD wrote on for a variety of purposes. Most of them are used as military lists and catalogues, to keep track of the number of stationed soldiers, pay lists, and foodstuffs, but there are also many letters written by different members of the community. Some tablets don’t have anything that offer as much immediate insight into the daily life of the military community; however, when you look closely, you can see clues that point to the development of literacy in the children of Roman auxiliary forces.

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See those Letters in the bottom right? Those are the upside-down letters “QUIN”

The tablet above is a fragment that in the bottom right corner has a capital script written upside down. This isn’t part of the original writing that the tablet was originally used for, but is probably a writing exercise for a child. This child seems to have used the who used the margins of the tablet to practice forming letters.

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The reverse side of a draft of a letter, reading “Interea pavidam volitans pinna(ta)”. Without context, this fragment of a line from Virgil is nonsensical.

Here, another tablet features part of a line from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 9, line 473), possibly also used by a child. The line has no purpose for being written, and is not even a complete sentence, which lends credibility to the idea that it was used as writing practice for a child at Vindolanda. There are also other examples in the Empire of lines from the Aeneid  being used for writing drills. While we can’t say for certain that these examples were written by children, the way that they are only written on the margins or the backs of well-written letters and don’t make grammatical sense is solid proof for the two tablets having been used for writing practice. It also makes sense that the children living in the community, one where so many other written texts have been found, would have learned to read and write in such a way. Literacy was a significant part of life at Vindolanda, and to have potential evidence of children learning their Latin letters proves that even further.

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