What Do We Know About the People of Roman Vindolanda?

Barbara Birley

Ancient and Classical Ancient Rome
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We are fortunate to know the names of many of the people who lived at Roman Vindolanda. A number of these come from the writing tablets, thin sheets of wood about the size of modern postcards onto which the Romans wrote letters from the past. Most of the letters date from the earliest occupation levels on the site c. 85AD to the end of 2nd century.

After that period, we can still find references to the people of the site, but we have examine stone inscriptions to further decipher their names. Here is a list of some of my favourite individuals who lives at Vindolanda and the artefacts which link to them.

Roman writing tablet from the Vindolanda Roman fort of Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland (1st-2nd century AD). Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews. British Museum. (Credit: Michel Wal / CC)

Iulius Verecundus

We know of Verecundus from several writing tablets. He was the first commanding officer stationed at Vindolanda and oversaw the First Cohort of Tungrians. In 2017, 26 new fragments of tablets were found, all dating to the time when Verecundus was in charge.

They were found on a small cobbled path or street outside the walls of the first fort, and date to around 90AD when the first fort was upgraded to the larger second fort on the site. It is likley that this scattered hoard was the result of Verecudus moving to a larger residence and clearing out his old home. These letters, both written to and by Vercundus help us to understand more about his life.

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One of the most complete tablets was sent by the decurion Masclus who appears in other letters at Vindolanda. In this letter, Masclus is away from Vindolanda and corresponds back to Verecundus.

Masclus writes on two subjects. First, he asks for leave for five of his men. Second, he requests the return of a cleaving-knife and reports that he has sent Verecundus come plant cuttings. Four of the 26 tablets, including the letter between Masclus and Verecundus are now on display in Vindolanda’s Museum.

Lady Lepidina

Birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina

From the next period at the site, c. 100-105AD, comes another individual known to us by three tablets. Sulpicia Lepidina is the wife of Flavius Cerialis, the commanding officer of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians (modern Netherlands).

She is probably the most famous woman from the site as one of the tablets has the oldest known writing between two women from Britain. In a birthday party invitation Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus at Briga fort, invites Lepidina to her party on 11 September ‘to make her day more pleasant by her presence’.

Unfortunately, we don’t know if Lepidina went to the party, but we do know that Claudia Severa wrote her final salutation to her friend in her own hand, showing that she was literate. The letter also proves that elite women were on the frontier with their husbands in a time before Hadrian’s Wall was built.

Shoe uncovered at Lepidina’s house.

Found in Lepidina’s house, or the period III commanding officer’s residence, is this tiny but fantastic leather slipper. The slipper is stamped with the maker’s mark, so we know that it was imported from Gaul. It would have been a very expensive shoe, one of the nicest in the collection of some 5,000 shoes and boots from the site.

The probable reason for discard is that the toe thong has broken. As it was found in Lepidina’s house it is easy to suggest that it might have been hers and that she might have even worn it to Severa’s birthday party. Visitors can see this shoe on display in the museum.

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Tagomas

We know of Tagomas from writing tablets and a graffitied amphora handle. From the tablets we know he was a vexsillari or standard bearer from a detachment of Vardullian (northern Spain) cavalry stationed at the fort c. 105-118AD. Both tablets are lists of accounts.

The most interesting information from these tablets is that in one of them it is not Tagomas himself owing money but his contubernalis or mess mate. Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry at this time, but many had common law wives. It is suggested that Tagomas’ contubernalis was just this and that she could not list her name on army accounts.

Finally, we know from the amphora graffiti that he liked olives stewed in wine and that he did not trust his fellow soldiers as he had to mark his food with his name.

Sulpicius Pudens

As commanding officer of the Forth Cohort of Gaul stationed at Vindolanda in the 3rd century AD, Sulpicius Pudens left his name on an altar to the God Jupiter Dolichenus inside the last stone fort at Vindolanda. Uncovered in 2009, the altar was found with the inscription face down which helped to preserve the writing.

The inscription reads ‘To Jupiter Best and Greatest of Doliche, Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Forth Cohort of Gauls, fulfilled his vow willingly and deservedly.’ Jupiter Dolichenus is a mixing between the chief Roman god Jupiter and a Persian weather god.

The side of the altar is carved with Jupiter standing on a bull’s back holding an axe in one hand and thunderbolts in the other. A replica of the altar can be seen in situ in the temple to the god on the site at Vindolanda with the real object on display in the museum.

Vindolanda Jupiter of Doliche Altar.

Brigomaglos

Our last name was found sometime after 1863 when the Vindolanda property was owned by antiquarian John Clayton. During improvements to farm drains the tombstone of Brigomaglos was found and he is regarded as a late fifth or early sixth century Christian from the Hic Iacit formula or early Christian formula on the stone.

It is translated to ‘Brigomaglos lies here’. The name of Brigomaglos is a familiar type of Celtic name, consisting of two main elements ‘brigo’ meaning ‘high’ and ‘maglos’ meaning ‘chief, lord’. We do know that there was a Christian community living at Vindolanda in this period.

Sketch of the tombstone of Brigomaglos.

Recent excavations have revealed a number of small chapel churches as well as other object with Christian symbolism. A new permanent exhibition room opened in September 2020 at Vindolanda about this period.

Barbara Birley is Curator for Roman Vindolanda Site & Museum and the Roman Army Museum. She and other curators of the remarkable collections from Hadrian’s Wall present a striking new contribution to understanding the archaeology of a Roman frontier in ‘Living on the Edge of Empire‘ by Rob Collins, available to order now. It was published by Pen and Sword on 3 August 2020.

Barbara Birley