“Can you please come to my birthday party? It sure would be cool. Thanks.”
Sure, those aren’t the exact words, but a very personal message with sentiments was found on a wooden tablet written just about 2,000 years ago.
It was part of a group of about 750 tablets, each roughly the size of a postcard, that were discovered in northern England at the site of the Roman community of Vindolanda, near the present-day Northumberland region.
The area was considered the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, near the future site of Hadrian’s Wall, marking the empire’s official northern boundary. The time range of the tablets is estimated to be 95-105 ACE.
While many of the discovered historical letters from Vindolanda are considered of interest to scholars because of what they say about military activity, frontier life, or interactions and communications with officials in Rome, one particular note has received a lot of attention since its discovery: a message from one woman to another woman discussing an upcoming celebration and why her attendance would be welcome.
This historical letter is considered the first recorded letter in Britain to be written by a woman. Although it’s more than likely that women painted much of the early art in caves or were involved in creating early religious displays and taking part in ceremonies, no formal letters have been found that specifically indicate female authorship.
The historical letter was hand-written in Latin, in cursive script, both of which showed a high degree of literacy. Handwriting and reading by women weren’t necessarily common in that time period.
Its author was Claudia Severa, who Roman records showed was married to Aelius Brocchus, who was the appointed commander of an unnamed Roman fort believed to be located near Vindolanda.
In her letter, she was addressing Sulpicia Lepidina, who was married to Flavius Cerialis, who at the time was the commander of the Vindolanda fort and garrison.
The short note extended an invitation that Sulpicia would please consider attending Claudia’s upcoming birthday party, saying “it will be more enjoyable for me for your arrival.” She exchanged affectionate terms, calling Sulpicia her sister, and saying the festivities would be more enjoyable if she were able to attend.
The historical letters on the tablets were found in 1973 and not fully translated and published until the early 2000s.
Historians say they are unique beyond the subject matter. Previous tablets with this type of routine information were usually carved into stone, but these were carved into wood. It is surprising they were still intact, especially since they were found in an area of the fort that had stayed damp over the centuries.
The tablets are currently part of the British Museum’s collections, although discussions are taking place to have some of them, or at least decent reproductions, to be displayed as part of the interpretive displays at Vindolanda.
Interestingly, Vindolanda is still considered an active archeological site and more tablets are found regularly. It’s a good way to show life in that part of the world as well as in the Roman legions during that time.