LatinNow books!

Over the Christmas period we are celebrating the publication of two books in the LatinNow trilogy. The project has produced or supported the production of several books, including our Manual of Roman everyday writing (vol. 1 and vol. 2), but the three volumes which are being published in the Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents series by Oxford University Press represent, with our Open Access web GIS, the core research output of our project. They are the result of a huge effort of the LatinNow team but also the expertise of a wide network of colleagues across Europe and beyond.

The two appearing in December are the result of workshops held in Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019. Virtually none of the chapters look much like the papers delivered, since we used those thought-provoking workshops as the beginning of a long process of collaboration, which entailed debates, revisions, translations, and reworking. This required patience, especially through the pandemic, and we’re so grateful for the dedication of the contributors. We are delighted that all the books are Open Access, funded by the European Research Council.

The first to appear will be Social Factors in the Latinization of the Roman West. To our knowledge it is the first English-language edited volume devoted to Latinization, which, oddly enough, is a relatively overlooked topic. Historians have noted it has been ‘taken for granted’ and viewed as an unremarkable by-product of ‘Romanization’, despite its central importance for understanding the Roman provincial world, its life, and languages. This volume aims to fill the gap in our scholarship. We took a multi-disciplinary and thematic approach to the vast subject, tackling administration, army, economy, law, mobility, religion (local and imperial religions and Christianity), social status, and urbanism. The contributors situate the phenomena of Latinization, literacy, and bi- and multilingualism within local and broader social developments and draw together materials and arguments that have not before been coordinated in a single volume.

The result, we hope, is a comprehensive guide to the topic, which offers a mix of some more familiar syntheses and more experimental work. The sociolinguistic, historical, and archaeological contributions reinforce, expand, and sometimes challenge our vision of Latinization and lay the foundations for future explorations. We don’t agree with all of the arguments in the volume, notably that on the lack of influence of the auxiliaries of the Roman army in Latinization, but we present our different perspective in the introduction (and in much more detail in the final book of the trilogy). We hope that the volume will act as both a state-of-the-art of the subject and the starting point for further debate and research.

The next book to appear will be Languages and Communities in the Late-Roman and Post-Imperial Western Provinces. Our scoping of the international academic activity on later Roman and post-imperial sociolinguistic histories and our subsequent workshop demonstrated that the subject is still comparatively understudied and that there was even further potential for progress on sociolinguistics and interdisciplinary collaboration than we had assumed. A deeper understanding is crucial to any reconstruction of the broader story of linguistic continuity and change in Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as to the history of the communities who wrote, read, and spoke Latin and other languages, and it clearly had significance for the LatinNow project in terms of understanding the embeddedness, or not, of Latin socially and regionally. The volume offers a study of the main developments, key features and debates of the later-Roman and post-imperial linguistic environment, focusing on the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, Gaul, the Germanies, Britain and Ireland. The chapters collected in this volume help us to consider (socio)linguistic variegation, bi-/multi-lingualism, and attitudes towards languages, and to confront the complex role of language in the communities, identities, and cultures of the later- and post-imperial Roman western world.

Perhaps even more than the Social Factors volume, we see this volume as a starting point for further research. The introduction sets out some of the key areas on which we think there is scope for further developments and why we think the sociolinguistic and interdisciplinary analyses of the medieval period have not advanced quite as far as for ancient world studies. I couldn’t have brought this volume together without the erudition and support of my colleague at Nottingham, George Woudhuysen.

We will be bringing the third book of the LatinNow trilogy into the world next year. This final volume, co-edited with the wonderful Anna Willi, is more ‘team-written’ than a traditional edited volume and will encapsulate our thoughts on how we can best explore life and language in the Roman west and will present the latest research on Latinization, local languages, and literacies in the provinces in all their regional complexity. It was supposed to be the volume that appeared first, but various parts had to be put off until our data were ‘finalized’ and we have been battling our perfectionist tendencies… It will be last major publication of the LatinNow project, and we hope it will be worth the wait.  

Bilingualism in digital epigraphy

By Alex Mullen

The Gaulish inscription from Saint-Germain-Sources-Seine (France) is ‘biscriptal’. The language is Gaulish, with a change of script from Latin to Greek for the Gaulish artist’s signature. Musée archéologique de Dijon

One of the elements we needed to flag in the vast LatinNow epigraphic dataset were bilingual texts of all types, whether texts in two versions in different languages or texts in primarily one language but showing evidence of one or more others. I’ve been working on ancient bi- and multi-lingualism since I started my graduate work on Southern Gaul and since then I’ve collaborated with modern sociolinguists. The vast majority of the research on modern bilingualism has been based on oral evidence, though the relatively new field of linguistic landscapes has made steps to bring in writing. Since an established classification system for bilingualism in epigraphy was not available when I was writing my doctorate, I suspected one probably did not yet exist for digital epigraphy, Graeco-Roman or otherwise. Wide consultation during the opening phases of the LatinNow project confirmed my suspicions.

‘Partial bi-version bilingual text’, Latin and Punic, from Lepcis Magna (Libya) (IRT 321 and IPT 24a)

The messiness of the realities of spoken bilingualism and the creativity and range that one might see in written texts might seem to resist classification. Indeed for my thesis, I shrunk away from creating too elaborate a typology, simply producing what I needed for my immediate needs. But whilst there will always be ambiguous examples, edge-cases and epigraphic texts that resist categorization altogether, there are clearly recurrent features which make an attempt at a standardized and comprehensive typology of epigraphic bilingualism worthwhile, not least because we can then group similar types across time and space and link them to the research of modern sociolinguists who tend to have a lot more data and context to guide interpretations. It’s also handy for digital epigraphy to offer a scheme that researchers on different projects can start using as soon as possible, so that examples can be tagged and our datasets expanded.

The Velleron (France) stele. This can be tagged as Text with bilingual phenomena: code-switching and Text with biscriptal phenomena: transliteration since it is in Gaulish language with a code-switch into Latin at the end, VALETE, which is transliterated into Greek script.

The categorization and vocabulary that I have produced draws on our work in the LatinNow project, inspired by the late Jim Adams. It works well for western epigraphic remains and has been vetted by several colleagues. I’m particularly grateful to James Clackson and Alessandro Palumbo who gave insightful and constructive feedback. I’m even grateful to the colleague who told me she eschewed such categorizing work, because that made me think harder about why it is so important.

The team over at the FAIR project are using the schema I have devised as a test case for what they would eventually like to do for all epigraphic vocabularies – establishing URIs for the categories (‘attribute values’) and using RDF so that interconnection of data will be possible long-term. Since in that forum it will be hard to have extensive explanations and caveats, I present the detail in a pdf below and encourage criticism via email: This is an ideal opportunity to create a useful, copious and standardized approach to encoding bilingualism in epigraphy, that works for the whole community.

Traders in Britannia

By Dan Gray (University of Nottingham placement student)

Over the course of my placement with the Roman Inscriptions of Britain in Schools project I have been fascinated by the objects and texts we worked with extensively, for instance the tombstones of Insus and Regina and the ‘Vilbia’ curse tablet.  However, there were two inscriptions that intrigued me the most, namely, Vindolanda Tablet no. 185 and the Bloomberg Tablet no. 45. In the case of the Bloomberg tablet, found in the City of London, this showcases Roman life in Britain after conflict, namely Boudica’s revolt. Though it is not complete, it tells us about a trade deal involving provisions of food being transported from Verulamium (St Albans) to Londinium (London) in AD 62 (specifically: in the consulship of Publius Marius Celsus and Lucius Afinius Gallus, on the 12th day before the Kalends of November, i.e. 21 October AD 62).

In the consulship of Publius Marius Celsus and Lucius Afinius Gallus, on the 12th day before the Kalends of November (21 October AD 62). I, Marcus Rennius Venustus, (have written and say that) I have contracted with Gaius Valerius Proculus that he bring from Verulamium by the Ides of November (13 November) 20 loads of provisions at a transport-charge of one-quarter denarius for each, on condition that … one as … to London; but if … the whole …’

Boudica’s revolt was quelled with Boudica’s death in only AD 61 therefore it seems significant that traders thought it was safe enough to transport a big cargo of provisions so soon after widespread revolt. This could show how quickly everyday life for an average trader in a frontier province might resume after conflict. Perhaps Britannia was not as destroyed as badly as we sometimes imagine or perhaps the inhabitants were used to recovering quickly from conflicts?

                         Bloomberg Tablet No. 45 ‘ Stylus Tablet’ © MOLA

Vindolanda Tablet no. 185, from the Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall, is somewhat similar to the Bloomberg Tablet, and although in this case we do not have a precise date in the text itself, the object can be dated to AD 92-97. The text is laid out in a format like a ledger of goods payments (for barley, wagon axles, wine, fodder, salt, vests etc.).

For lees of wine (?), denarii ½
July (8-13), at Isurium (?)
for lees of wine (?), denarii ¼
July (9-14), …
for lees of wine (?), denarii ¼
July (10-14), …
(lines 17-29) … 8 ..
for lees of wine (?), denarii ¼,
of barley, modius 1, denarii ½, as 1
two, for a carriage, denarii 3½
salt and fodder (?) …, denarius 1
at Isurium, for lees of wine (?), denarii ¼
at Cataractonium, for accommodation (?), denarii ½
for lees of wine (?), denarii ¼
at Vinovia, for vests (?), denarii ¼
of wheat, …
total, denarii 78¾
grand total, denarii 94¾.

What is usual about this account is that it mentions a series of place names: Isurium (Aldborough), Cataractonium (Catterick) and Vinovia (Binchester). The editors of the text wondered whether it was an account of expenditure incurred on a journey. The order in which Isurium, Cataractonium and Vinovia occur is the order in which they would be reached by a traveller coming from York to Vindolanda via Corbridge. This again reminds us that both people and these kinds of goods would be travelling constantly across the country. Who the travel was undertaken by in this text not clear, but the text gives us an insight into normal life and provisioning: the army, but also the local population, would need food and to fix their vehicles. This shines a light on the everyday life of the people living in Roman Britain, rather than the focus being on the battles that we tend to see in the Roman historical texts for the province. There would have been so many people involved across the province, and beyond, to keep the military garrison well provisioned with such a range of food and other goods. They especially liked the orangey-red pottery we call samian ware.

Vindolanda Tablet No 185, ink on wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

Another interesting point to consider is the mode of transport and the time it would have taken to move goods like this around. I would have thought with big quantities of goods that the transportation would have been quite slow. For instance, with the Bloomberg Tablet we know that they are heading from Verulamium to Londinium which according to the Orbis stanford site, ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, is about 35 kilometres and for which the transport of the twenty provisions suggested would take approximately 2.9 days in the Autumn using an ox-cart. With regards to the Vindolanda tablet, the journey between Vindolanda and York would have taken perhaps as many as 15 or so days. (You can choose various major Roman places on the ORBIS website and select mode of travel, time of year etc. I had to find the nearest big place and extrapolate to Vindolanda…) And en route, over long distances and at a slow pace, the traders would have been vunlerable, so might at some times an din some areas have needed military protection.

The objects we have focused on for the RIB in Schools project have been interesting in how they make us think outside the traditional militaristic narratives and focus instead on the range of different experiences and voices within the Roman Empire. For instance, the two tablets discussed here provide an insight into the life of traders and how they go about making their living through trading with the civilian and military populations.

Visiting Vindolanda

By Alex Mullen

A view of the Roman fort of Vindolanda in the evening

I think Vindolanda has to be one of my favourite places. Several things combine in that special part of Northumberland: spectacular countryside, phenomenal archaeology, and wonderful people.

Some of the most recently found tablets
Anna, Alex and Alex Meyer working closely with some artefacts

Anna Willi and I were lucky enough to spend the last week at the Roman fort, staying with views of the fort walls from our bedroom windows and just a few metres from the excellent Vindolanda Museum. As always I learnt so much on our visit and saw some fabulous material. Most intriguing were the ancient puffballs which look to the untrained eye like the finds of Roman leather!

We were there primarily for a meeting of the Vindolanda tablets group – a team of around a dozen colleagues which meets twice a year in person and whose raison d’être is to pursue research on the hundreds of precious wooden writing tablets and stylus tablets from the site and to disseminate this knowledge. Our work is never completed of course, because, excitingly, new finds come out of the anaerobic layers of the excavations pretty regularly.

Possible evidence of shackles

One of the week’s jobs was to assess the recent finds and in particular to take detailed images with a macro-lens of the most promising of the stylus tablets which we think may offer a new type of evidence for slavery at Vindolanda. It’s a grim subject and as part of drawing together material for the article we are preparing we are also studying the evidence of shackles. It was an unsettling experience trying to work out what size of neck might fit. We also explored the site for possible locations for the containment of slaves and/or prisoners.

Little and large styluses
Seal boxes

Anna Willi took on a much more cheery task as she set about assessing the evidence for literacy and related activities at Vindolanda by matching hundreds of styluses, ink-pen nibs, wax spatulae, ink pots and seal boxes (amongst others) to their contexts with our colleague from Canada Alex Meyer (Western University). There’s a lot of work still to be done but it was a huge pleasure for Anna to have boxes of fabulous material on her desk to examine. The most cooed over object was a beautiful seal-box with enamelled flowers, but she really enjoyed finding some tiny styluses too. For more on writing equipment, Anna’s ebook is a great place to start:

Alex Meyer and Anna hard at work
Anna checking 100s of styluses

I took the opportunity to autopsy an inscribed stone that Alex Meyer, Joonas Vanhala (Turku University, Finland) and I are about to publish in the journal Britannia. Up until last week I’d only seen it via numerous images, scans and drawings. It was good to reassure ourselves that we didn’t need to add anything to our analysis. A blog about the carved stone is available here and it is about to be ‘unveiled’ in the case of new finds in the museum. It’s quite a rude one.

The main event, the meeting of the tablets group itself, was really enjoyable: we agreed on a publication strategy, received updates on the conservation and display of the tablets, found out about the work at the British Museum as part of the Writing History project which is looking at the wood, inks and wax used, and heard about the new excavations at Magna, a fort close to Vindolanda, which begin this summer. We can’t wait to find out whether there are more writing tablets there too – perhaps even with links to Vindolanda!

Huge thanks as always to Andy and Barbara Birley and all the staff at Vindolanda.

Augustus and the Power of Inscriptions

A guest blog by Marie Sk?odowska-Curie Fellow Dr Sergio España-Chamorro

Augustus from Via Labicana, Rome, as pontifex maximus, c. 20 BC (Public domain)

Zanker’s Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (translated into English as The power of images in the Age of Augustus) is a very important book for all interested in the early Roman Empire. This book is not only about art and iconography, but also provides a clear idea about the importance of images in the creation of Augustan propaganda. This was, of course, a long lasting process that started in the Late Republic. But what about text? If the iconography was very important for Augustan propaganda, texts, and particularly inscriptions, were also a crucial element. The use of different materials, certain words, new uses in the public domain and new relationships with buildings, statues and landscapes initiated a new period of the development of Latin epigraphy.

Cover of Paul Zanker’s book

This process not only affected Rome or Italy, but the provinces too. The creation of dozens of Augustan colonies helped to spread the Roman way of life, and also the Latin language and writing across Europe, Africa and Asia. The new fashions in self-representation motivated the exportation of this new epigraphic habit to each place in which these veterans were located. However the geographic and linguistic contexts were very different and this raises a lot of questions. How did this process take place? How was Latin and epigraphy spread through these military communities across the Roman world? What was its impact? Who exactly promoted this change? Who did not? To what extent did it affect local communities?

Theatre of Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain) WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0

Research has been undertaken on the development of the Augustan epigraphic habit in individual provinces. However, a wide-scale analysis which takes in East and West has not been attempted until now. The Marie Sk?odowska-Curie project IMPACTVM (Mapping the impact of the Augustan colonies on the Early Roman Empire, Grant Agreement nº 101025799) funded by the European Commission, with secondment supervisor Professor Alex Mullen, tries to answer to these questions. The scope of IMPACTVM is to analyse the developments in five triumviral or Augustan colonies along the Mediterranean as case studies:

  • Colonia Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain), capital of Lusitania.
  • Colonia Augusta Lugdunum (Lyon, France), capital of Gallia Lugdunensis.
  • Colonia Iulia Carthago (Carthage, Tunisia), capital of Africa Proconsularis.
  • Colonia Iulia Corinthus and colonia Augusta Archaica Patrensis (Corinth and Patras, Greece) in Achaea.
  • Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis (Filippoi, Greece) in Macedonia.
Monumental inscription from the baths of Antoninus in Cartago (photo by S. España-Chamorro, December 2022)

These colonies have been selected for geographical breadth and for their political role in the regions in which they were founded. The analysis of their epigraphic habit has complex social dimensions which must be considered using a sociolinguistic approach. From J. N. Adam’s work to the more recent analyses taken by LatinNow team, we have a clear idea how important this approach is for understanding the diversity of the ancient world, the multicultural way to deal with writing and the multilingualism of the Roman empire. For this reason, a multi-comparative and multi-disciplinary analysis of IMPACTVM will try to define the differences of the spread of Latin epigraphy in provincial colonial environments in this particular period of change. My visit this month to the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford University has allowed me to work with the ERC-funded LatinNow and Crossreads teams and to establish the base for this sociolinguistic analysis. I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learnt and seeing the results!

One term to rule them all? Small finds epigraphy deserves better

by Anna Willi

Fig. 1: Examples of metal small finds with texts: a copper-alloy stylus from Augusta Raurica (© Augusta Raurica, ‘amica dulcis lasciva Venus’ / ‘my/your sweet girlfriend is a playful Venus’), a bracelet from the Hoxne Hoard (© British Museum, ‘utere felix domina Iuliane’ / ‘use happily, lady Iuliana’), a bronze signaculum (stamp), unknown provenance, probably Italy (© British Museum, ‘tutela’ / ‘guardianship’)

LatinNow is an interdisciplinary project, which means that we take a holistic approach to epigraphy. We think it is essential to look beyond the text and consider the inscribed object along with it: without it, an inscription can lose not only its sense but also its visual and physical impact. We try to follow this approach when working on our epigraphic dataset as much as possible, but we have had to accept that it can sometimes conflict with the more traditional epigraphic categories that were established, often during the 19th century, with a focus on monumental and mostly lapidary inscriptions. Older epigraphic editions often make no mention of the inscribed monument at all, or only in a very vague manner; epigraphers only saw the texts as their remit, and since research at the time was focused on political and institutional history, lapidary inscriptions were considered to be of particular interest. One epigraphic category in particular has suffered from such pronounced priorities, that of inscribed instrumentum, or instrumentum domesticum, as it is often called – with significant consequences for Digital Epigraphy.

The term instrumentum requires some explanation. The Latin word first of all means ‘tool’, but it can be used as a collective term, a singular for plural, to describe ‘equipment’ more generally. Instrumentum domesticum can thus be understood to encompass all kinds of utensils, tools, and smaller objects that are used in a domestic environment. However, while in some languages, such as French, instrumentum can be used for small finds in general, including the uninscribed, it is mainly used as an epigraphic category in English, to describe stamps, graffiti and other texts found on small finds. To the epigrapher trained on monumental stone inscriptions, which is still how epigraphy is usually taught, the vast range of objects, materials, text types and execution techniques involved can be confusing at first: to understand them, some knowledge about the inscribed objects themselves is required, and small finds archaeology is itself a specialized skill.

The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum provided one of the earliest systematic approaches to inscribed small finds, by dedicating specific sections entitled ‘instrumentum’ or ‘instrumentum domesticum’ to them (e.g. CIL I.2 1491–1499, CIL XII section XXIII), and then with CIL XV a whole volume (Rome). They contain inscriptions on portable objects such as bricks, tiles, vessels made of ceramic and glass, lamps, metal ingots, finger-rings, and various objects made of silver or bronze. Over time, however, the term has become more and more vague and its use more and more inclusive, with the most comprehensive approach perhaps being that of Roman Inscriptions in Britain vol. II: under the title ‘Instrumentum domesticum (personal belongings and the like)’ it also includes non-monumental inscriptions on non-portable support such as wall graffiti and mosaic inscriptions. Based on the fact that numerically the vast majority of inscriptions on small finds are related to production and commerce, attempts have been made to claim the term instrumentum solely for the epigraphy of production and economy, but in reality, makers’ marks, religious dedications, declarations of love and accounting notes have all found a home in the instrumentum category. It has become a catch-all for all the ‘small stuff’.

Fig. 2: Examples of ceramic small finds with texts of different execution types: a stamped Samian vessel from London (© British Museum, ‘Draucus f(ecit)’ / ‘Draucus made (this)’), a painted fineware cup from Libya (© British Museum, ‘EVTYXIA’ / ‘good luck’), an incised bowl from Housesteads (© English Heritage, ‘Beliciani’ / ‘(property of) Belicianus’).

Because of its diverse nature, inscribed instrumentum is often neglected and under-published, in turn making it difficult for researchers to include this material in projects and studies as it often involves painstakingly searching e.g. AE and CIL. This neglect stands in stark contrast with the potential of inscribed small finds for numerous research questions, as demonstrated by the work made possible thanks to the herculean effort of recording and digitizing of stamps on Gaulish terra sigillata ( We want to be able to study the distribution of the goods from a specific workshop, for example, or the production process in workshops of different sizes, or the social status of those involved in certain branches of production and commerce, which can be studied through onomastics. We might use this evidence to think about levels and types of literacy in different social contexts. Non-monumental inscriptions can give us a peek beyond the ostentatious and often ambitious sphere of stone inscriptions, which are frequently related to the higher echelons of society and have the distinctive purpose of displaying something to a wide audience or the public. Instrumentum allows us to see the same part of society expressing themselves in a more intimate way and environment, and even more often it tells us about those parts of society that are less likely to feature in stone inscriptions, such as those involved in production and trade, or those living in more rural areas. I’m currently working with Michel Feugère, French small finds expert, to think through some of these issues via the inscribed examples on his Artefacts database.

Inscribed small finds have received more attention over the past decades, amongst other things because of an increased interest in the material aspects of literacy, and efforts have been made to pull them into the spotlight, e.g. through the publication of the Instrumenta inscripta volumes. But with Epigraphy moving on from a focus on stone inscriptions to including more diverse categories, and from producing print corpora to putting digital tools to use, the old category of instrumentum has produced its own set of challenges, and projects striving to make it more accessible online are taking them on, including our own.

A particular challenge for Digital Epigraphy is the categorization of inscriptions in a way that works across different projects and datasets, and bringing together existing datasets, and the FAIR Epigraphy project led by Marietta Horster and Jonathan Prag and the ongoing efforts of are tackling exactly this problem. But as far as instrumentum is concerned, the sheer number of diverse object- and text-types involved means that the researchers populating the existing databases often lacked the terminology (or the inclination) to take care over its classification. Accordingly, instrumentum can be found as a category of objects in many databases, rendering it impossible to, for example, search for stamped plates or inscribed spoons, and leaving us with a huge job to do.

Fig. 3: Examples of small finds with texts made of other materials: a glass beaker from Colchester (© British Museum, ‘Hierax va(le) Olympe va(le) Antiloce va(le) Cresce(n)s av(e)’ / ‘Hierax farewell, Olympus farewell, Antilocus farewell, hail Crescens’), stamp on the outside of a wooden stylus tablet from London (© British Museum, ‘Proc(uratores) Aug(usti) dederunt Brit(anniae) prov(inciae)’ / ‘issued by the imperial procurators of the province of Britain), oculist’s stamp made of stone (© British Museum, ‘M(arci) Iul(ii) Satyri dia/lepidos ad asp(ritudines)’ / ‘M. Julius Satyrus’s Dialepidos for granulations’).

In a print edition it can be difficult to do justice to both the archaeological and textual nature of inscribed instrumentum – a decision has to be made how to structure the publication, according to object type or text type, for example, and for each inscription, a decision has to be made as to which category it belongs to. Digital editions are not bound to such linear structure and there is theoretically no limit to what can be encoded, for example in EpiDoc. But we need to put in the effort and avoid catch-all categories such as instrumentum. Digital Epigraphy means that we have tools to manage much more copious and detailed information than is the case with the index of a print edition, and that we can combine the existing criteria in innumerable ways when searching databases and exporting datasets from them. We should make use of this opportunity.


By Alex Mullen

Regina is one of the best known and loved characters from Roman Britain. She is a character in Minimus, had a replica of her tombstone in a South Shields’ carpark, appears in copies in the British Museum and the Great North Museum and features on the homepage of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain Online. She stars in the KS 2 materials we have been making with Classics for All in a new project to bring the Roman Inscriptions of Britain into Schools. She is indeed a ‘long-lived Queenie’.

Reconstructed gateway at the Roman fort in South Shields, photo by Chris McKenna, WikiCommons

And yet we only know her from her second-century CE tombstone found at South Shields, near Newcastle, with its carved image and four lines of text ( We don’t even get to see her face as at some point someone deliberately erased it. Could it have been an angry ex-lover in the Roman period or vandalism in the post-Roman period? We’ll probably never know. Maybe this is one reason why we find her so appealing: we want to give her a face and a voice.

What do we know about Regina and her life? Regina sits in the centre of the large tombstone facing us in a wicker chair framed with a gabled structure and columns. She wears a long-sleeved robe over a tunic and jewellery, and around her head is depicted a large oval-shaped object, which has been called a ‘nimbus’. These are put around heads in images to indicate holiness and/or eminence, but we don’t really know what it signifies here. There’s a basket of wool on her left, she is opening a box with her right hand, and she holds a spindle and distaff in her other. This last feature is often found on the depictions of women from Roman Syria.

An engraving published in Lapidarium Septentrionale

So how might Syria fit into Regina’s story? We have to turn to the text to find out more. DM opens the three lines of Latin. DM stands for dis manibus and is extremely common in funerary texts, it means ‘to the spirits of the dead’. Then we find out that Regina is from the tribe of the Catuvellauni and is a freedwoman (liberta) and wife (coniunx) of Barates. She died when she was only 30 years old (an(norum) XXX). Why was a Catuvellaunian female enslaved and why was she freed? Sadly we know nothing of the background to her changing statuses.

The text section of Regina’s monument, drawing by R. G. Collingwood in RIB I

The monument was set up near the fort at South Shields, but neither of the two people mentioned are from north-eastern Britannia. Regina is from the tribe whose centre was at Verulamium, now St Albans, and Barates, her husband, describes himself as Palmyrenus ‘of Palmyra’. He has come all the way from Palmyra in Central Syria. He added something unique within the inscriptions from Roman Britain: a line of Palmyrene.  Palmyrene is the dialect of Aramaic spoken in central Syria. Aramaic was a Semitic language widely spoken in the eastern part of the Roman Empire and was the mother tongue of Christ.  It is written from right to left and says ‘Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas’. He perhaps felt that he had to express his grief in his first language. How did Barates find someone who could write Palmyrene so neatly onto stone? Did he add it himself or did an associate of his?

Palmyra, image by Quim Bahí, WikiCommons

We know that the Roman army was diverse and drawn from all over the Roman world. Indeed the Palmyrenes were one rare group that sometimes included their homeland’s language (in this case Palmyrene) in their inscriptions in the Western Empire (usually other groups would use Latin (and sometimes Greek), no matter what their traditional local language). At Carvoran, further along Hadrian’s Wall in the second century CE there was an auxiliary cohort of Hamian archers, from Roman Syria, these would also presumably have spoken dialects of Aramaic as well as Greek and some Latin. At Corbridge there is even another Latin inscription with a Barates, also referred to as a Palmyrene ( This man died when he was 68 and is described as a vexillarius, which may mean he had been a flag-bearer in the auxiliaries or perhaps for a trading association. Barates is a common name in Syria so there is no certainty that this Barates is Regina’s husband, but the possibility is enticing!

Third-century bilingual Latin-Palmyrene inscription from Rome in the Capitoline Museum, photo by Scott Vanderbilt

To return to our text we can gather some more clues. The Latin isn’t quite as we expect it – and it looks as if interference from Greek may have caused the mistakes. So perhaps the first language of the writer was Palmyrene, then Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman East, then Latin. The Latin also exhibits something interesting in the term Catuallauna. This is not how we find the tribal name in Latin where it would be Catuvellauna. Interestingly the change in in the vowel from -a- to -e- in this linguistic context could be a Celtic sound change. So perhaps we have here a clue to the local pronunciation of Regina’s tribal name. Maybe she spoke British Celtic, perhaps alongside British Latin, and her pronunciation had passed on to Barates too.

The language of the monument, both the visual and the textual, can be deconstructed it into its elements: Roman Syrian, Palmyrene, British Celtic, Greek, Latin. But could people reading this in Roman South Shields pick these clues up? If only say 5% of the inhabitants of Roman Britain could read Latin, and the Palmyrene would have been read by many fewer, perhaps much of the message was lost. And what would Regina have felt about her monument and people scrutinizing it centuries after her death? Did she love Barates as much as he, apparently at least, loved her? Or was he her way out of slavery? Was the whole monument much more about Barates, and for his own flaunting of status? In the Palmyrene she is only referred to as a freedwoman and not Barates’ wife, why? And would she have appreciated being styled as a Roman Syrian woman who worked diligently with wool, as all good Roman women should?

Regina, or Queenie, a name that works in both Latin and Celtic, is a wonderful example of the diverse human history of Britannia. There is much more we wish we could know about her, but this eloquent monument is now all that remains of her short life.

A Bouquet of Freshly-Sharpened Styluses

By Janie Masséglia

There is a wonderful podcast for those who find it hard to sleep called Nothing Much Happens, where the soft-voiced author talks about pleasingly cosy things until you drop off – making coffee, working in the allotment, closing up at a bookshop. I love the series and have found the episodes all very soothing – all except one, about preparing stationery for the new school year. By the end of it, my heart was pounding in my chest as I was wide awake, too excited to sleep. And why was this? Because I love stationery. Nora Ephron knew what she was doing when she had Joe Fox offer his mystery penpal a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils. Do you, dear reader, have fond memories of WH Smiths in late August? Did you spend half an hour choosing the right hardback notebook from Paperchase to be your teenage journal? Do you now have to pretend it’s your children who make you go into Smiggle?

I make these confessions because I’ve just been watching a draft of Anna Willi and Alex Mullen’s terrific new short film on Roman writing equipment. If you’ve ever wondered what tools the Romans used to write, and what they wrote on, this is for you:

What really struck me during Alex and Anna’s conversation were the kinds of associations a Roman might have had with writing and writing equipment: ancient images of individuals with writing equipment convey messages about status, education, literacy, and even, specifically, the ability to understand Latin since in some provinces, the art of writing and Latin Language were intertwined. These implications of writing equipment were so positive than some people were buried with it, while others had it depicted on their funerary markers:

Relief from a scribe’s tomb found in Flavia Solva. Universalmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria. Photo: Hermann Muck. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

This got me thinking about the associations of writing material today. Stationery isn’t something many people ask to be buried with (although I’d certainly consider it), and it’s not a strong theme in adult self-representation. Posing with notebooks and pens is not a mainstream choice for selfies.

Instead, stationery seems now to carry two potent associations and to be aimed (in marketing terms) at three distinct demographics: the first is the association with creativity. Perhaps the most visible group of users are school children, with greater apparent emphasis on girls. The marketplace is awash with pens, pencils, rubbers, pencil cases, notebooks and folders aimed at school children who are encouraged to prioritise writing by hand, and old enough to have an opinion about how they want to express their identity. The second group of “creative” stationery users prioritised in modern marketing are artists, using pens and paper as their preferred medium for illustration rather than text.

The second association is with an old-world sophistication. Fountain pens in particular, have taken on a special connotation as “special” writing implements, packaged and priced like lifestyle accessories such as expensive watches or jewellery. Here, the use of the pen seems to take on a more symbolic meaning: it adds formality and gravitas to the process of signing contracts, cards and letters. Likewise, the hidebound notebook has become a statement of vintage charm and expense in the age of the mobile phone and laptop. We all know people who love stationery, especially in the academic community. One of my undergraduate recently pointed to my own pen and whispered “Cool. Old school.”  I hadn’t realised that my leaky, plastic, short-cartridge fountain pen could be seen as intentional retro styling.

Why is stationery now a niche interest among adults? Perhaps the presumption that everyone is literate precludes the need to prove it. Perhaps the rise of the keyboard has made stationery look out-dated. Perhaps the age distinction between those who write by hand and those who use a keyboard has, in effect, rendered cheap, practical stationery “kid’s stuff” for many people. In any event, the significance of stationery isn’t what it was… ahem… 30 years ago, and certainly not what it was 2000 years ago. Just because an object looks familiar, doesn’t mean it has the same social meaning. Join Anna and Alex to find out more!

If you’ve not already seen our open access ebook on the subject, do take a look at Anna’s magnificent work in full.  

Illuminating the Vindolanda Tablets

A guest blog by Alex Meyer

In this blog Alex Meyer (Western University, Ontario) tells us about his project Illuminating the Vindolanda Tablets which started last year and in which the LatinNow team is involved: Alex Mullen is a Co-Investigator and Anna Willi has been writing messages on replica tablets made by Roy Lawson to put in the CT scanner… For RTI work in 2019 on the Vindolanda tablets led by LatinNow at Blythe House, see our video.

Aerial image of Vindolanda. © The Vindolanda Trust, Adam Stanford and Aerial-Cam.

The pandemic hasn’t been great for research that seeks to generate new evidence based on physical artefacts. It has been hard or impossible to travel and many libraries and museums have limited access to or closed their collections. Fortunately, digital technologies are making artefacts more and more accessible to scholars around world. For example, while I haven’t been able to travel outside of North America in the last seventeen months, work on Illuminating the Vindolanda Stylus Tablets has resumed in my absence and is producing new high-resolution 3D images of stylus tablets from Vindolanda. Vindolanda is most famous for its extensive collection of ink tablets, but excavations on the site have also produced over 300 stylus tablets. Although about a quarter of those stylus tablets have visible writing on them, none of them have yet been published, because the writing that remains is illegible using current techniques.

The ink-written tablet display at Vindolanda. © The Vindolanda Trust.

This past month the Illuminating the Vindolanda Writing Tablets project, with the assistance of James Miles from Archaeovision, was able to use a state-of-the-art 3D laser scanner to examine some of the unpublished stylus tablets from Vindolanda Roman Fort now on loan to the Vindolanda Trust from the British Museum. These scans are accurate to approximately 30 microns (.03 mm). We hope that scans of this accuracy along with new image manipulation techniques will allow us to read previously illegible tablets.

James Miles of Archaeovision scanning a fragmentary tablet at the Vindolanda Museum.

Over the last century several large collections of stylus tablets have been published from places like Pompeii, Vindonissa and London, but the vast majority of tablets remain unpublished. Some of these tablets are apparently blank, while others have writing that can’t be made out. This is largely because what writing is preserved on stylus tablets is the result of inadvertent incisions that were made through the wax that once covered the tablets but is now almost always lost. To make matters worse, stylus tablets were generally reused. This means that stylus tablets often have overlapping, fragmentary texts that are difficult to interpret in the best of circumstances.

In order to read the tablets, scholars traditionally depend on their naked eyes, assisted by raking light which serves to highlight the texture of the incisions left behind by over-zealous writers. In the past 25 years, this technique has been augmented by the advent of Reflection Transformation Imaging (RTI), which produces composite digital images of tablets with a virtual, movable light source. This technique has done wonders to help read problematic texts. However, it has its limitations. Color and shading can be misleading and some marks are still too shallow or faint to make out.

Illuminating the Vindolanda Stylus Tablets is a collaboration between me, Alex Mullen of Latin Now, Roger Tomlin of Oxford and Barbara Birley of the Vindolanda Trust, and is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We’re exploring new methods by which we might be able to recover texts preserved on these tablets. High-resolution 3D scanning is just the first step. There are many technologies to apply to this problem. For example, in the coming months we’ll be running a replica tablet through a CT scanner and trying various methods of manipulating the results of the 3D scanning and the CT scan to recover and read texts that have so-far eluded interpretation.

The applications of this research are extensive. Not only may this process represent a significant advance in our knowledge of Vindolanda and the Roman empire’s northern frontier, but these same techniques could be applied to previously illegible stylus tablets from other sites, of which there are hundreds. Similarly, these techniques could be applied to other media, including other types of wooden artefacts, bronze tablets, inscriptions on stone and almost any other inscribed or incised material. Most excitingly, these technologies improve everyday and promise to continue revealing new evidence of the ancient world.

Dead man writing

By Anna Willi

Do we think that the Roman dead might be perceptive to a message from the living today? Because I think some of them may be interested in this…

Fig. 1: Can anyone else hear the opening theme of HBO’s ‘Rome’? Roman mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 109982, Wikimedia Commons).

It has always struck me how much the Romans thought of their dead as being part of their living world, and how they included them in that living world by honouring their memory through rituals. You may have heard that the dead were fed milk and wine on certain days of the year, sometimes through holes or pipes in their graves. You may also know, and have chuckled at, Ovid’s description of night-time bean throwing to appease unfriendly spirits that appeared during the Roman version of Halloween, the festival of the Lemuria in May (Ovid, Fasti, 5.421ff.). You may even have raised an eyebrow or two in appreciation of the trusts that were set up to guarantee the maintenance of burials and yearly gifts to the dead in eternity (see e.g. CIL III 703 from Philippi, Macedonia). The perhaps most touching result of this interactive approach to the afterlife is the way in which the Roman dead seem to talk to us from their grave, through the inscriptions on their tombstones: ‘stop here, traveller, and read about me and my life!’ (see e.g. CIL XIII 7070 from Mainz, Germania superior, where the deceased laments that he was killed by a slave).

It was very important to the Romans that their memory was kept alive, and inscriptions and imagery on funerary monuments was used to express or shape this memory. I think of depictions on funerary monuments as a kind of iconographic blurb about the deceased, one that was also ‘legible’ for those that were unable to read. In most cases, there was little space for images and the scenes and items featured must have been chosen carefully. Interestingly, some of the dead seemingly wanted to tell us: ‘look, I had writing equipment!’

Fig. 2: A ghostly appearance: drawing of a fresco in the tomb of the aedile C. Vestorius Priscus in Pompeii showing him as he enters a room with lots of writing equipment in it (from G. Spano, La tomba dell’edile C. Vestorio Prisco in Pompei, Atti della reale accademia d’Italia. Memorie della classe die scienze morali e storiche, ser. VII vol. III.6, 1943, 237–315).

This week I attended an online conference at the University of Pécs, Hungary, that was all about the depiction of writing equipment on Roman funerary monuments (check out their ‘Scroll in Hand’ project here). Funerary depictions of writing equipment are particularly well (but not exclusively) known from the Danube provinces and the Greek East. Writing tablets, scrolls and writing sets containing pens and inkwells are particularly common, and they are sometimes shown on their own and sometimes in use. This is great news for us researchers working on Roman everyday writing because it gives the objects we know through archaeological finds some context and we can learn a lot from such depictions about how these objects may have been used (e.g., no tables, and no quills either!). But can we also learn something about the significance of writing for the representation of the dead?

Sometimes there is a clear professional connection, for example when people are shown or described as teachers or as accountants (this applies to both men and women), or if they were officials or magistrates who would have dealt with a lot of ‘paper’-work. But in some cases, the inscription does not mention the deceased’s occupation, or no inscription is preserved at all. In such cases it is difficult to know if writing equipment was in fact used by the deceased during their life time, or whether its depiction had a symbolic function. Literacy and writing represented education but also more generally social and professional status. The symbolic function can be even more abstract, with a scroll representing a legal document or act such as the manumission of a slave and thus the free status of the person shown holding it.

Fig. 3: A relief from Maria Saal (Austria) showing a man holding a writing set tucked under his left arm while writing on his knee, his foot resting on scrinium, a bucket for storing and transporting scrolls (© Ortolf Harl /

Where detailed writing sets or individual writing implements are shown, or where people are shown in the act of writing, we can at least assume that it somehow related to the identity of the deceased. It was clearly important to them, whether they were literate or not, whether they used writing for their occupation or not. It was so important that they wanted to be remembered as writing in eternity. It has not been an eternity yet, but I think those writing dead men and women would be pleased to know that we’ve seen their writing equipment – and took a long hard look at it, too!