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.  

Cursive and Curses!

By Janie Masséglia

The second half of June proved to be a busy one for the LatinNow Project with more than 200 visitors and students taking part in our new workshops and activities in less than a fortnight.

JM with St Ebbes

Since we put together our LatinNow Outreach Events Menu 2018, two of our most popular activities have been about Old Roman Cursive and writing curse tablets.

Our trusty cardboard shrine to Sulis accompanied me to the Family Discovery Day at the University of Nottingham, to two in-school sessions at the Iris Classics Centre at the Cheney School in Oxford, and then again – this time with Alex making a trio – to the History and Archaeology Festival at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts.  For this activity, as well as having the chance to handle replica writing instruments of various kinds, people were encouraged to decipher mock lead-tablets describing the loss or theft of various items, before writing their own and dedicating it to Sulis. I had been initially disappointed to discover that the small squares of scratch paper I hoped would replicate child-friendly lead plaques were not available in silver, but only in rainbow effect. Sometimes the quest for absolute authenticity doesn’t lead to the best visitor experience – our visitors (especially the younger ones) have been drawn to the bright colours and have loved experimenting with Old Roman Cursive when it gives such an eye-catching result. We’ve embraced it and are determined from now on to ‘be more unicorn’.

shrine at cheney diptych

One of the unexpected highlights of the History and Archaeology Festival was the chance to meet re-enactors of various periods. We talked about writing techniques with a medieval Benedictine, and even faced an invasion of Iron Age Celts who came up to tell us they didn’t like the Romans much, and they had no intention of learning about Latin! Once Alex was able to reassure them we loved Celtic too, and even showed them some Celtic words hidden in a Latin contract we had on our stall, we managed to broker a peace. Now that’s community engagement.

JM with Benedictine

Our other popular session has been our military ‘codebreaking’ for Primary school pupils, an activity that Alex, Joshua Ward-Penny and I successfully road-tested on 250 children and their parents for the IntoUniversity programme last March. This session, focussing on the different languages spoken in the empire and how the Roman army sent its messages, always ends with a race to translate a secret message and save a Roman legion from an attack from marauding Britons. Last week, the pupils of St Ebbe’s Primary did a fantastic job, and a little girl named Mahisa stormed to victory several minutes before her classmates. It’s a pattern that we’ve started to notice, that children who speak more than one language are especially adept at codebreaking cursive, and it’s been great to talk about multilingualism with young people who really understand what we mean.

Violent interactions: the Lancaster inscription

By Alex Mullen

I have been thinking again recently about the north-western Roman horse rider reliefs, which are concentrated in the Rhineland and, to a lesser extent, Britain (now boasting over 20), and have a primarily military focus. My favourite is that of Insus, found in Lancaster in 2005. The tombstone has been dated to c. AD 100 and its relief depicts a proud-looking mounted eques brandishing the head of a decapitated naked enemy who is kneeling below. The tombstone was discovered around 8 m from the Roman road leading south from the fort. The stone was not found intact: ironically, given the decapitation featured in its image, Insus’s head had been separated from the rest of the scene in one of the two major fragments. It reads:

Dis | Manibus Insus Vodulli | [fil]ius ciue(s) Treuer eques alae Aug(ustae) | [t(urma)] Victoris curator Domitia […]

‘To the shades. Insus, son of Vodullus, citizen of the Treveri, cavalry man of the cavalry regiment Augusta, [troop] of Victor, curator. Domitia …’ (Roman Inscriptions of Britain vol. III 3185)

Lanaster monument

Insus’s tombstone, Lancashire Museums

Insus, a citizen of the Treveri, whose main population centre was Augusta Treverorum, modern Trier (Germany), stands out with an impressive plumed helmet, a cloak fanned out in the wind fastened by a rosette brooch, and a chunky sword in his right hand. His horse, also neatly kitted out, rears up and bears its teeth. Compared to the crouched figure, still gripping his sword, but with his eyes firmly closed in his decapitated head, the Treverian exudes movement and power.

Lancaster simon james

Simon James’s reconstruction of how the tombstone may have looked originally (Bull 2007 p. 20)

The closest comparison to this Lancaster carving can be found in the Ribchester inscription-less rider stone, found in 1876, in which the rider, this time with spear rather than sword and no beheaded adversary, and horse are so similar that some have suggested the same sculptor produced both. The representation of a beheaded adversary is unusual, with only a couple of other examples of decapitation in iconography attested anywhere from Roman Britain; the closest parallel in Britain for the decapitation may be the Bridgeness ‘distance slab’ which shows a rider plus lance and four adversaries, including one decapitated in one of the two aedicula on either side of the inscription (Roman Inscriptions of Britain vol. I 2139).rib002139pl.jpg

Bridgeness ‘distance slab’, Roman Inscriptions of Britain vol. I 2139

Insus can be compared with his comrade Apollinaris, also from Trier, whose epitaph, found in the eighteenth century in the excavation of a cellar in Pudding Lane (now Cheapside), London, closely parallels that of Insus, though no associated iconography is attested (the stone is only known from a manuscript drawing).

Dis Mani|bus | L(ucius) Iul(ius) Apol |linaris | Trever an(norum) | XXX eq(ues) al|ae Au[g(ustae)] |h(ic) [s(itus) e(st)]

‘To the shades. Lucius Iulius Apollinaris, the Treveran, 30 years old, cavalry man of the cavalry regiment Augusta lies buried here.’ (Roman Inscriptions of Britain vol. I 606)


Lancaster Pudding Lane inscription, Roman Inscriptions of Britain vol. I 606

Both Insus and Apollinaris presumably joined the ala on the Continent before it was transferred to Britain. Insus is not a Roman name and its presentation here in non-tria nomina format and with no reference to veteran status may suggest that Insus has been killed whilst still serving. The most straightforward assumption is that Insus has died in Britain and that the headless enemy is a Briton. Given what we know about bilingualism in the north-western provinces, it is likely that someone named Insus, son of Vodullus, from Gaul in c. AD 100 came from a family that was at least partly Celtic-speaking. Trier was capital of Gallia Belgica and we know that the Celtic languages of northern Gaul were closely related to the British Celtic spoken in Britannia. This Treveran citizen, who is proudly presented in a north-western Roman military and Latin guise, would perhaps have found much more in common linguistically and culturally with the beheaded Briton than this portrayal might lead us to believe. Our work on multiple identities and bilingualism in the Roman empire can sometimes be neglectful of the violence and trauma of some of the changes that pitted communities against one another. This monument is a reminder of some of those violent entanglements.

Futher reading:

Bull, S. 2007. Triumphant Rider: the Lancaster Roman Cavalry Tombstone. Lancashire Museums. See pp. 39–51 of this volume for an overview of other horse-rider tombstones and fragments found in Britain.

This little Romano-British piggy went to market

You don’t necessarily need a Midas touch to turn lead into gold.

Last year, amateur metal detectorist Jason Baker made the news when he found a Romano-British lead ‘pig’ near his home in the Mendips, Somerset. A ‘pig’ is a large lead ingot, around half a metre in length, and usually inscribed with some sort of short Latin text. To his surprise, Mr Baker’s pig was expected to sell for around £60,000 – not bad for a bit of casual hobbying! In fact, many important archaeological finds connected with Roman Britain have been found in such a way by amateur enthusiasts. After having been registered and recorded properly by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), they constitute a large part of our primary evidence from this fascinating period of Britain’s history.


The pig in question reads:


This refers to the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who reigned as co-emperors between AD 161-169. The title Armeniacus was an honorific adopted by both in recognition of their victories in the Parthian war. We know from other historical sources that Lucius Verus took up the title in AD 163 and Marcus Aurelius in AD 164, so this helps us to date the piece even more precisely to AD 164-169.

But an object like this can do a lot more for us than just dating: it tells us something about the Romano-British economy. Lead ore could be mined in Britannia in one of five locations across the province: Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Flintshire, Shropshire, and the Mendips. Pigs are often found near old Roman roads or rivers, and this suggests that they were transported by road or boat from the lead mines for market export. By analysing the type of ore against the distribution of pigs, we can therefore make some guesses about which regions supplied various the towns with their lead. The current assumption is that ore from the Mendip area was used across the whole south-west of Britannia, and that some was even exported to Londinium.


A lead pig may not be the most glittering treasure, but it is a goldmine for telling us about the socio-economic factors which surrounded writing and object production in the second century AD.

This blog post has been written in order to support the content of the OCR Ancient History GCSE  topic ‘Community Life in the Classical World: Roman Britain’ and the OCR Ancient History A level module ‘Ruling Roman Britain’. It also links to KS2 national curriculum topics ‘Roman Britain’ and ‘Local History’


Further reading:

Elkington, D. 1976. The Mendip Lead Industry. in Branigan, K. & Fowler, P.J (edd.) The Roman West Country. London, David & Charles.

Gardiner, V. 2001. ‘An analysis of Romano-British lead pigs’ Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies Newsletter 21. 11-3

Raistrick, A. 1931. ‘A Pig of Lead, with Roman inscription, in the Craven Museum’ Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 30. 181-2.


For more Roman inscriptions from Mendips, see:

RIB online 184, 185, and 186