ROMAN LONDON’S FIRST VOICES: Writing tablets from the Bloomberg excavations 2010-2014

Roger S.O. Tomlin

Museum of London Archaeology (2016) h/b 309pp £32 (ISBN 9781907586408)

Londinium was a new town which sprang up on the north bank of the Thames soon after the Roman conquest in AD 43. It appears to have been both a military base and a major trading centre. It was also the seat of the procurator, the top financial official. Tacitus famously described London as ‘an important centre with many businessmen and much merchandise’: Annals 14.33. Queen Boudicca did not help by destroying the city and burning everything in sight, but London recovered remarkably quickly after that setback. It became the provincial capital in the late first century.

The area where Bloomberg’s headquarters now stand is one of the most well-known sites of Roman London. In the 1950s the Temple of Mithras came to light there and caused a sensation. More recent excavations on the site have yielded the remains of 405 stylus writing tablets, dated to the first century AD. These were small wooden rectangles with waxed surfaces. Quite often messages written in the wax left traces on the underlying wood. Those traces remained after the wax had vanished.

What is now the Bloomberg site lay on the western side of the original Roman town, next to the Wallbrook stream. The waterlogged anaerobic conditions in that location were ideal for preserving any discarded tablets. Despite that good fortune, it is no easy task to decipher scratch marks on pieces of wood which have been buried for two thousand years. T., a classical scholar of international renown, has undertaken that task with conspicuous success.

About eighty of the stylus tablets contain legible texts. In this book, T. presents photographs and translations of each of those tablets. They are a remarkable cache. Tablet WT44 (photograph + commentary on pages 152-5) is London’s earliest dated financial document. It records a sale of merchandise by Gratus to Tibullus on 8th January AD 57. Tibullus confirms that he will pay 105 denarii. This and similar tablets emphatically corroborate Tacitus’ description of London as a major commercial centre.

Tablet WT45 (photograph + commentary on pages 156-159), dated 21st October AD 62, is perhaps the most important single item. It records that Gaius Valerius Proculus will transport of twenty loads of provisions from St Albans to London for Marcus Rennius Venustus. The agreed price was a quarter of a denarius per load, which looks like quite a good deal for Venustus. The real point of interest is that Proculus and Venustus were doing routine business only a year or two after the Boudiccan rebellion; and that routine business concerned transportation between two towns which Boudicca had destroyed. This tablet shows how quickly the province returned to normality after a major disaster. Rome’s ability to recover rapidly from disasters was one of the reasons for its success. Three tablets (WT33, 48 and 55) record the presence of auxiliary units, namely the Nervii, the Vangiones and the Lingones. These may have been reinforcements brought over from Gaul to help restore order after the great rebellion. Lawyers might be interested to read tablet WT51. It is part of a preliminary judgment in litigation between Litugenus and Magunus. The tablet is dated 22nd October AD 76. Apparently, the trial was fixed for the 5th November. The full text may well have comprised case management directions of the kind modern judges make at a pre-trial review, two or three weeks before the full hearing.

There is still work to be done on integrating the Bloomberg tablets into our broader understanding of Romano-British history. This excellent book provides all the material that historians will need for that exercise. But the book does far more than just present photographs and translations of the tablets. There is a beautifully illustrated section on the archaeology of the site. There is another section on the social and historical context of the tablets. There are also contributions by experts on the types of timber used (mainly silver fir), the woodworking techniques and similar matters. Interestingly, much of the wood seems to have been recycled from the staves of barrels or casks. That is yet further evidence of London’s role as a trading centre.

Roman London’s first voices is a remarkable work, written by the scholar who deciphered the tablets. It is essential reading for any historian of Roman Britain. It also has much to offer the general reader.

Rupert Jackson

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