An Empire of Letters: The Vindolanda Tablets, Epistolarity, and Roman Governance

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Abstract

Around 800 Roman tilia—writing tablets made from folded slivers of wood veneer and a little over postcard size—have been found in archaeological investigations at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern England. Dated to the period 85 CE to 130 CE, their existence is helping revise knowledge of the Roman letter and the part it played in how military governance was organized, the ways in which personal, public, and military aspects were interrelated, as well as informing other relationships existing between the occupying imperial legions and local Britons. Discussion focuses on four connected areas of inquiry. Firstly, it explores the relationship of the several hundred letters to the many other kinds of Vindolanda writings, for this gives perspective on the boundaries of these different genres and the uses to which they were put. Secondly, it analyzes the many overlaps that exist between what are one-to-one letters and what are public documents, and it considers the significance of this for understanding the legion as a form of familia. Thirdly, it discusses the role that letters and their cognates, and writing and records generally, played in Roman military occupation and rule. The Vindolanda letters had a particular import because their characteristic mode of expression facilitated and enhanced connections between members of the auxiliary cohorts, in ensuring that the performance of military duties occurred in the context of familia-like bonds, and for this to permeate beyond the letters, to the life-and-death activities of soldiering involved. And fourthly, it discusses the importance for epistolary studies of these matters.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-18
Number of pages15
JournalThe Journal of Epistolary Studies
Volume2
Issue number1
Early online date24 Nov 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Nov 2020

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