A free lunch, alphabet practice and Roman promises: Ten of the tablets from 2,000 years ago found in London

By Culture24 Reporter | 02 June 2016

Only 19 legible tablets had been found in London before archaeologists discovered hundreds at a site in the city. Here are ten of them

Tablet 6, 65-80 AD

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
Measuring 14cm by 2.5cm, this is addressed to Mogontius, a Celtic personal name. It’s the earliest reference to London, predating Tacitus’ reference to London in his Annals some 50 years later.

On its face in capitals, the first line of an address reads ‘Londinio Mogontio’ – ‘In London, to Mogontius’.

Tablet 12, 80-95 AD

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
In cursive letters it reads ‘Tertio braceario'. This translates to ‘To Tertius, the brewer’. This Tertius is very likely to be Domitius Tertius bracearius, known from a writing tablet found at Carlisle.

London was the provincial capital and Carlisle, from its settlement in the early AD 70s was the western end of the northern frontier. The two places must have been in constant communication.

Tablet 14, 80-95 AD

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
On the outer face, in capitals, it reads: ‘dabes Iunio cupario contra Catullu’.

This translates to ‘You will give (this) to Junius the cooper, opposite (the house of) Catullus.’

Tablet 30, AD 43-53

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
The inscription translates as: ‘because they are boasting through the whole market that you have lent them money. Therefore I ask you in your own interest not to appear shabby...you will not thus favour your own affairs.’

This tablet is the earliest readable tablet. Britain was invaded by the Romans in AD 43, so this tablet dates to the first decade of their rule. The ‘marketplace’ referred to may have been in London, on Cornhill, where the forum was built around 25 years later, but it is also possible that the phrase is abstract (‘the market’ rather than a physical location) or refers to the marketplace of another town, perhaps Gaul, to which the writer and his correspondent belonged.

Tablet 31, AD 62-70

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
The inner recessed face contains good traces of four lines of text translating to: ‘I ask you by bread and salt that you send as soon as possible the 26 denarii in victoriati and the 10 denarii of Paterio.’

This letter seems to be an appeal ‘by bread and salt’. According to the elder, Pliny,  there was a  proverb to the effect that ‘the ancients’ lived on bread and salt. ‘Bread’ and ‘salt’ also symbolise hospitality in many cultures, so it could be conjectured that the writer has done the recipient a favour - the Roman equivalent of a free lunch at least - and is now requesting a return.

Tablet 33, AD 65-80

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
Classico praefecto c<o>hortis VI Nerviorum translates to Classicus, prefect of the Sixth Cohort of Nervii – likely to be Treveran noble Julius Classicus, who in AD 70 was commanding a Roman cavalry regiment when he joined the Batavian revolt during the jockeying for power that followed the death of Nero.

This tablet throws light on an earlier phase of his career, presumably during the AD 60s, as the commander of an auxiliary infantry cohort. Another Treveran noble, Julius Classicianus, of whom Classicus was almost certainly a relation, was procurator of Britain AD 61–65 and is likely to have recommended his kinsman for a commission in the new province. The cohort had been in Britain by AD 122, staying until the end of Roman rule, around the close of the 4th century.

Tablet 44, AD 57

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
The text is unusually well preserved. It translates to: ‘In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius  Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January (8 January AD 57). I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern.’

This is the earliest intrinsically dated document from Roman Britain, predating the Boudican destruction by at least three years and written less than 14 years after the Roman invasion. It supports Tacitus’ characterisation of London being ‘very full of businessmen and commerce.’

Tablet 45, AD 62

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
This dated tablet is from October 21 AD 62 - only a year or two after the Boudican revolt - and requests 20 loads of provisions to be brought from Verulanium (St Albans). This tablet offers new insight into the Roman’s response to the Boudican revolt that devastated much of London.

The scribe has undoubtedly written Lond, meaning that they started to write Londinio instead of Verulamio, realised their mistake and deleted it; this deletion, which would have amounted only to smoothing out the wax, left no mark on the wood. The scribe could then see that he would not have space for Verulamio, so he postponed it until the next line.

The text reads: ‘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...

Tablet 51, AD 76

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
Despite the traces often being quite faint, six lines of text can be read: ‘In the consulship of the Emperor Caesar Vespasian for the seventh time (and) of Titus for the fifth time, on the 11th day before the Kalends of November (22 October AD 76). Responsibility (for the case) between Litugenus and Magunus on the 5th day before the Ides of November (9 November) having been given by the emperor, my preliminary judgement is [...]’

From the context it clearly refers to the appointment of a judge to hear a case between two named litigants (Litugenus and Magunus) on a specific date (9 November, 18 days ahead); it is the judge who is speaking.

Litugenus and Magunus are both Celtic names and were evidently not Roman citizens.

The appointment of a judge, attributed formally to the emperor, must have actually been made by the provincial governor (who was Sextus Iulius Frontinus) or by his deputy for jurisdiction, the iuridicus, if there was already one at this date (Salvius Liberalis being the first attested, probably in AD 78).

This implies that London at this date did not have the annually elected magistrates with judicial powers (duumviri iuri dicundo) who might have made such an appointment.

Tablet 79, AD 60-62

A photo of an ancient Roman writing tablet
The last two lines of the alphabet appear to be on the outer face. This was most likely writing practice, or a demonstration of literacy or letterforms, albeit missing a
few letters.

Perhaps the tablet is evidence for Roman schooling, which would be the first evidence of it to be found in Roman Britain.

Three places to see the archaeology of London in

Tower of London
The ancient stones reverberate with dark secrets, priceless jewels glint in fortified vaults and ravens strut the grounds. The Tower of London, founded by William the Conqueror in 1066-7, is one of the world's most famous fortresses, and one of Britain's most visited historic sites.

Guildhall Art Gallery
Step into the ruins of London's Roman Amphitheatre, in which crowds would once have gathered to watch wild animal fights, public executions and gladiatorial combats. Lost for centuries, the original circular walls were rediscovered by archaelogists working on the site of the new Guildhall Art Gallery building in 1988.

Royal Armouries
The first recorded paying visitor to the Armouries was in 1545 when a visiting foreign dignitary viewed the personal armoury of Henry VIII in the White Tower. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 saw the establishment of two permanent public displays: the Line of Kings and the Spanish Armoury.
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