Deed Of Earliest Woman Sold in London Goes On Display

By David Prudames | 21 March 2003
Shows the Roman writing tablet with light letters scratched into a black background.

Left: the tablet will be on display at the Museum of London until April 27. © Andy Chopping, Museum of London Archaeology Service.

A Roman writing tablet bearing the deed of sale of a slave, the first to be found in Britain, has gone on display at the Museum of London.

Unearthed in 1996 by Museum of London archaeologists, the silver fir tablet contains 11 lines of text inscribed into black wax with a sharp metal stylus for a rich Roman bureaucrat over 2000 years ago.

The legal document relates to a Gallic slave-girl called Fortunata who was sold in around AD 80-120 for 600 denarii, a price far higher than the annual salary of a legionary soldier.

“The Roman Empire was built on slavery,” explained David Miles, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage.

“This amazing survival gives us a unique insight into the intricate structure of London's slave society and its links with the continent.”

A stunning artefact, the tablet is made even more interesting by its revelation that some slaves in London were not only allowed to, but could afford to pay high prices for slaves of their own.

Shows Museum of London conservator, Jill Barnard, with the writing tablet and a stilus.

Right: Museum of London conservator, Jill Barnard, with the writing tablet and a stilus. © Museum of London Archaeology Service.

Translated by Roger Tomlin, Oxford University lecturer in Late-Roman History, the text reads: 'Vegetus, assistant slave of Montanus the slave of the August Emperor, has brought the girl Fortunata, by nationality a Diablintian for 600 denarii. She is warranted healthy and not liable to run away.'

It seems that Fortunata had been bought by Vegetus, himself a slave owned by Montanus, who was also a slave once owned by another slave called Secundus. Are you still with me?

Strictly, as a slave, Vegetus could not own property, but in practice Fortunata would have been regarded as his possession and the tablet securing her sale kept safe rather like a car log book today.

Although an emperor is mentioned on the tablet, the name is missing. However, according to experts the titles used indicate that the contract was written in the reign of either Domitian or Trajan.

The tablet also provides further evidence to back up theories that by this date, after the Boudiccan revolt, London had become the capital of Roman Britain.

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