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21.8.19 Birthday Letters


Historiography, or the formal writing of history, has always tended to be political history: gods and generals, war and peace. I can remember the moment when I realised (belatedly!) that this History isn’t the same thing as life, as what happens. So much is excluded from the canvas. We all have local and personal histories that are often much more important to us than the records of national and international politics. Birthday parties, first dates, break ups, funerals: these things are the stuff of history too.

In the first decade of the second century AD, at a Roman military fort situated halfway between Newcastle and Carlisle in the north of England, a woman called Claudia sent a woman called Sulpicia a letter, inviting her to her birthday party. That this letter survives is an amazing thing in itself. It’s one of a trove of letters, written in ink on very slim sheets of birch and alder, that survived in an airless underground cache at the fort of Vindolanda; the women were both married to Roman officers stationed there.

What does the letter say? It’s in two hands, meaning that someone (perhaps a secretary) has written down the main body of the text, but Claudia has then added on her own little closing message, comprising the final, one-line paragraph below. The Latin is very scratchy and hard to decipher, and there are letters missing where the text is damaged, but thanks to the work of scholars we can still read what it says. Here is the translation of J. N. Adams:

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of celebration of my birthday, I ask warmly that you set about coming to us, sure to make the day more delightful to me by your coming, if you are here. Greet your Cerialis. My Aelius and our little son send greetings.

I will long for you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest – so help me – soul, and hail.

The language is warm and informal, making use of diminutive (‘our little son’) and superlative (‘my dearest’) forms. The spellings are different to those found in ‘classical’, which is to say high-register, literary, Latin: karissima (‘dearest’) begins with a k and not a c; have (‘hail’) has kept its h rather than becoming the more recognizable ave. Historically the letter is important too, as, along with some other small fragments from Vindolanda, its final section represents the earliest known example of a woman’s handwriting in Latin. There are some puzzles too, like whether these women were in fact sisters or whether ‘sister’ is, as it can still be, simply an affectionate form of address. And the exact tone and point of the phrase ‘so help me’ scholars find hard to judge, but the overall warmth comes through I think. Have a go at re-writing that final line in your own words, if only to show that, for all the differences, sometimes ancient people, and how they talk, can seem quite familiar. ‘Can’t wait to see you! Bye for now, dear, and talk soon x’. Then and now, a birthday is still cause for a party.

Note: You can see an image of this letter, with translation and scholarly notes, by visiting the Vindolanda Tablets Online project ( and putting 291 in the search box on the left hand side (this letter is classified as no. 291). The translation used above is from J. N. Adams, An Anthology of Informal Latin: 200 BC to AD 900 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2016).