Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Trinity Menu Trinity Search

2.2.22 The Shape of Water

Penannular brooch
Penannular brooch from Roman Bath (Source: Twitter)

An online database called Roman Inscriptions of Britain now houses a wealth of material from Britain in Roman times, and makes it easy to search for and learn about the evidence that survives. And what survives is really fascinating, much of it coming to light only in the last few decades, because it gives us little glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, and the multicultural world they lived in. There is the soldier writing to his superior in support of a friend, or another asking for more beer for his men, up north in Vindolanda. In one town in the south-west, healing waters were named for a local goddess and her Roman counterpart – Sulis Minerva – in what is now the city of Bath. There someone once threw a fine brooch into the waters, brassy and decorated at its ends with little animals, seemingly ‘the work of smith in the east of Ireland’, notes Cunliffe. In the same town at some point in the 2nd century CE, a man named Barates set up a monument to deceased his wife and former slave, Regina, who died at thirty years of age. Barates was from Palmyra in modern Syria, and he has included alongside the Latin inscription another inscription in Palmyrene, his native language. Elsewhere in the town, at a different time, Vettius Romulus and Victoria Sabina set up a memorial to their filia karissima, their beloved daughter, who, the stone tells us, lived for three years, nine months, and four days. Now lost, the inscription was found reused in the city walls and recorded sometime before 1600. In all of this there’s a sense of how tough life was for so many communities in pre-modern times, yet these memorials to the departed must also speak to what’s not recorded in stone, the little joys and victories that made up a life, just as much as heartache and defeat.

One of the most striking kind of survivals from Bath are a series of over 130 curse tablets, cast into the goddess’ waters by locals and visitors in the hopes of restoration or retribution. These tend to be sheets of lead alloy, etched with scratchy writing – either by street-side scribes or the cursers themselves – and then folded over and offered up to the goddess. They have been coming to light consistently over the last hundred years or so, in Bath and across the UK, and by nature come from a broad section of society, not just the upper-class Roman elite. ‘The petitioners’, writes Tomlin, ‘must have been mostly members of the urban “middle and lower classes”, shopkeepers, craftsmen, labourers and their families. The tablets, though formal and formulaic, can be expected to reflect their speech.’ As you’ll know if you’ve ever had something stolen from you, the feeling isn’t a nice one, and important possessions – gloves and travelling cloaks and ploughshares – have gone missing. Not only do the tablets ask for them back, but they curse the thief too. ‘May the goddess Sulis deny sleep to him, and any children now or in the future’ asks Docilianus for the person who has taken his cloak, taking no prisoners in his quest for its return. Another of the tablets asks for the return of ‘Vilbia’ – we’re not sure who or what this refers to – and, if not, that the thief, in a particularly expressive line, ‘become liquid as water’, ut liquat como aqua. What’s interesting here is the definite hint of the Romance languages, hundreds of years before they began to be referred to as such. That word como is, in ‘proper’ classical Latin, spelt quomodo, but already in this tablet it’s been shortened and its q has become a c, the ancestor of comme in French and come in Italian.

When talking about the history of ordinary people, the point is not to idealize and homogenize the subject in a naïvely positive way. It’s rather something closer to what James Baldwin says about jazz and blues, that its freedom and its capacity for joy stems from an awareness of, and acquaintance with, life’s harsh realities and injustices, of having ‘been down the line’, he says, quoting an old song. As with music, so, I think, with history: the history of ordinary people begins in full knowledge of the worst of what goes on, but it makes the conscious decision to then see the moments of resilience and creativity, of perseverance and hope, that keep us all going most of the time. Recognizing, as it does, that everyone is, in some sense, an ordinary person, no matter how exalted or arrogant, and that, now more than ever in a world faced by so many challenges, we’re all in it together. The people of Roman Britain aren’t so very far away.

Further Reading

  • Baldwin, J. The Fire Next Time (London: Penguin, 1964).
  • Cunliffe, B. ed. The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath. Volume 2: The Finds from the Sacred Spring (OUCA: Oxford, 1988).
  • Tomlin, R. S. O, ‘The curse tablets’, in Cunliffe (above) pp. 59–278.