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on 27 April 2017
An absolutely intriguing review of the written Roman remains found at Vindolanda fort as recently as 1973, with transcripts of the most interesting. It brings to life and adds a new dimension to Roman Britain. The book was in immaculate condition when received, the impression being that it hadn't seen much, if any, use. It deserved - and deserves - a wider audience.
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on 1 February 2005
The Vindolanda tablets are one of the most extraordinary collections of Roman documents to survive into modern times, and Bowman's book truly does them justice.
The slightly longer first part of the books deals with what the tablets can tell us about Roman life on the northern British frontier. This section is scholarly, but written in a clear, easy to read style that leaves it accessible to the more general reader and makes it clear just how valuable the tablets are.
The plates at the back, with photographs of artefacts from the site - whether an astonishingly well preserved woman's slipper or a selection of the tablets themselves - are of great interest.
However, it is the transcripts and translations of the tablets that are the most fascinating aspects. Here you may see a wealth of information, from the mundane (accounts on buying corn), the military (notes on the fighting styles of the "wretched Britons") to the surprisingly familiar (a birthday party invitation). Such documents bring you truly close to the people living on this remote outpost nearly two thousand years ago. In this respect they are far more valuable that the histories of Tacitus or Suetonius, for they are shorn of all pretence or bias, and cover the day to day aspects of life that the Roman Historians never bothered to chronicle. Their presentation is well executed, with the Latin and English shown together so that anyone who cares to can check the accuracy of the translation - though the author has taken care to note any discrepancies or doubts.
The range of material is such that this is not merely a book of significance to enthusiasts of the Roman Army, but also to those with an interest in social history
All in all, possibly one of the most important, and certainly one of the most valuable books on this period, and all at a very reasonable price.
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on 3 April 2010
Perhaps, like me, you have heard of the Vindolanda tablets, the thin strips of wood that have been discovered at the archaeological site in Northumberland? There's the oft-quoted one about the woman inviting her friend from a neighbouring fort to a birthday celebration, of course, but what do the others say? There are supposed to be hundreds of them, so what do they all say and what do they mean?

This book sets out to address those two questions. The main part for me was the second half of the book, the texts of 50 of the tablets that had been translated so far (they are written in a kind of shorthand, not the classical Latin you may have written so laboriously at school!) I wanted to read what people who lived 2000 years ago had written, what their equivalent of an e-mail message was! The first half of the book is an account by the historian, Professor Bowman, of the significance of the tablets and what they tell us about life in Roman Britain.

It might strike you as odd that the text of the tablets comes after the interpretation in the book but the sad truth is .... the tablets themselves aren't very dramatic. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise - if you took a random selection of 50 e-mails sent from an office building in 21st Century Britain they probably wouldn't be that interesting, either, but they might at least have included a few jokes or personal ones. Our ancestors come across as a bit humourless and obsessed with image and prestige. That's why Prof Bowman needs to write the interpretation first, to put them into context and I was left feeling I had strayed into the historian's workshop round the back, where they take the lumps of ore and turn them into nuggets of precious metal.

I'm not a historian so Prof Bowman's interpretation did help, but the same problem applies - the tablets are helping the picture we have of the times by suggesting the shading of different colours to use, rather than in terms of dramatic surprises. You can imagine how exciting this is to an archaeologist or historian but for the general reader, maybe there isn't enough to justify the price of the book.

As a footnote, there is now an excellent website where the tablets can be viewed online, with accompanying notes:
I would direct you to this instead because this seems to cover the material of the book, plus more recent updates.
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on 29 June 2009
This was both informative and easy to read and provided excellent background information before our visit to the site of Vindolanda.
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on 11 July 2001
This book gave me my first proper in depth look at life on the Roman Frontier. With it's carefuly selected information and it's help with technical terminology it makes for an in depth and highly insightful read. I thought that as an A level student I may find this book intimidating but when it arrived I found that it was an easy read offering concise informtion at every step. Each chapter is detailed and offers information that really relates to the title of the book. The scripts that the book comments on provide interesting evidence into life on the frontier, everything from civilian gossip and lifestyle to military records and strength reports. This book is briliantly written and highly interesting, I would recommend it to anybody with an interest in Roman Britain. The carefuly explained information with interesting conclusions provide a valid point of view that can be taken into account and gives us information that can be used by everybody from an A level student to a university student or just somebdy with a good interest in the subject.
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"Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier" with the subtitle "Vindolanda and its People" by A. K. Bowman was published in 1994. A second edition appeared in 1998. A third edition (from 2003) was reprinted in 2006 and 2008.

Alan K. Bowman (born 1944) is professor emeritus of ancient history at Oxford University. This book is an excellent introduction to the amazing evidence from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in the north of England, not far from Hadrian's Wall. Since 1973 archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ancient documents written with ink on thin pieces of wood, known as the Vindolanda writing-tablets.

Many are short, but a few are rather long. Many are fragments, but some are (almost) intact. Most of the documents which can be dated were written around the year AD 100. Taken together they provide a unique insight into the lives of the men and women who lived in this place almost two thousand years ago.

The book is divided into two parts. In part one the tablets are discussed and interpreted; they are placed in context. In part two a selection of 50 documents are printed in Latin and in English.

The book concludes with a bibliography, and an index. Illustrations include three maps of the Vindolanda area and photos of some of the tablets, which are discussed in part one and printed in part two: you can compare the original with the printed version.

[Some of the tablets are available online at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. While this website is interesting, it is no substitute for this book.]

Part one is divided into seven chapters. Here are the headings:

1. Introduction
2. The Writing-Tablets
3. Strategies of Occupation
4. The Roman Army
5. Officers, Men, and Women
6. Social and Economic Life on the Frontier
7. Letters and Literacy

At the end of each chapter there are notes with references to modern works and ancient sources, including the tablets. As you can see from the list, each chapter covers one aspect of the general topic. The text is well-written, and the material is well-organised.

Part one concludes with a discussion of literacy in the ancient world. Bowman has covered this issue elsewhere: he is the author of a chapter in Literacy in the Roman World (1991) and the co-editor of Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (hardcover 1994, paperback 1996).

When discussing this issue, we can try to quantify and measure, as William Harris does in Ancient Literacy (hardcover 1989, paperback 1991). But it is difficult and, as Bowman points out, it is important to remember that there are degrees of literacy (page 79).

The Roman civilization was a literate one, and the evidence from Vindolanda allows us to study "the character of that literacy at the periphery of the Roman world and its role in the organization of that provincial region and society" (page 80).

The writing-tablets from Vindolanda are often compared with the papyri from Egypt. When we consider the papyri from Egypt, we may get the impression that literacy was relatively high for the ancient world, and we have to ask: is the case of Egypt unique or typical? Perhaps literacy in Egypt was relatively high because of a literate tradition in this part of the world. The evidence from Vindolanda, the other end of the empire, is surprisingly similar to the evidence from Egypt, which allows us to argue that literacy was relatively high in every part of the Roman Empire.

Part two is divided into two sections, "Technical Terminology" and "The Texts." For reasons of space only a few examples can be mentioned here:

(1) Claudia Severa sent a birthday invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina (doc. # 31). The official invitation was written by a professional scribe, but Claudia Severa added a personal closing in her own hand:

** sperabo te soror
** vale soror anima
** mea ita valeam
** carissima et have

"I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail."

This letter is unique, because it is written by a woman to another woman. Claudia Severa is the wife of an officer. Sulpicia Lepidina is the wife of another officer. It is hardly surprising that they are literate.

(2) Hunting was a popular pastime among officers. This topic is the subject of a letter from Flavius Cerialis to Brocchus (doc. 24):

** Flavius Cerialis Broccho
** suo salutem
** si me amas frater rogo
** mittas mihi plagas

"Flavius Cerialis sends his greetings to his Brocchus. If you love me, brother, I ask that you send me some hunting-nets."

Flavius Cerialis and Brocchus are both officers. It is hardly surprising that they are literate.

(3) Soldiers would sometimes make a request for leave. Two examples are given in doc. 5. We do not know the name of the first soldier, nor do we know the place he wants to visit, Ulucium:

** rogo
** dignum me habeas
** cui des commeatum
** Ulucio

"I ask ... that you consider me a worthy person to whom to grant leave at Ulucium."

The second soldier, Messicus, wants to visit Coria, which is the Latin name for Corbridge, another fort near Hadrian's Wall:

** habeas cui
** des commeatum
** Coris Messicus
** rogo domine

"I, Messicus..., ask, my lord, that you consider me a worthy person to whom to grant leave at Coria."

Both letters are probably written by ordinary soldiers. They follow the same pattern, but we are not dealing with a form where the soldier only needs to fill in his name. Each soldier writes the whole text, which shows some degree of literacy among the rank and file.

"Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier" is a great book. If you are interested in the history of ancient Rome - what we know and how we know it - I am sure you will enjoy this book.
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on 23 September 2015
I was delighted to discover the book was brand new.
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on 17 February 2015
Spot on!
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