Language and literacy in Roman Britain

The Roman empire united many different cultures and peoples through trade, military service or the administration of government. Even in the forts and towns of distant provinces Greek, Hebrew, or Coptic might be spoken. Greeks, Jews, Syrian, Egyptians, and north Africans could rub shoulders with Britons, Gauls and Germans. Although Latin was the language of Roman society in the West and Greek in the East, many local people would have continued to use their native tongue. In Britain, Latin was the language of law, education and Roman culture, however Celtic British undoubtedly continued to be used in the family, with many rural communities, especially those situated in the north of England, speaking very little Latin.

The Vindolanda writing tablets allow us to explore the extent of Romanization through the use of Latin amongst the community in and around that fort in the north of England. The tablets, however, only provide direct evidence for the literacy levels of a small percentage of the population based at Vindolanda. Although it is difficult to measure the literacy levels across the Roman empire, research has explored how the written word might affect those who had a good level of literacy as well as those who could barely read or write. Contact with the administrative and legal systems would have given many people a basic understanding even if they could not read or write.

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