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Writing in Roman Britain

Although many languages were spoken across the Roman Empire, Latin and Greek were the dominant spoken and written languages for government, trade and communications. Inscriptions have been found on numerous surfaces including tombstones, mosaics, coins and wall plaster and evidence for writing is widespread.

Remains of writing have provided historians and archaeologists with a useful source of evidence of life and politics during Roman times. Inscriptions on tombstones and altars have shed light on peoples lives. Finds have also revealed the spread of writing that took place after the Roman conquest of Britain. One such example was the discovery of a date and a quotation from Virgil's poem Aeneid, scratched by workmen on tiles, which may have formed part of a writing lesson. However, despite the importance of writing it is probable that most ordinary people were illiterate. Furthermore, the production of text was expensive - everything had to be hand written.

Archaeological evidence for writing in the Roman Empire is varied, and includes ink pots, pens and written material (papyrus, wood, pottery sherds and stone). The most common writing medium in the Roman world was wax tablets. The text was written on the wax surface using a stylus (pointed tool) made of bronze, iron or bone. Another writing material, that used pen and ink, was discovered at the Roman fort at Vindolanda in the north of England in 1973. The texts, written on thin wooden tablets, have not only revealed details of the administrative activities of the fort, but have also given us a fascinating snapshot of the lifestyle of the people based there.

Unfortunately, the perishable nature of much writing evidence, for example wood and wax, means that little has survived - probably only a fraction of the level of communication that actually took place. The surviving texts and evidence of writing present a somewhat biased view of society, one that reflects a 'wealthy Roman' perspective as opposed to that of the native community of a province of the Roman Empire.

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