The Girl in Question

In the heart of the city of London, opposite the Mansion House, archaeologists in 1994 were excavating 1 Poultry. They found a writing-tablet full of human interest, a 'page' of silver fir, 140 by 114 mm, 6 mm thick, recessed on one face to take the black wax in which the text was inscribed with a stilus. It would have been the first of three tied together to take a legal document written in duplicate, and carries the first half of the 'inner' text. The wax has now almost disappeared, but not the scratches left in the wood itself, a shadowy text eleven lines long.

Wax writing tablet from 1 Poultry: the writing has been traced from a photograph and inverted to offer a sense of the appearance of the original.

These scratches are worn in places, and inevitably they are incomplete, which may confuse one letter with another. They took some time to read, not by image enhancement, but with a low-power microscope, first photographs and then the original itself, still wet. This process is akin to code-breaking - posing hypotheses and then testing them - but easier, especially when the second paragraph (lines 6-11) turned out to be legalese. Finally the tablet was drawn by tracing a photograph onto drafting film while checking it against the original; reversing this drawing, white on black, gives an impression of what the ancient reader saw.

The tablet is now fully published in Britannia 34, 2003, 41-51, but here is a translation: "Vegetus, assistant slave of Montanus the slave of the August Emperor and sometime assistant slave of Secundus, has bought and received by mancipium the girl Fortunata, or by whatever name she is known, by nationality a Diablintian, from [...] for six hundred denarii. And that the girl in question is transferred in good health, that she is warranted not to be liable to wander or run away, but that if anyone lays claim to the girl in question or to any share in her, [...] in the wax tablet which he has written and sworn by the genius of the Emperor Caesar [...]"

This is the first deed of sale of a slave to be found in Britain, the vendor or his surety promising that she is healthy and reliable, and that if anyone does establish a better title to her, the purchaser will be reimbursed. The 'girl in question' who comes from a little-known tribe in northern Gaul, costs the equivalent of two years' pay for a contemporary soldier, but then the purchaser, who is carefully located within the province's financial administration, would have handled large sums of money. There is even the tantalising possibility that he became the 'Marcus Cocceius Vegetus' of the contemporary Vindolanda tablets.

The date has been lost, but various formulas and the handwriting point to c. AD 80-120. The deed is therefore the earliest instance of 'mancipation', the archaic Roman transfer of property, being used by non-citizens; it was evidently becoming a dead letter. The purchaser, who is 'owned' by another slave as part of his peculium, is buying Fortunata for his own peculium. He thus forges a chain of dependence from Fortunata to Vegetus in Britain, then to Montanus, Secundus, and at last the Emperor himself in Rome.

Roger Tomlin


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Created on Wednesday, 18 January, 2006: 11:14:45