Literacy in Ancient Rome: How Literate Was the Average Roman? Part I

In my novel, Casting Lots, I assume a fair degree of literacy in the Ancient Roman Empire. Am I right in making this assumption? For example, at one point in my book, when Cornelius takes Lucinius to the Baths in Rome, Cornelius “… then told me of Minerva Sulis, the Goddess of the Waters.  People would seek justice from her by throwing into the fountain little slips of lead upon which they had written their request.  ‘Someone stole my wife.  Let him pay! May he be unable to perform!’  ‘Someone has stolen my cloak!  May he freeze!’  ‘To the Goddess Sulis Minerva, most beautiful Goddess, those who have wronged me have wronged you.  May your wrath befall them!”’ Although the visit of Lucinius and Cornelius to the baths is fictional, the petitions to Minerva Sulis are not; they are actual petitions on slips of lead which have been found by archaeologists. In my research, I found that literally hundreds of people would do this daily in Rome.

However, making written petitions to gods or to goddesses was a common practice throughout the ancient world.

Cato at one point had the following prayer written on placards that were carried around his farm:

“Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off and removed sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vine-yards and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house and my household  To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land and my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars, to the same intent deign to accept the offering of these suckling offering.” Marcus Porcius Cato, On Agriculture, trans. William Davis Hooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 123 (CXLI).

At Hadrian’s Wall, albeit in the era of the second century AD, Romans soldiers wrote hundreds of letters to their family members who were not with them.   At the fortress of Vindolanda, hundreds of wooden tablets with handwritten Latin writing have been unearthed, which provide a window into the everyday lives of the soldiers.

The texts reveal that military commanders at Vindolanda had wives, and the tablets reveal a correspondence between two women, Sulpicia Lepidina and Claudia Severa. ‘The letters between them deal with little things such as invitations to come and visit: Claudia, for example, invites Sulpicia to visit her on her birthday,’ writes researcher Geraint Osborn in his book, Hadrian’s Wall and its People (Bristol Phoenix Press, 2006).  ‘I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival…’ reads part of the invitation from Claudia (translation from “Vindolanda Tablets Online, Oxford University).”

Next week, I will continue to examine this question further.

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