BMCR 2023.11.23

Writing and orthography in non-literary texts from Roman Britain: a sociolinguistic approach

, Writing and orthography in non-literary texts from Roman Britain: a sociolinguistic approach. LautSchriftSprache, 4. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2022. Pp. 172. ISBN 9783752006810

In recent years, many fields of classical scholarship have turned the focus of their studies to the societies that produced the material or the sources that constitute their subject of analysis.[1] The volume under review is no exception to this trend.  In it, Francesca Cotugno provides a revision of several non-literary inscribed corpora from Britain (even though the volume does not constitute a critical edition of the corpora studied), and also adds new layers for the understanding of these documents. Her work goes along the line of new trends in the study of the ancient Latin language promoted by projects such as CLaSSES[2] and LatinNow,[3] with which the author has been associated. The volume studies the orthographic variation and writing habits present in the written tablets of Londinium-Bloomberg, Carlise, Vindolanda, and the curse tablets mainly found at Bath and Uley. Chronologically these corpora span the period from the 50 CE until the 4th century CE, thus leaving room for considerable variation and diversity. The volume is divided into eight chapters (including conclusions), plus a list of abbreviations, a bibliography, and an appendix that provides useful additional data, such as the location of the curse tablets, the different topics addressed in them, or the text types that can be found in the tablets from Carlisle, Vindolanda and London. Being quite a technical book, the division chosen for the sections, as well as the manifold reviews of secondary literature, provide useful assistance to the non-specialist to get a better understanding of the material. An index of sources would have been welcome, especially to make it easy to match the different topics addressed in the large corpora of tablets, as is the case for Vindolanda.

The volume is devoted to the study of linguistic phenomena such as hyphenation or gemination. However, the author touches on many topics of interest to scholars in many different fields of classical studies, such as literacy, identity, or Romanization. Cotugno studies her material under the focus that she labels ‘micro-histories of Latinization’ (p. 29). In that way, she sets her study aside from the previous distinction between Latin in Britain and Latin of Britain[4] that limits the perspective to small details that vary among the tablets. By using this approach, Cotugno establishes a parallel (in terms of focus and understanding) with other studies based on the social dimension of ancient phenomena, such as Czajkowski’s study on the Babatha archive from the Roman province of Arabia. In Czajkowski’s volume, the author decides to use the label of ‘localized law’, to indicate that “Law, at all times, is firmly situated within its social, temporal, and geographical situation.”[5] Even though Cotugno and Czajkowski devote their works to very different subjects, their perspectives are similar: they both want to overcome the divisions between centre and periphery that have permeated Roman studies for years and to start looking at the different social phenomena from the bottom-up.[6]

Identity is one of the topics that comes up in the study, with examples such as Vindolanda tablet 344 in which the author clarifies that the writer is a homo transmarinus probably from Gaul – distinguishing himself from the natives (pp. 22, 87 and 133), or Vindolanda tablet 164 in which the Brittones are referred as brittunculi (p. 22). However, the writers’ identities are not only visible through the way that they describe themselves or others, but also in the way that they conduct their practices. In that sense, the curse tablets provide an excellent example of a practice adopted by natives but adapted to their worldview, such as a consistent use of formulae based on blood (p. 27). In addition, the tablets contain misspellings, which often are related to the magical nature of this type of text (p. 124) and also contribute to the micro-history of Latinization through orthographical mistake. One particularity of these tablets is that, compared with corpora from other parts of the Empire,[7] the most recurrent topic addressed by the curse tablets of Britain are requests for justice.

Integration is another issue that comes up through the study; when looked at through the lens of language use, it sometimes branches into the topic of status. In sum, regardless of the variations and particularities, Cotugno argues that most of the tablets generally indicate a good command of the Latin language, which indicates that Latin became one of the primary languages in use, especially due to its prestige in terms of commerce and culture (p. 153). In this regard, it is quite interesting that the author mentions how commercial language permeates the formulae employed in the curse tablets (pp. 26–27). The topic deserves further exploration; this might allow us to evaluate the legal integration of Roman law in the provinces, something that has been explored for the case of the Vindolanda tablets, which contain a high number of transactional documents.[8]

That the locals used commercial and legal language in their curses, and therefore in their claims for justice, provides hints at to how individuals understood and practiced commerce and law and thus follows the bottom-up approach mentioned previously. The treatment of this material is sometimes open to other interpretations.  For example, a piece of leather (whose author is probably the same mentioned in Tab.Vind 310) from Vindolanda bears the inscription VIILDIIDII SPONDI, which both the editio princeps and Cotugno translate as “pledged to Veledius” (p. 45).[9] But spondi, should be translated as a promise (derived from spondeo),[10] and not in relation to a pledge, which would have constituted a formal legal document—which this document is not—and used the substantive pignus or its dative pignori.[11] Indeed, translating the term as deriving from ‘to promise’ or spondeo, also underlines that the document presents a grammatical mistake, because it should have been written ‘spopondit’, to fit with the conjugation of the perfect indicative, or taken the passive participle as spondus rather than the correct sponsus.

Cotugno analyzes levels of literacy based on technical aspects of language more than features of the writers of her texts, about whom it is generally difficult to get information from the fragmented documents (p. 46). That approach allows us to see how sometimes the deviation from the classical form in spelling can indicate an archaizing or hypercorrective intention by the writer in order to provide formality to the document or the name mentioned (pp. 102, 128). At other times, these misspellings can reveal problems with tenses (pp. 102–103) or indicate that the names that were misspelled were not clearly regulated by classical norms and therefore are linked to orthographic motivations. More interestingly, Cotugno relates the use of classical and non-classical forms in language not only to the kind of document, but also to the writing materials employed (pp. 31, 47). The latter immediately brings up the discourse on writing, material culture, and status, because some of the materials used (e.g., wax tablets) were more costly than others.[12] However, regarding the corpora analysed, Cotugno warns us to bear in mind the misleading nature of the word ‘scribe’, as these could be either trained writers who helped prefects, or lower-status people versed in writing techniques. Indeed, she uses the very helpful notion of ‘community of writers’ (p. 85), by which she identifies the writing habits and social features of some authors and what places them within a specific range of writers.

In sum, Cotugno’s work reveals the heterogeneity of the people writing these tablets and how they interacted with the concept of ‘being Roman’ in a dynamic way [p. 144]. Broadly speaking, the people under study used Roman customs but also adapted these to their needs; this conforms with trends visible elsewhere in the Roman Empire, where the peoples used what was helpful for them and allowed them to function.  Britain thus aligns with other peripheral provinces, such as the Danubian ones[13] or Arabia,[14] where other corpora of documents have also demonstrated similar phenomena. With her approach, Cotugno has conducted important research, and added another brick to the wall of study of the ancient world from a bottom-up perspective, which allows us to see what these peoples thought they were doing when writing a document. The latter allows us to see phenomena such as Romanization, ethnicity or integration in a dynamic way.



[1] E.g., C. Ando, P. J. Du Plessis, and K. Tuori, The Oxford Handbook of Roman Law and Society (OUP 2016); A. Van Oyen and M. Pitts, eds., Materialising Roman histories (Oxbow 2017).

[2] CLaSSES: Corpus for Latin Sociolinguistic Studies on Epigraphic textS (

[3] LatinNow: Latinization of the north-western Roman provinces: sociolinguistics, epigraphy and archaeology (

[4] Adams, J. N. The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC – AD 600 (CUP 2007), 580–581.

[5] Czajkowski, K. Localized Law: The Babatha and Salome Komaise Archives (OUP 2017), 19.

[6] Humfress, C. “Laws’ Empire: Roman Universalism and Legal Practice,” in: Du Plessis, P.J. ed. New Frontiers: Law and Society in the Roman World (EUP 2013), 93. See also Humfress, C., “Law and Custom under Rome,” in: Rio, A. ed., Law, Custom, and Justice in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Proceedings of the 2008 Byzantine Colloquium (Centre for Hellenic Studies 2011), 43–46, on the importance of a ‘ground-up’ approach.

[7] Germania Superior, Raetia, Moesia, Pannonia and Gallia Aquitania; see McKie, S. Living and Cursing in the Roman West: Curse Tablets and Society (Bloomsbury 2022).

[8] Du Plessis, P.J. “‘Provincial law’ in Britannia,” In: Czajkowski, K.; Eckhardt, B. and Strothmann, M., eds. Roman Law in the Provinces (OUP 2020), 455–459; and Du Plessis, P.J. “Trading along Hadrian’s Wall,” in Dauchy, S.; Pihlajamäki, H.; Cordes, A. and De Ruysscher, D. eds. Colonial Adventures: Commercial Law and Practice in the Making (Brill 2021), 21–32.

[9] Translation taken from VRR II, 94, no. 12 and fig. 11, no. 8.

[10] In this case, the document probably constitutes an informal promise from one pweson to another. However, in legal contexts, the form spondeo belongs to the stipulatio, which was a basic form of contract in Roman law based upon a simple question and answer (spondes …? – spondeo). See Paul. Sent. 5.7.2; Inst. 3.19.17. For the use of spopondit in legal documents, see TPSulp. 8, 15, 43, 45, 48 and 52.

[11] On the use of pignori to refer to pledges, see TPSulp. 7, 20, 45, 51, 52 and 79. See also Verhagen, H. Security and Credit in Roman Law: The Historical Evolution of Pignus and Hypotheca (OUP 2022).

[12] On material culture, writing, and status, see also Eckardt, H. Writing and Power in the Roman World: Literacies and Material Culture (CUP 2018), 190–200.

[13] Czajkowski, Localized Law.

[14] Eckhardt, B. “Law, Empire, and Identity between West and East: The Danubian Provinces,” in Czajkowski, K; Eckhardt, B. & Strothmann, M. eds. Law in the Roman Provinces. (OUP 2020), 417–435. Eckhardt, B. “Law, Empire, and Identity between West and East: The Danubian Provinces,” in Czajkowski, K; Eckhardt, B. & Strothmann, M. eds. Law in the Roman Provinces (OUP 2020), 417–435.