Imagine, if you will, a child at a table, pen in hand. He, or possibly she, is learning to write a legible hand. But not on paper: on a thin sheet of wood, with ink made from carbon and gum Arabic and a pen with a metal nib. One side of this sheet has been used, a letter begun and discarded, but the other side is fine for a child to use for practice.
Outside, the soldiers and officers of a Roman fort are going about their business. There are patrols to ride, to keep an eye on the Brittunculi, the soldiers’ derogatory nickname for the native inhabitants. Drills to practice, swords and armour to clean, cooking to be done, board games or dice to be played.
Would the child prefer to be out watching the soldiers drill on the practice field? Or perhaps hang around the stables, breathing in the scent of horse? No such luck: not when you are the child of an officer. Restless or not, your education comes first.
So you write. Perhaps you are copying, perhaps you are writing from dictation. But here, in this northern fort at the edge of Empire, in the year 100, you are writing a line from Virgil: interea pauidam uolitans pinnata perurbem (Aeneid 9:473). A line we know, can still read, can still write today. (On restless pinions to the trembling town had voiceful Rumour hied…)1
This fragment from Virgil, copied nearly two thousand years ago, is tablet 118 of the Vindolanda letters. From this brief glance into the (probable) life of a child, perhaps one of the children of the Prefect Flavius Cerialis, I have extrapolated: my characters Perras and Cillian use the ‘classics’ in this way as they teach; the children of my books, of the right rank, learn to write a fine hand, and know the words of my world’s equivalent of Virgil and others. Even at a northern fort at the edge of an Empire that never, quite, existed.