The inscription has been painstakingly examined and translated by classicist and epigrapher Dr Roger Tomlin. It reads:
‘ab urbe v[e]n[i] munus tibi gratum adf(e)ro
acul[eat]um ut habe[a]s memor[ia]m nostra(m)
rogo si fortuna dar[e]t quo possem
largius ut longa via ceu sacculus est (v)acuus’
‘I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift
with a sharp point that you may remember me.
I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give)
as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty.’
In other words: the stylus is a gift to remind the recipient of its sender; the sender acknowledges that it is a cheap gift and wishes that they could have given more. Its tongue-in-cheek sentiment is reminiscent of the kinds of novelty souvenirs we still give today. It is the Roman equivalent of ‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen’, providing a touching personal insight into the humour of someone who lived nearly 2000 years ago.
The letters of the inscription are tiny and exceptionally difficult to read, and their survival reflects both the excellent preservation of the Roman artefacts from Bloomberg and the careful work of MOLA’s conservators. It is possible that similar inscriptions on other Roman styluses have simply not survived or been identified.
The inscription even contains spelling errors from which it is possible to get a sense of the scribe’s train of thought. The final –m in nostram, for instance, has been missed off where they appear to have run out of space.
As ‘the City’ referred to is very likely Rome, the stylus suggests a direct link between Roman Italy and the province of Britannia. At this time Londinium lay near the edge of the Empire but, far from a being a provincial backwater, it had grown into an important centre for commerce and governance, interconnected with the wider Roman world. The stylus and its inscription highlights the crucial role that writing and literacy played in allowing traders, soldiers and officials to keep in contact with peers, friends and family, some of whom lived over a thousand miles away.