MOLA conservator Lucie Altenburg holds a rare inscribed iron stylus, though to date to around AD 70 © MOLA

‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this stylus!’ Rare inscribed Roman writing implement discovered beneath Bloomberg’s European HQ goes on display

MOLA team
28.07.2019

A unique Roman stylus, with the most elaborate and expressive inscription of its kind is set to go on display for the first time in a new exhibition at the Ashmolean: Last Supper in Pompeii.

It was discovered by MOLA archaeologists during excavations for financial technology and information company Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London, on the bank of the river Walbrook – a now lost tributary of the Thames. The iron stylus – used to write on wax-filled wooden writing tablets – dates to around AD 70, just a few decades after Roman London was founded.

The Bloomberg dig uncovered more than 14,000 artefacts revealing what life was like for the first Londoners, including the first written reference to the name of the city. 600 of the finds are now on display at London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE.

Of over 200 styluses recovered from the site, only one was found to have an inscription. Inscribed styluses are exceptionally rare: archaeologists have found only a handful of examples from across the whole Roman Empire to date, and the Bloomberg inscription is the finest, unparalleled in the length, poetry and humour of its inscription.

A unique inscribed Roman stylus uncovered by MOLA archaeologists during excavations for Bloomberg's European headquarters in London. The inscription has been highlighted in yellow (c) MOLA

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.

  • Bloomberg
  • Mithras
  • Artefacts
  • Roman
  • Excavation

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