Happy International Women’s Day everyone!
In this part of term, we usually teach a supervision about ancient gender linguistics – specifically, we ask students whether there is evidence for women speaking Greek and Latin differently from men. This quickly becomes a frustrating question, because almost all of the evidence we have for women speaking was actually written by men. Even female poets like Sappho and Sulpicia are problematic – our evidence of their writing is very fragmentary and, in any case, how could we tell if a particular phrase is “female” rather than part of their own personal voice?
Even inscriptions which mention women, such as gravestones or dedications, are usually commissioned and paid for by men and carved onto the stone by men. And letters or notes were almost always dictated and written down by scribes, who were always men as well, and might be trained to iron out any differences of expression.
So it’s incredibly rewarding to come across something written by a woman in her own handwriting. Here is one of the very earliest surviving examples, from around the first century AD: Vindolanda tablet 291 (text and translation from Vindolanda Tablets Online; image from wikimedia commons). Claudia Severa is the wife of the fort’s commander, Aelius Brocchus, and here she is sending a brief letter about a birthday party to her sister, Sulpicia Lepidina.
Cl(audia) · Seuerá Lepidinae [suae
iii Idus Septembr[e]s soror ad diem
sollemnem natalem meum rogó
libenter faciás ut uenias
ad nos iucundiorem mihi
[diem] interuentú tuo facturá si
Cerial[em t]uum salutá Aelius meus .[
et filiolus salutant uacat
m2uacat sperabo te soror
uale soror anima
mea ita ualeam
karissima et haue
(Back) Sulpiciae Lepidinae Cerialis a S[e]uera
“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, 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, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. (Back, 1st hand) To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.”
This invitation to a birthday party is mostly dictated to a scribe, but Claudia Severa has written the final greeting herself (in bold above). She even calls her sister “anima mea” – “my soul”. This is an incredible find: elsewhere, Roman authors tell us specifically that this is the kind of thing women called each other, and it’s also used more often by women than men in Roman comedy (though men say it too – including Cicero when writing to his family). It’s probably a term of endearment used a bit more commonly by women than men, something like “darling” today. To have this small feature of female speech confirmed in a woman’s own handwriting is a real glimpse into the language of Roman women.
Even without this detail, Claudia Severa is one of the first women whose handwriting survives – and so she takes a small but important place in our history.