"I have come from Rome, and all I brought you was this stylus"

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So, kurzgesagt, reads the text that runs along all four sides of this two-millennia-old iron writing instrument excavated from an archeological site in London six years ago:

Here's the complete English translation of the inscribed text:

"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."

Source: Kiona N. Smith, "A 2,000-year-old stylus makes a point about ancient Roman humor", Ars Technica (7/31/19)

The stylus dates to around 70 CE—about 20 years after the founding of Roman Londinium, a decade after a Celtic uprising burned it to the ground and about 50 years before the first stones were laid for Hadrian's Wall. It's among 14,000 artifacts unearthed during the construction of Bloomberg's European headquarters starting in 2013, and conservators are finally ready to put it on display.

Even way out here on the northwestern frontier, strong cultural and economic ties bound London to Rome and the rest of the Empire. In the mid-20th century, archaeologists unearthed a temple to Mithras—an Iranian god of justice and contracts who many Roman worshippers adopted around 100-200 CE….

These finds speak to a reality of this ancient world: people travelled constantly from North Africa and across Europe along the Roman road system, and then by ship to London, bringing ideas and beliefs with them. One of those travelers also seems to have brought a cheap souvenir for a friend back home.

The stylus would have been used to etch letters in a layer of wax held in a wooden tablet. Etching away the wax would reveal the pale wood beneath, making the letters stand out against the black wax background. Archaeologists found about 405 of these wax tablets at the Bloomberg site in 2016 and 2017; the several dozen they've translated so far reveal ancient business dealings, legal quarrels, and the logistics of rebuilding London after Boudica and her Celtic army burned most of it to the ground in 60 CE. In fact, some of those tablets contain the oldest written records from Roman Britain.

Archaeologists unearthed about 200 styluses from the site, but this corny little souvenir from Rome is the only one with an inscription. In fact, it's one of just a handful of inscribed styluses from anywhere in the ancient world. It's impossible to say for sure whether that's because details like tiny lettering simply haven't survived time and decay or because stylus inscriptions were actually rare in the Roman Empire. If this one was considered a cheap souvenir, though, it suggests it may have been a pretty common thing.

Tourism, in particular, hasn't changed much in two or three millennia. Archaeologists working in Egypt's Valley of the Kings found Greek and Latin graffiti in the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses VI, who ruled from 1132 to 1125 BCE. They say it dated from around 332 BCE, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, to the fall of the Roman Empire around 476 CE.

Many of the hastily etched comments would look right at home among modern Yelp reviews. "I visited, and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!" wrote one visitor. "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!" complained another. The tomb walls even contain comments on the original "posts" from other visitors: "Why do you care that you cannot read the hieroglyphs?" some ancient Roman visitor wrote in response to the comment above. "I do not understand your concern."

Tourism was also a thriving business in premodern Asia, and we have travellers' graffiti all the way from India through Central Asia to East Asia, including some excellent (and also some execrable) poetry.  See "Verses on Walls in Medieval China" by Glen Dudbridge, ch. 10 in Scribbling through History:  Graffiti, Places and People from Antiquity to Modernity, eds. Chloé Ragazzoli, Ömür Harmansah, Chiara Salvador, and Elizabeth Frood (New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).  Indeed, as we learn from this informative book, graffiti is found throughout history and practically everywhere in the world.

[Thanks to John J. Tkacik]



9 Comments

  1. Roscoe said,

    August 2, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

    Beats a sharp stick in the eye…

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    August 2, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

    That must be that British wit I keep hearing about.

    Shame that the article didn't provide a transcription. Seems as though it might be something like:

    Ab urbe [ueni]. Munus tibi gratum adfero
    acutum ut habeas memoriam nostram.
    Peto si fortuna [permissit quo] possem
    largius ut longa via [sicut] sacculus est uacuus.

    Except the penultimate word doesn't look like "sicut", it looks something like "cen", but I have no idea what that would mean.

  3. Cirk Russell Bejnar said,

    August 2, 2019 @ 2:13 pm

    I found a transcription at https://www.iflscience.com/editors-blog/novelty-stylus-pen-from-ancient-rome-is-proof-that-weve-always-had-a-goofy-sense-of-humor/ . The word Benjamin queried is given as ceu which I don't recognize.

  4. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    August 2, 2019 @ 3:20 pm

    Thanks, Cirk!

    Duh! Of course it's "ceu", not "cen". *forehead slap* This is why I'm not a Latin scholar.

    Viz:
    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ceu&la=la&can=ceu0&prior=agitabantur&d=Perseus:text:1999.04.0059:entry=agito&i=1#lexicon

    According to Tufts' Perseus Project, the word is only used 19 times in the whole of Virgil's Æneid, so it can't be _that_ common a word, I guess (although it's found 95 times in Pliny the Elder's "Naturalis Historia".
    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/wordfreq?lookup=ceu&lang=la&sort=max

  5. Chas Belov said,

    August 3, 2019 @ 1:57 am

    I have a fond memory, alas, only a memory now, of one year filling a notebook or two with graffiti from throughout my college campus.

  6. Leo said,

    August 3, 2019 @ 8:27 am

    Was the stylus brought by a Roman visitor to Britain, or by a Briton returning home from a trip to Rome?

  7. Bradley A. Skeen said,

    August 4, 2019 @ 9:25 pm

    This is nothing unusual. Martial has an entire book of witty little poems he wrote to be attached to Saturnalia gifts.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2019 @ 2:37 pm

    "This is nothing unusual."

    I beg your pardon? Finding one of these in the dirt in London is not unusual?

  9. Trogluddite said,

    August 8, 2019 @ 9:54 am

    > "Indeed, as we learn from this informative book, graffiti is found throughout history and practically everywhere in the world."
    I can still recall the mixture of wonder and bemusement I felt when I first discovered this in my youth while visiting the magnificent Neolithic chambered cairn of Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands, with its famous collection of runic inscriptions left centuries ago by plundering Vikings (which intent is admitted in one of said inscriptions.)

    Having previously met many "new-age" types who seemed to be convinced that runes are inherently magical in some way, I took great delight in pointing out to them that most of the inscriptions are little more that "I woz 'ere" – not to mention the one about a certain Thorni's sexual prowess which the guide books usually gloss rather more politely than the writer likely intended!

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