Which Side of Roman Britain Are You On?

A relief from a pediment to a temple in Bath, England, thought to show a gorgon’s head, late first century CE
Roman Baths Museum, Bath/Bridgeman Images
A relief from a pediment to a temple in Bath, England, thought to show a gorgon’s head, late first century CE

Sometime around 90 CE, a young slave girl by the name of Fortunata (“Lucky”) was sold in London by her owner, Albicianus. Originally from northern Gaul, guaranteed to be of good health and not liable to abscond, she was bought by one Vegetus for the hefty sum of six hundred Roman denarii, or about twice the annual salary of a legionary soldier.

Vegetus was a slightly unusual purchaser: for he was also a slave, the property of yet another slave, Montanus, who was owned by the Roman emperor himself. Fortunata, in other words, ended up the slave, of a slave, of a slave of (very likely) the emperor Domitian—as is all carefully spelled out in eleven lines of the surviving sale contract, composed in technical legal Latin, and originally inscribed on wax spread over a tablet of fir wood (the wax has mostly disappeared, but the traces of the stylus can still be made out in the wood). This tablet, preserved in the damp conditions caused by an underground stream, was dug up in 1994 during excavations on a building site in the financial heart of the modern city of London.

As a notable recent find, it features in each of the three books under review. For Guy de la Bédoyère in The Real Lives of Roman Britain, Fortunata is a good example of immigration into the province; for Bronwen Riley in The Edge of the Empire, the sale price shows just how wealthy slaves attached to the emperor could be. Charlotte Higgins in Under Another Sky reflects somewhat ruefully on the fact that the location of the find is now entirely concealed by one of London’s most controversial new buildings, James Stirling’s huge office and commercial development (a “postmodern ark” in Higgins’s words), known still by the quaintly medieval name of “No. 1 Poultry.”

But the most important point about this document is just how ordinary it is in Roman terms. It is true that the pattern of slave ownership we see here might have seemed more complicated than normal, even to Roman eyes. But for the most part, the sale contract, the people involved, and the story behind it give us a glimpse of London less than fifty years after the Roman invasion of 43 CE, functioning like a Roman provincial capital anywhere in the empire. Vegetus and his owner Montanus were almost certainly office workers in the Roman administration, partly staffed—as it often was—by the emperor’s slaves. The trade in human goods was being regulated according to the provisions of Roman law: the phrases used in the contract…

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