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Britain's only surviving Roman Will

Roman Trawsfynydd

The first 'page' of a Roman will found near Trawsfynydd in the 19th century. The tablet was already broken in two.
The first 'page' of a Roman will found near Trawsfynydd in the 19th century. The tablet was already broken in two.

Britain's only surviving Roman will was found in the 19th century near Trawsfynydd, Merionethshire. Two letters written at the time shed light on its history.

The first letter describes a 'wooden book', consisting of 10 or 12 leaves, as being found by farm servants cutting peat 5km to the south-east of the Roman fort at Tomen-y-Mur. The letter reads:

"I saw the book a few days after it was first found - only 2 or 3 of the leaves then contained the inscription perfect - On the rest it had been partly obliterated by the carelessness of the farm servants. The work is, probably, a relic of the Ancient Druids, who may have employed a modification of the Roman alphabet to write their own language."

The author of the letter was mistaken in linking the text to the Druids, but did well to identify it as Roman, since at this time Roman 'cursive' (joined characters) writing was unknown.

TV show prompts artefact to be identified

Pottery inkwell, an iron stylus for writing on waxed tablets, a seal box and a lead property marker.
Pottery inkwell, an iron stylus for writing on waxed tablets, a seal box and a lead property marker.

The second letter records the delivery, probably in the mid 19th century, of one leaf to George Carr Pearson in London. Pearson studied the tablet, but never returned it. Eventually, the tablet was found again when clearing a house in West Kensington. In 1991 it came into the possession of Mr Stafford Ellerman, who in 2003 saw a television programme about the writing tablets discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall. He realised he too owned a Roman writing tablet and took it to the British Museum for identification. He generously donated it to Amgueddfa Cymru.

The Will

Detail of the tablet revealing the Roman writing preserved on its surface.
Detail of the tablet revealing the Roman writing preserved on its surface.

The tablet is a thin rectangular slab of wood from a silver fir tree, which was not native to Britain. The wax coating on one side is now degraded. Originally this would have been a smooth dark coating made of beeswax and a colouring agent, probably soot, in which the scribe wrote with his 'stylus' (a pointed metal writing tool) to expose the pale wood underneath. Some 300 stylus tablets have now been found on sites in Britain.

With careful photography and meticulous study of the original, it is possible to discern a ghost of writing in many places. The writing is in 'lower-case' Roman cursive script. The tablet forms the first page of a Roman will, written in Latin.

Its author names an heir to his estate, possibly his wife or daughter, and charges them with responsibility for accepting it within 100 days of becoming aware of their inheritance. The identity of the author and the extent of his estate were presumably detailed on the other tablets, now lost.

Considering that Roman wills were regularly written on waxed tablets, with good reason to preserve them and millions of Roman citizens to write them, it is surprising that the actual tablets should be so rare; four are known from Egypt and now this example from Wales.

The text translates as:

"[The name and status of the testator] ... before I die, I order that [name] be my sole heir...

Let all others for me be disinherited [...] on no other terms than that as much as I shall give, have given, shall have ordered to be given [...] and you [enter upon, accept my estate [... within] the next hundred [days] after my death in which you know or can know that you are my legitimate heir, in the presence of witnesses [...] let the heirs be those who know that they are [...] of this property.

But if you do not thus accept my estate, if you refuse to enter upon it, be thou disinherited [...], whom I have instituted as my sole heir."

Background Reading

'A Roman Will from North Wales' by R. S. O. Tomlin. In Archaeologia Cambrensis, forthcoming.

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier by A. K. Bowman. Published by British Museum Press (1994).

Article Date: 10 May 2007

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