In honour of International Woman’s Day, here are a few women I’ve discovered while exploring Roman footprints in Britannia.
The most famous, or infamous, woman from Roman Britain is Boudica, the Iceni warrior who led an army of native Britons on a rampage in AD 61, destroying the Roman towns of Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St. Alban’s) before being stopped by the Roman army. Her story was written, from the Roman perspective, by the writer Tacitus.
But there are others, not so famous, whose names have come down to us through inscriptions and other writings which give us little glimpses into their lives.
Claudia Severa and Sulpicia Lepidina
The Vindolanda wooden writing tablets were first unearthed in 1973, having survived in the anaerobic soil at this fort site near Hadrian’s Wall. They reveal correspondence from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina. Claudia lived at a fort called Briga on the northern frontier of Britannia probably not far from Vindolanda. Her husband, Aelius Brocchus, was the prefect there. It is easy to imagine her loneliness in a place populated with hostile native tribes, soldiers, slaves, merchants and very few women of her own kind whom she could befriend. But she found a friend in Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the Flavius Cerialis, prefect of Vindolanda from the late first to the early second century AD.
Her letters include arrangements for a visit and a birthday party invitation. You can read the tablets (291 and 292) at http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/
Regina of the Catuvellauni
At Arbeia Roman Fort, located in South Shields near Newcastle, we discover Regina through a gravestone erected by her husband, Barates who had come from Palmyra (Syria) and had owned her as a slave before he freed her and married her. She belonged to the Catuvellauni tribe from southern England. She is shown sitting in a wicker chair wearing a fashionable Romano-British dress, holding her spinning on her lap and opening her jewelry box. Below the Latin is a line of Palmyrene text in Aramaic.
This is the translation of her tombstone:
To the spirits of the departed (and) of Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates of Palmyra, Catuvellauni by birth, died aged 30.
In Palmyrene the inscription says: Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas.
Hermione, Daughter of Quintus
This inscription comes from Maryport on the western coast of Cumbria. Below the translation is her story from the interpretive sign at the Senhouse Roman Museum.
To Imperial Virtue … Hermione, daughter of Quintus, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled her vow.
“Hermione was a freeborn citizen of Greek extraction who, at the time she dedicated two large altars, was probably not married. Her choice of gods for veneration, Imperial Virtue and Juno, wife of Jupiter, shows that she followed mainstream Roman religion. Hermione was unusual, but not unique, in having enough money to commission two expensive altars, and in dedicating them without involving any of the men of her family. Usually, women relied on the head of their family for public demonstrations of faith.
It might be expected that Juno, who oversaw the lives of women and offered protection during marriage and childbirth, would have been a popular choice with the women of the province. However, the Maryport altar is the only one found so far in Britain which is dedicated to Juno by a woman.”