This story was an assignment after my visit to Hadiran’s Wall with my Roman Britain class. I could either write a boring old essay/report or a creative narrative from the point of view of a person living near the wall to show the ancient Roman military lifestyle. Guess which one I picked. It was a really tough decision.
Vindolanda – 100 AD
She waited. And waited. But the message never came. How long would she have to wait? Would the missive ever come? Would the thin wood tablet ever scratch her fingers? She didn’t need to know the exact words. If she would ever receive it, she would know what it contained without needing to read it, though she could read a little. Yet, what was the point of being a semi-literate woman if she would never even receive an invitation to a birthday party?
Claudia Severa’s birthday was fast approaching. It wasn’t as if anyone could not know. Only she could manage to let the whole fort know about her party. Only she could manage to enthrall an entire fort of Roman soldiers about her birthday. As if soldiers of Rome really cared about a woman’s party. As if they really wanted to take their minds off training and bashing barbarians and think on a woman’s social gathering instead. And yet, dear Claudia had managed it. Not one soldier could keep the topic from his mind. They talked about it during their training. They shouted it at each other while sparring. Speculation about who Claudia would deign special enough to send an invitation to rang over their clashing swords and horses’ thundering hooves on the swooping hills and cobbled streets of their fort. Those officers that did have wives considered it a mark of social status if their women were selected. Claudia was not the commanding officer’s wife; she did not hold the highest rank. But she came from good stock. She had been born in Rome.
All of the 546 soldiers held Roman citizenship, or would soon gain it when their service ended, but none came directly from Rome. None hailed from the revered city itself, never mind their wives. Claudia was the only person in the entire fort who had ever seen the seven hills. Claudia was the only person who had ever seen the great basilica and the famed forum. Claudia was the only one who had witnessed a triumphal march. Claudia was the only person who could literally call herself Roman. Being invited carried a great deal of weight.
Laurentia didn’t stand a chance. She was born and bred in Britain. A barbarian member of the Carvetti Tribe. Her family had lived by the Vindolanda land – the bright meadow – for generations. She had never been more than three miles away from her roundhouse. That roundhouse still stood where it always had. Her family still lived there on the outskirts of the settlement near the fortress with their sheep. Laurentia preferred it closer to the Roman fort with her Roman husband and son. One did not have to worry about accidentally plodding in sheep dung by the fort; the Romans kept their streets clean. The paths themselves were straight and clear, nothing like the curvy barley noticeable paths of her grandfathers. She had more space in her room near the fort, too. She lived there with her child and husband, one of only a few officers allowed to marry and have families. They could call a one-room house practically adjacent to the north gate their own, and had access to the private bathhouse, where Laurentia now lay immersed. It was warmer in her house than her mother’s. She had a softer bed. She could count on the security of the fortress walls defending her from the cold and invaders, rather than weather the winds and live in fear of raids. Simply put, it was better to be Roman.
But not a single person acknowledged her as Roman. She did not have citizenship. She was not born of Roman parents; she came from one of the old, uncivilized tribes. Not even her Roman marriage and adopting a Roman name made the others believe the farce. Not even giving birth to a Roman son did her any good. Not even attempting to learn to read, write and speak Latin helped.
Of course she wouldn’t be invited to that blasted party.
It didn’t matter that hardly any of the other occupants did not come directly from Rome either. Claudia was the only one who came from the city, the rest – soldiers and the few families of what officers were allowed to have families– came from places like Gaul, Spain, Greece, even as far as Syria. But all those areas had been part of the Empire for generations, decades, centuries. Laurentia’s land was a recent addition. Though part of Rome, she wasn’t truly Roman.
Reluctant to leave the soothing bath, she rose from the steaming water and dried herself. Her son would wake soon. Perhaps she would take him for a walk outside the walls to visit her mother. He loved strolling through the fort, passing the barracks and saluting the men. They indulged him and saluted back, acknowledging his father’s rank as third in command. There was an official title for it, but her native language had no true translation and some of the longer Roman words tangled her tongue and stuck in her cheeks, coming out entirely wrong. Until she mastered the pronunciation, she preferred not to say it aloud and butcher her own husband’s rank.
She collected little Marcus, so named for his grandsire or so her husband told her, and took him firmly by the hand. Before they left their house, she double-checked that his miniature leather boots were strapped on properly and cloak and tunic fastened. She could feel the autumn in the air, hot on the heels of the receding summer. The wind nipped and soft mist lingered longer than usual. She readjusted her hair moss wig and straightened her own cloak, pinning it just so with the broach her husband brought all the way from expeditions in the north. Marcus stamped his foot, impatient to get a move on. He wanted to march.
A platoon passed them, on its way back to the fort taking the road through the civilian settlement. Their heavy boots crunched on the ground. Laurentia could feel the vibrations beneath her feet. Marcus giggled and kicked up his own pudgy little feet in imitation. The soldiers were quite used to him by now. In fact, they liked seeing him. The leader smiled at him and raised his armored hand in salute. Marcus tossed his arm up in return, the limb not long enough to reach very far over his head. The officer smiled and continued marching, but Marcus was not disappointed to see him go. His favorite part had yet to arrive. For always following the officer were the soldiers themselves.
They marched in perfect formation, never breaking their precise rectangular shape. They must have just come from scouting or an expedition of some kind, for they all wore their full armor, the small interlocking metal plates glinting against the faint sunlight that peeked through the gray clouds. They raised their oval shields, which covered them from their neck to their knees, to Marcus. He flapped his arms and screeched like the eagle painted on them. Chuckling good-naturedly, they continued on their way to the barracks. Laurentia heard one of them complain about the cold. He didn’t want to wear the leggings necessary for surviving in the north; he preferred his tunic and warmer climate in Persia. Was that the proper name? Laurentia had never heard of such a place, but then again, the Roman Empire was so vast that most people had never heard of other places where their fellow countrymen resided. They barely heard news from places as close as Londinium up here by the fort, never mind the farthest corners of the Empire. No wonder the soldiers got homesick.
Marcus tugged her hand at a shout from the mile castle. Laurentia looked up and saw the object of his excitement. Her own pulse quickened in enthusiasm. Several horses, some ridden astride by Roman guards and some pulling wooden carts, clattered up the road. People spilled out of their houses and the fort alike to greet the newcomers and rummage around in the carts.
The goods from the Continent had arrived.
Laurentia scooped up Marcus and surged forward with everyone else. She had ordered many items. Glass bowls and bottles for one. What proper Roman wife did not have real painted glass bowls and bottles in her home? One who lived on the frontier, that’s who. Real painted glass decorations were one of the prized possessions the wives boasted of among themselves. And jewelry. Some of the men wore earrings and finger-rings if they could afford them or if they had been handed down in their families, but for the most part feminine jewelry was hard to come by. Laurentia wanted beads. And hairpins. Or – dare she even dream it? – a jeweled comb like Claudia’s. Her husband had promised her one. Maybe it would arrive in this delivery.
Someone bumped into her. Laurentia looked to the offending person and found herself staring up at Claudia Severa. The slightly older woman dressed smartly in Roman-styled tunics that she altered to be warmer and suit the harsher British climate. Laurentia smiled, heart pounding. Perhaps she could say something to Claudia that would make her more inclined to send an invitation. Perhaps if she got on her good side, the invitation would come as early as that evening. Perhaps Claudia had just forgotten to send someone to deliver it. Maybe with a little friendly small talk, Laurentia could secure her place. She wanted to be included. She wanted to see the inside of Claudia’s house, reputed to be packed with bronze and boasting a mosaic or two, rivaling the commander’s living quarters. She wanted to be included. She wanted to be Roman. She didn’t want to be an outsider in her own village.
Claudia turned her chin up and walked away without giving Laurentia a change to speak.
Squeezing Marcus tighter and swallowing a lump in her throat, Laurentia approached one of the carts, as far away from Claudia as possible. No need to seem even more desperate by hanging on the woman’s heels. Her items could just as easily be in this cart as the one by Claudia. They did not need to search together.
The trader shifted boxes and sacks, glancing at the names carved or painted on them. People crowded the cart shaking it precariously, their greedy hands stretched out for their long anticipated treasures. One lidless box teetered precariously on the edge. Laurentia’s hand automatically shot out to steady it. A samian dinner set rested in that box. Laurentia knew the value of those. People were willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for them. They loved the reddish clay and the carved scenes on them. Samian bowls were a particular luxury here at the fort. They provided a sense of home and peace in a place of heavy military and manliness. One woman had even been reported to systematically steal piece by piece from her friend over months and then host her own party with them.
Laurentia’s eye caught the name scratched on the box, indicating for whom it was intended. Claudia Severa wife to …
Laurentia removed her hand.
Claudia Severa did not serve her birthday dinner on samian plates.