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I went to Ancient Rome and all I got you was this… 1

four views of a Roman writing stylus with Latin inscriptions highlighted

The witty message on the stylus has been deciphered by a classicist and epigrapher. Courtesy MOLA

This humble London-Roman stylus with a witty message is mixing it up with the treasures of Pompeii

Whether as giver or receiver, most people have experienced the deliberately naff holiday present. But few know how this droll practice has a long tradition that stretches back – way beyond the rise of the English seaside town – deep into antiquity.

At the Museum of London, excavations led by MOLA for financial technology and information company Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London, on the bank of the river Walbrook – a now lost tributary of the Thames, have found a roguish example of the token of friendship.

An iron stylus, used to write on wax-filled wooden writing tablets and dating to around AD 70, just a few decades after Roman London was founded, has been found with an inscription, which has been painstakingly examined and translated by classicist and epigrapher Dr Roger Tomlin, reads:

‘ab urbe v[e]n[i] munus tibi gratum adf(e)ro acul[eat]um ut habe[a]s memor[ia]m nostra(m) rogo si fortuna dar[e]t quo possem
largius ut longa via ceu sacculus est (v)acuus’

‘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.’

Over 200 styluses were recovered from the site, but only one was found to have an inscription. As you might expect, inscribed examples are exceptionally rare: archaeologists have found only a handful of examples from across the whole Roman Empire to date, but the Bloomberg inscription is the finest; unparalleled in length, poetry and humour.

“Research into the Roman artefacts from Bloomberg continues to uncover exciting information,” says MOLA Senior Roman Finds Specialist Michael Marshall.

“This unique inscribed stylus provides a new window on Londinium’s international connections and its literary culture, but it also provides us with very tangible human connection to the owner and to the person who gave them this affectionate, if inexpensive, gift.”

The Ashmolean’s Pompeii exhibition

a photo of a roman statue

Marble statue of Bacchus with a panther AD 50–150. From the ruins of a temple in Piacenza, Emilia-Romagna. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

a fresco showing Romans feasting

Fresco wall panel showing a dinner party with painted messages: FACITE VOBIS SUAVITER EGO CANTO and EST ITA VALEAS (make yourselves comfortable; I am singing; go for it!) AD 40–79. Pompeii, House of the Triclinium. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

a vessel in the shape of a bearded man with a funnel coming from his head

Marble head of Serapis wearing a modius (grain measure) AD 180–200. Walbrook Mithraeum, London © Museum of London

The Roman equivalent of ‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen’, is going on display for the first time in the Ashmolean Museum’s stunning exhibition Last Supper in Pompeii, which features a spectacular array of objects from one of the most famous and visited portals to the ancient Roman world.

Focusing on the Roman love affair with food (and wine), the exhibition explores where the Romans got their culinary inspiration and how they exported sophisticated ingredients and recipes across the empire, as far afield as Britain. Many of the 300 objects, on loan from Pompeii and Naples, have never before left Italy. They range from the spectacular furnishings of the Roman dining room to actual food which was carbonized as the volcano erupted.

The exhibition also reveals how tasty ingredients such as these began making their way to Britannia after the invasion by the emperor Claudius in AD 43. Burnt deposits from the Boudiccan uprising (AD 60–1) show the surprising extent of culinary imports from the continent and far reaches of the empire including olives, dates from the near-east and pepper from India.

The Romans introduced a whole range of new plants and even animals to Britannia – everything from cherries, cabbages, carrots to rabbits. Fish and the famous fish sauce or garum, were both imported from the south of France and even North Africa. Wine was brought from France, Italy and Germany, but the most popular drink was beer and new finds from Roman London show a beer industry thriving only ten years after Boudicca, with records of brewers, coopers and pub landlords.

a photo of a plate with food made from ceramic

Terracotta votive food: pomegranates (open and closed); grapes; figs; almonds; cheeses; focaccia; honeycomb; mold; long bread
360 BC. Tomb 11, Contrada Vecchia, Agropoli Parco Archeologico Di Paestum

a fresco painting of a Roman bread seller

Fresco wall panel showing the distribution of bread AD 40–79. Pompeii, House of the Baker. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

a statue of a man with a large penis holding a tray

Fun times in Pompeii. Gold, silver and bronze ithyphallic tray bearer in the guise of a placentarius (pastry seller) 100 BC–AD 79. Pompeii, House of the Ephebe Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The wealthiest Britons chose to follow Roman dining customs, reclining in dining rooms with frescoed walls, mosaic floors and fine furniture. Under the empire, food in Britain came to play an important role in religion and in death. Some important finds have been made in Chester where tombstones show the deceased as reclining banqueters. One particularly fine example is the gravestone of a woman called Dinysia (named for Dionysus) who is shown relaxing on a couch, wine cup in hand as if toasting her mourners.

As for the Roman stylus, experts agree that ‘the city’ referred to is very likely Rome, further suggesting a direct link between Roman Italy and the province of Britannia. Londinium may have been close to the edge of the Empire but, far from a being a provincial backwater, it had grown into an important centre for commerce and governance, interconnected with the wider Roman world.

The stylus and its tiny inscription highlights the crucial role that writing and literacy played in allowing traders, soldiers and officials to keep in contact with peers, friends and family, some of whom lived over a thousand miles away.

The Bloomberg dig uncovered more than 14,000 artefacts revealing what life was like for the first Londoners, including the first written reference to the name of the city. Six hundred of the finds are now on display at London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE.

Click the GIF below to read the stylus inscription.

Last Supper in Pompeii is at the Ashmolean Museum until January 12 2020.

Read more about the stylus and its discovery on the MOLA blog.


Ashmolean Museum

Oxford, Oxfordshire

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is the country’s oldest public museum and home to one of the most important collections of art and archaeology to be found anywhere. The collections span the civilisations of east and west, charting the aspirations of humankind from the Neolithic era to the present day. Among its…

One comment on “I went to Ancient Rome and all I got you was this…

  1. Betty Elzea on

    It’s so exciting to see and read about these amazing Roman discoveries! I do enjoy following the Museum Crush. Thank you for putting them on the internet.


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