Memoirs of Vinca,
a Slave Girl in Rome's Imperial Palace, c170-181AD
manuscripts, written circa 185AD, are remarkable in that they reveal some
startling facts of life in Rome's Imperial Palace under the later Antonine
rulers Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Distanced from its author in
time, it is indeed difficult, if not impossible, to vouch for the accuracy of
the depictments within. Assuming, however, that it IS genuine, these
manuscripts stand as the most complete picture to date of the major players of
this particular cornerstone in Roman History.
It is rumoured that these
manuscripts were discovered beneath the stone floor of a long-abandoned Roman
villa circa 400AD. The Roman Empire, by this time well into its period
of fragmentation and decline, was apt to cling to any mementoes, however
rudimentary, of its former greatness; indeed, of its very existance.
In the interests of preservation, the manuscripts were moved to the Great
Library of Alexandria; they miraculously survived the inferno that engulfed
the library when it was torched by an invading Muslim army. Over 1,800
years since it was produced, it has finally found a home at the John Dalton
Library in Manchester, England, renowned for its collection of antique
writings, many from the pen of ordinary people.
The extraordinary thing about
these memoirs is that they were produced by a former slave, during a
period when such individuals were generally thought to be illiterate.
Having studied the manuscripts, historians have concluded that the Emperor
Marcus Aurelius, respected and revered as a champion of the poor, may have
encouraged his slaves to learn reading and writing for their personal
betterment. Having been manumitted from slavery, they would therefore be
able to profess a skill other than those of a domestic nature.
The most startling revelation
of all, however, appears towards the close of the manuscript. Obviously
I cannot reveal what it is at this point, or indeed vouch for its
truthfulness, but if we consider that these manuscripts were written by a
former slave who, incidentally, was female, then surely, gifted in
articulation and in mind, yet socially disadvantaged in many other ways, would
she have had anything to lose by revealing the truth?
Department of Classical Studies, University of
I was born in
Roman-occupied Britannia. My mind has blocked most of that terrible day, the
day the soldiers in red cloaks and crested helmets took me away from my
family, indeed, wrenched me screaming from the arms of my mother. I
vaguely recall a battle of some kind, a dreadful furore....the men of the
village had decided to make a stand against our Roman ocupiers, my father
included, once and for all, something that was doomed to failure. They
were too organised, too strong. I can't remember anything else. I
was nine years old.
recall, and painfully so, the long, arduous journey thereafter, crouched in
the stinking bowels of a ship, my legs and feet bound together. I
was covered with bruises and scratches where I had been struggling with my
captors as they bore me away. My knees were pulled tightly to my
chest, my long red hair, usually lush and abundantly curly, had grown limp and
dull. I hadn't had the chance to wash it, or even wash myself. I
captives occupied this cramped space, and all were strangely silent, not least
because of the scowling centurion posted at the door. I spent
several weeks in this unenviable condition, until the ship finally docked at a
port city called Ostia.
From here, our feet thankfully
unbound, we were loaded onto carts of various sizes. I had no idea where
I was, or where I was going to. I wondered when my parents would arrive
to take me home. For all I knew, my captors could have taken me on a
long and uncomfortable boat ride to punish me, after which I would be returned
to my grateful, smiling parents. It wasn't to be.
I had a rudimentary
grasp of Latin, and could just about understand the commands shouted by the
soldiers at the drivers of the carts. I could make out the words
"Roma" and "Neopolis," apparently
the places where the carts would be departing for, soon. Someone
tied my hands together. The cart began to move away.
take me long to work out that whatever this place was, it certainly wasn't
Britannia. The buildings of Ostia were larger, elegant,
prosperous, and unmistakably Roman. Later, out in the open countryside,
the surrounding landscape was dramatically different, and the heat was
stifling. I felt sure I would pass out, until a kind lady passed me some
water, which I drank gratefully.
Eventually, we entered the gates of Rome. I was unprepared for its
magnificence; my young and hitherto untravelled mind was unable to comprehend
its sheer magnitude, I who had spent her entire life thus far in a village.
Let me tell you, it was immense. The buildings looked as if they were
carved from the very clouds themselves: white, majestic, stretching as far as
the eye could see. Other buldings were just as large, but obviously very
old and, if I may say so, somewhat run-down in comparison. Many
buildings were embossed with grand reliefs and carvings, and supported by
smooth, fat pillars. There were statues of important-looking people,
some complete, others broken...there were narrow streets and vast plazas, and
the people! Dark-skinned, light-skinned, dark-haired, light-haired, even
a few red-haired people like me. Some were beautifully dressed, others
shabbily so. Vendors lined the streets proffering their wares;
prositiutes reclined in doorways; there was laughter and tears and shouting
and whispering and chatter, pointless and important. It seemed as if the
whole of humanity moved and lived and loved within the confines of this
hot, reckless, bustling city.
I couldn't let
my mind wander for too long, because soon the little cart pulled into a large
Forum. At one end of the Forum stood a large platform, upon which
stood a rotund, bearded man, gesturing from behind a lectern. Crowds
milled around the foot of the platform, listening to his words, occasionally
breaking into laughter at his prompting. Behind the man stood a
bunch of unruly-looking people, their hands bound like mine. They stared
at the ground with something resembling shame.
indicated for us to get out. He helped us off the cart, then
another man walked over with a small bag that rattled. He handed the bag
to the driver, who opened the bag, glanced disapprovingly at the contents,
then got back into the cart and drove off, without even saying so much as
goodbye to us all. The other man gestured at us to follow him towards
"Where are we?" I asked a woman from the cart, another Briton.
"I think its a slave market" she said. I wasn't sure what she
meant, but it was obvious that for some reason, people were being sold.
I glanced arounding, looking for the distinctive flash of my mothers' red
hair. Even now, I was convinced she was waiting for me. And in
fact, there WAS a red-haired female on the platform, but she looked nothing
like my mother. She couldn't have been more than fifteen years old.
The rotund man on the stage pointed at a tall blond fellow in a simple tunic.
He held up his long flaxen hair, indicated size by stretching his arms wide,
demonstrated great strength by flexing his bicep. Immediately the crowd
began to shout, the word "sesterces," the Roman coinage, figuring
prominently. Eventually the rotund man brought a hammer-like
instrument down on the lectern, and the man was led away towards a
middle-aged, elegantly dressed couple who had made the highest bidding.
I found myself standing next to a small, mouse-like girl about my
own age, starved-looking, with almost transparent skin and round dark
eyes. She was trembling, her eyes filled with tears. She was
obviously very frightened, so I spoke to her in an attempt to calm her,
wondering whether she was a Briton, like me. She looked at me, not
comprehending. Soon she was brought to the front of the stage. The
crowd groaned audibly.
tried his best to "sell" the girl, but the crowd responded
half-heartedly, presumably because she looked ill and somewhat weak.
Shrugging his shoulders, shaking his head, the man came
over to me and led me to the platform. He began to speak again.
The bidding resumed. Two for the price of one. Eventually, a sale
After the bidding concluded, we were introduced to our purchaser.
He was tall, dark haired, wearing an elegant yellow robe. He was
flanked on either side by two guards in crested black helmets:
Praetorians, I later discovered. He astonished me by addressing me
in Briton. "You are very lucky little girls.
Both of you" he said, and asked us to follow him. It transpired
that the other girl was from Gaul, a land across the sea from Britannia, and
this is why she could not understand what I was saying. The man in
yellow spoke her language too. He sounded very clever.
loaded onto another cart, this one mercifully covered by an awning that
shaded us from the blazing heat . We got out in a vast paved
courtyard, laid out before the most elegant and auspicious-looking
building I had yet seen. We followed the man towards a side entrance and
down some steps, emerging into a large kitchen complex. A tall, angular,
sharp featured woman, her black hair piled atop her head, was there to greet
us. She smiled at the man. "Laurentius!" she said.
"It's good to see you! Are these the new workers?" She
glanced over at us, her smile wavering a little when she noticed the fragile
little Gaul girl. "Are you sure that one's strong enough? Its not easy
down here, you know..."
"She'll grow. All she
needs is some solid Roman food and she'll be fine. In any case, I got
them both, including the Briton, for the price of one."
"Resourceful as ever. I
can tell this one's strong. Goodness me, look at all that hair! I
suppose we'll have to check you for lice, my dear." She narrowed her
eyes. "Thank you, Laurentius. I'll take over from here"
Laurentius smiled and left. He and the woman seemed somewhat fond of
each other, I noticed.
"Come over, don't be
afraid" the woman said. "My name is Trincula. I am the
kitchen supervisor here. So from now on, this is how it is going to be.
You might not realise this yet, or indeed appreciate it, but you are extremely
privileged young ladies. This building is the Imperial Palace, where
none other than the Emperor himself lives" As she spoke these words,
she seemed transported to a state of ecstasy. It was as if she was
trying to infuse us both with a similar enthusiasm. "We have
standards to uphold, and very high standards they are. Both of you will
be instrumental in upholding them," she paused, frowning lightly, "I
hope..." She glanced at the Gaul girl, who twitched and looked at her
"You will work here in a
domestic capacity, and you will work harder than you ever thought possible.
Yes, your hands will be cracked and sore, your back and legs will ache,
you won't get much sleep, but you will be consoled by the knowledge that you
toil for the sake of the Emperor and the Empire." The woman looked
up, sighing. I got the distinct impression she loved the sound of her
"And if you work
hard" she continued," then one day, when you are grown, your freedom
will be yours for the taking. Although," she sighed, back on terra
firma after descending her verbal Mount Olympus, "I wouldn't bet on
it. I've been here for over twenty years, since I was a nipper, and
I'm still no closer to being manumitted. Ah well, such is life. From now
on, both of you will speak in Latin only. The other slaves will instruct
you where necessary. We have several Britons and Gauls working here, and
most of them are quite fluent now, so there should be no problem. What
are your names? We will have to change them."
Thereafter, I was known as Vinca,
and the little girl from Gaul, whose real name was unpronounceable to me, was
renamed Hestia. Roman names to go with our new lives as Roman
slaves. The name "Vinca" actually means "winner",
which seemed ironic at the time, since I lost everything, namely my freedom
and any chance of being returned to my parents, on the day I received it.