Memoirs of Vinca, a  Slave Girl in Rome's Imperial Palace, c170-181AD

Translators' Note:These 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?
Thomas Blanchett
Department of Classical Studies, University of Manchester


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.
     I do 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 was filthy.
    Numerous other 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.
     It didn't 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.
    The driver 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 the stage.
      "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.
     The man 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 was made.
       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.
     We were 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 feet.
"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 own voice.
  "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. 

part 2