Found under the streets of London, a unique Roman stylus, with the most elaborate and expressive inscription of its kind has gone on display.

The iron stylus — used to write on wax-filled wooden writing tablets — was discovered by MOLA archaeologists during the excavations for Bloomberg’s European headquarters in London, on the bank of the river Walbrook.

The stylus dates to around AD 70, just a few decades after Roman London was founded.

Of over 200 styluses recovered from the excavation site, only one was found to have an inscription. Inscribed styluses are exceptionally rare: archaeologists have found only a handful of examples from across the whole Roman Empire to date, and the Bloomberg inscription is the finest, unparalleled in the length, poetry and humour of its inscription.

The inscription makes the stylus very rare and even so, was worn away in places. It has been examined and translated by classicist and epigrapher Dr Roger Tomlin. It 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.’

In other words: the stylus is a gift to remind the recipient of its sender; the sender acknowledges that it is a cheap gift and wishes that they could have given more. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek sentiment is reminiscent of the kinds of novelty souvenirs we still give today.

It is the Roman equivalent of ‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen’.

Some of the objects uncovered during the excavation are now on display in the Mithraeum, although this particular stylus has now gone on display at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford.


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