A Sweetheart for the Nubian

Felicitations my sweet sister this fine spring morning!

I am writing you this tablet in haste, since my new cohort is leaving shortly for the long march over the moors to Virosidum. I am truly looking forward to seeing the fort for the first time. Our officers tell us that it is a wondrous sight with granaries bursting full of grain, the finest horses our farmers can breed and everywhere, legionary soldiers in their best gear. Just imagine the polished iron breast plates and shining helmets gleaming in the sun, and the officers striding about wearing their tall horsehair plumes. Best of all there will be the legionary standards that I will have to learn to worship. It won’t be difficult since our legion has a fine record of victories and honours.


After we left you and my dear father we marched along the valley and then up over the high moorland to the west until we reached the remains of the earthen marching camp. Do you remember the stories? How it was thrown up in that wild place during the old campaign when the people we now call our serfs rose up against their queen Cartimandua and under their new ruler Venutius threatened to undo all the good work we Romans had done in this part of the world. You would have thought that they would have been grateful. Father’s ancestors in far away Anatolia welcomed the Roman army with open arms. He would never have been made a Roman citizen if he hadn’t been given the chance of joining their army as an auxiliary. Thanks to all of that, I can take my place as a legionary and citizen of Rome with all the privileges that entails.


I hope that you were not too sad to see me go. You will be well looked after by your nurse and you never know, I may find you a strapping soldier for a husband among my new legionary comrades! Remind Felix that he was going to send me some new woollen socks as soon as he has had them made. Once I have undergone my probation, we may be posted on to the cold fastnesses of the Wall far away to the North so I will need them. It rains so much there that your clothes grow moss if you stand still long enough (at least that’s what one of the old Centurions accompanying us said). And tell Felix I’m glad for the Greek lessons now since there are several soldiers from the eastern empire whose Latin is very poor and I am helping them out.


Well, I hear the cries for us to pack up so I must make haste and help take down our tent and stow away the great leather panels on our pack ponies. I’m glad to have Curlew with us. I know my father was sorry to see her go, but she is the surest footed pony we have and I’m glad that our rations will arrive dry and not covered in mud like some of the others’ whose ponies have stumbled and fallen in the boggy ground. Soon we will join the great road, built by our legionaries to carry us over the hills to the fort, it is apparently an amazing sight, so hard and well-drained that we will make double-time probably.


Your loving brother,


Greetings my dearest brother

My heart leaped with joy when we received your letter. I am so fearful of all the dangers that you will encounter during your life as a soldier. My nurse suggested that we visit the sacred spring to make an offering for your safe return so we will be setting off shortly. I have a glass flask of the Libyan wine sent to Pater from mother’s family estate in Africa (we didn’t ask, but he will hardly be able to tell that any is missing from that huge amphora in the kitchen!) and a honeycomb from the farm’s hives. I have also woven a piece of the finest wool from the farm’s sheep (remember how you hated helping at shearing time?).


We will take all these offerings and lay them by the spring and say a special prayer for you in your new life. I know that our blessed mother swore by the goddess of the spring and that without her, Pater would never have been able to set up this farm shortly after that terrible time you spoke of when the Brigantes were at their fiercest. Why he ever wanted to retire here we’ll never know, although Felix says it is because it reminded father of the hills of his homeland. Whatever the reason, the goddess protected our family from the marauding bands who infested the countryside then. Although all is peaceful in the province at the moment, father has been muttering about trouble brewing beyond the Wall, so we are all very frightened. Felix says it’s all rubbish, so we don’t know who to believe now. I can’t imagine ever losing our beautiful villa with its lovely gardens. To hide like an animal in the mud and stone hovels our serfs use would be like a living death. Whenever Nurse visits her family up in the forest, she always returns absolutely stinking of wood smoke from sitting gossiping round the open fires. It would be too awful for words.


Write to me soon my dearest brother!
Your loving sister – Marcella


Sweet Marcella, greetings and felicitations.

Thank you for your kind thoughts, and of course, Felix’s warm socks! Your offering to the goddess of the spring seems to have done the trick because the Centurion I mentioned in my last letter, has taken me under his wing. He comes from the province of Egypt but his family are descended from Nubian warriors (he has skin as black as Whitby jet) and he says that we southern folk must stick together and watch out for those cursed northerners whom the gods have forsaken. He was impressed to hear of our sacred spring and wanted to hear all about the goddess and her powers. He also gave me a glass bangle made near Eboracum from glass discarded from the legionary fort there. He asked that I send it to you and that in return, you make an offering for him at the spring. He is suffering badly during these cold nights with aching limbs and wishes for our goddess to give him some relief. Too many nights sleeping in wet woollen cloaks on campaigns he says. He’s tried every water and woodland goddess on the way but thinks that ours sounds the best by far.


If you could tell me how and when you have made the offering – one of the old chickens would do just as well as anything. It will keep me well in with old Valens and with him looking after me, things should go ok. And don’t let Pater catch you stealing any more wine, he’ll have to wait a whole year before the next delivery as you well know!


We reached Virosidum late in the evening two months ago now. The road we marched along was truly a marvelous sight. It flies arrow straight across the highest part of the moor and the surface is so good that we felt as if it was carrying us along as we swung down it. And just imagine the sight as we breasted the final hill and saw Wensleydale laid out far below us. The river is greater than our own little stream with many frightening waterfalls and the valley bottom is filled with great mounds of earth as if a basket of giant eggs has been dumped on it. Beyond it are even higher hills and beyond them, many day’s march away is the Wall, gleaming white and protecting us all from the barbarian hordes. You musn’t worry about losing the villa. The Roman Army can deal with anything the barbarians can throw at us.


Virosidum fort is also even more amazing than I imagined. It sits high up above the surrounding land on one of those giant mounds of earth with views up and down the valley. Behind us in the hills lies a secret lake, and here the fishing is as good as anything we have in Wharfedale. Not that we get much spare time. All of father’s training couldn’t prepare me for the work I am having to do and all that I am having to learn. The iron tipped pilum spear is the hardest weapon to master, I’ve hurled several in completely the wrong direction, and the legionary smiths are getting cross at having to bend them back straight. “Hit the straw targets boy and they won’t bend”, they growl at me, “save the bending for when it’s an enemy’s shield and you need to trip him up!”.


Tomorrow we’re off practising digging marching camps – or at least bits of them. Valens says that Britannia may be quiet, but there’s plenty of campaigning to be had elsewhere in the Empire and that we need all the practice we can get. It’s not so easy digging ditches and building palisades when you’ve got a horde of hairy Dacians breathing down your neck he says and I can quite imagine.

Your loving brother,


Greetings to thee Valentinus,

Great thanks for the glass bangle from Valens. What a beautiful greeny-blue colour it is and decorated with those wonderful yellow spirals like cream swirled in water. Tell Valens that I will treasure it. Tell him also that I have visited the spring and made sacrifice as he requested. I took an old cockerel that no one wanted, but he’d been a fine bird in his day so I’m sure the goddess would have been pleased. I also took along a sheaf of green oats from our fields. Father says it will be a good crop this year as the summer looks to be long and warm. We will miss you in the fields at harvest he says. No-one gets the men to work quite as hard as you do in spite of being so young. Since you’ve gone he has been sad, a daughter is never the same as a son Nurse tells me, but I try to comfort him as best I can. Since Mater died giving birth to me, Nurse says that Pater lost a little of his joy and though he is prouder than he can say, losing you to the army has not made his life any easier.


Nurse insists that you tell me more about Valens. She’s never seen a Nubian and wants to know if his skin is as dark as mother’s was. She also wants to know if he has a concubine in tow or whether he is on the look out for a maid from the northern hills. I think she means me not her although I’m not sure! You made him sound terribly old, but Nurse said nonsense, if he’s near the end of his service he’ll only be twenty years older than you and that makes him a very presentable 36 or 37 years old. It sounds pretty old to me, but she tells me I’d be better off marrying an ex-legionary since he’ll be given land by the government and as well as his pension, he’ll have plenty of loot collected on campaign, stored away in the legionary treasury!


I am too embarrassed to write any more about it and Nurse is cursing because she never learned Latin so she can’t match-make without my help. It serves her right is what I say. With you gone and no one to practice on, Felix is threatening to teach her Greek! May the goddess continue to watch over you and your new friend, and perhaps one day she will see to it that I meet him!

Your loving sister,