Tolsum revisited: how the Frisian ox disappeared


  • M.C. Galestin


The wooden stylus tablet from Tolsum in Friesland, discovered in 1914, is well-known because of its text in Latin cursive writing which was long interpreted as a contract for the purchase of an ox. A re-transcription of the writing on the tablet in 2007 in Oxford with the aid of new techniques resulted in a completely revised text. It referred to a debt owed to a slave by someone whose name is not mentioned in this part of the text. Witnesses to this contract were Titus Cassius, tribune of the Legio V, a second slave, and a member of a Batavian army unit. The slaves were probably owned by a woman named Iulia Secunda, who was possibly the tribune's wife.

On the basis of this new transcription the tablet can now almost certainly be dated to AD 29, one year after the Frisian revolt. Still unsettled is the question whether this Roman contract really originated in a native settlement in Friesland, far from the Roman military settlements along the Rhine. The presence of early Roman objects in Winsum - only 6 km from Tolsum - that probably reflect Roman military presence there during the Augustan or Tiberian period, makes a local origin for the contract at least a possibility.

The Tolsum stylus tablet is the earliest handwritten text in northern Europe as well as the northernmost Latin text on the European continent. It provides us with information on the interaction between soldiers of different rank and of people connected to the Roman army during the winter of the year AD 29.