A great invitation – from nearly 2000 years ago!

Vindolanda inviteChristmas time is always a time for parties and gatherings, and so it’s also a great time to practice your inviting skills.  Jenny and I spent last weekend in the Scotland/England Border region – an amazing place, very sparsely inhabited, now a Dark Skies park area (the low artificial light levels make for excellent stargazing conditions).  In the midst of all this, we stumbled on one of the earliest surviving written invitations in the world.

Some of you will know that this area is crossed by Hadrian’s Wall – the Vallum Hadriani, as they called it – which runs for 73 miles across the island of Britain.  Construction started in 122AD, and it’s the largest Roman artefact anywhere.  What is less well known is that the Romans were in this area for several decades before they built this wall, building forts and encampments which were inhabited not just by soldiers but also by their wives, families, traders and so on.  The best-preserved of these places is Vindolanda, built initially around 85AD near what is now the town of Corbridge.

Vindolanda has proven to be a rich source of archaeological discoveries, not least the Vindolanda tablets. These fragile wooden sheets were used for all kinds of written records, from inventories to personal communications, and date from the last decade of the first century, around 92-102AD.  When the first garrison at Vindolanda were given orders to move on to with is now Romania (what a march that would be!), orders were apparently given to destroy the records and a bonfire was constructed to burn the tablets.  However, a rain shower intervened and many of the tablets survived.  They then fell into boggy wet ground which preserved the fragile wood in anaerobic conditions, until being uncovered by archaeologists in recent decades.

The most famous tablet is the ‘birthday party invitation’ (above), written by a woman to her friend around 100AD.  The wording is beautiful and striking even today:

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival… Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. (Back, 1st hand) To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.’

As you can see from the image, the writing is in a scribe’s shorthand rather than spelled out in conventional lettering, and so is not easy to read directly.  The part in ‘2nd hand’ is where Claudia Severa has added a peroration herself, in her own hand, before giving the tablet back to the scribe.  This is the oldest knowingly female handwriting in Europe.  It’s amazing that this everyday document has survived for us to read.

The wording of the invitation bears close examination, even 2000 years later.  “Make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival…” is a powerful sentiment.  “I shall expect you, sister” is perhaps even more assertive, particularly given that Claudia has added this in her own hand.

The invitation is a fine display of our three elements of a great invitation from the Host book.  These are:

  • Make it attractive – to what are we being invited?
  • Make it personal and acknowledging – why is our presence particularly important?
  • Make it optional – it’s an invitation after all, and in order for an authentic ‘Yes’ response there must also be the possibility of ‘No’.

Is it attractive? It’s a birthday party!  Is it personal and acknowledging? Absolutely – it’s personally addressed, and we are told that our presence will ‘make the day more enjoyable for me’.  Wow.  Is it optional? Well, just about… the invitation is clearly a strong one, but an invitation it is, not an instruction or a demand.

These three facets were in use 2000 years ago and they still hold good.  Next time you are inviting people to get engaged in a project, business or activity, invite them using these three elements and see what response you get.  All the very best for a peaceful and engaging 2018 from us at Host Leadership!


3 thoughts on “A great invitation – from nearly 2000 years ago!

  1. Klara Giertlova

    Dear Mark, thank you for this article! I love the idea of Host Leadership and would like to translate some of your thoughts or whole articles and make them attractive also to Slovak managers and leaders.
    Would you like to come to Slovakia and hold a workshop on Host Leadership in 2018-19?
    Warm greetings from the snowy middle of Slovakia

  2. Aoki

    Wow, hand writing from 2000 years back!! I can almost hear a breathing of this woman. APO, attractive, personalized and optional. Easy to remember, APO.
    Thank you, Mark.


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