Because I'm making little wax tablets like those used by the Greeks and Romans, I've been reflecting on what it means when an invading army is literate but the natives are not. 90% of the citizens of Tsolyanu are not able to read and write.
When warfare is so important to them, how can this be? They may lack iron implements, but even the meanest can cobble together a feather, a rock for mixing ink, and a folded leaf to hold some lampblack. As for what to write on, it appears I had underestimated the availability and usefulness of simple -bark-.
It's never really occurred to me how important writing was to the Roman Empire. I mean, it should have been obvious, but there's been so much insistence that "most people back then couldn't read" during the Dark Ages, I hadn't really realized how "bright" things were in the Roman Empire and its frontiers before that period. Archaeology reveals a VERY literate people, with both men and women, adults and children, writing to one another.
In 1973, archaeologists excavating a Roman fort in northern Britain, along Hadrian's Wall, came across some thin flat fragments of wood. When they prised them apart, they were surprised to discover ink writing. These are the Vindolanda Tablets. Dating to the 1st to 2nd Century, they reveal a connection between literacy and the Roman military.
The wood is mainly birch, oak, alder-birch. Tilia (basswood, commonly known as "Lime Tree" in England), was also used. 752 of these postcard-sized tablets have been translated so far.
Subjects range from tactical information such as head-counts and inventories of helmet and breastplates and boots, to love letters and practice-copy bits of the Aeneid. In one, a sergeant asks their officer to send more beer for the unit. In another, Claudia Severa is inviting Sulpicia Lepidina to her birthday party. From the wooden letters, we know that a number of the fort's inhabitants were soldiers' wives and families.
In their letters, the Romans mention the "Brittunculi", a contemptuous word for the (apparently height-challenged) natives. They don't wear any armor. They sneak around and use hit-and-run spear-flinging tactics (a.k.a. guerilla warfare) instead of lining up properly and showing off their standards. Really, the Britons hardly seem to figure much at all in the lives of the Vindolanda community.
Because of the Vindolanda finds, I've had to totally re-vamp my mental image of the Romans in Britain. Writing is clearly not just for the nobility and clerks. The officers are constantly sending these little sealed folded basswood missives.
This level of communication grants some serious military might. Fairly complex orders can be given: Find out if these guys are in league with the guys on the other side of the river, or are they rivals. After capturing that village, sell off whatever's in their granary yourself, don't ship it back here. Put a watcher on the road to that hot spring bath. Start building a makeshift barge good enough to carry oxen.
So... how could all this go away? I wonder if a distaste for reading and writing may have been because it was brought by powerful invaders, and literacy was rejected because it was viewed as highly conducive to warfare. Or, did the native people come to associate the invading Roman legions with writing, and therefore come to an emotional conclusion that writing was "of the enemy" and therefore "evil"?
Maybe what I view as "the Dark Ages" was, for the Britons-- "the Golden Age of No More Literate Roman Bastards Killing Us and Squatting On Our Land."
Now, getting back to Tekumel-- it has occurred to me that a large number of those Vindolanda slats are as-yet undeciphered. What is on them is thought to be some kind of shorthand. What if, amongst the military of Tsolyanu, *Tsolyani* literacy is rare- but, beginning with the lowest officers, they might be taught a *proprietary* writing system, a set of simple symbols specialized and optimized for military communications?
If you were a soldier, you could use this cipher or code tell a sub-commander where to rendezvous. You could be instructed to look for a missing cache of gold. There might be versions specific to your Legion, or your Clan, or group of Clans.
You couldn't write a letter home to your wife unless she was also trained in that particular military writing system (maybe if you're both from a 'Red' Clan, and she used to be an Aridani soldier until she was 25?). And then, what you could say would be limited to the kinds of things this argot *can* say.
"Need new vambrace-lining," yes. "Three of my unit survive," yes.
"Your honey-sweet and soft eyes hold the promise of hope, like the brilliant noon-day dawn that follows a soul-chilling eclipse." Um, no.
You could make a shopping list that you and some other soldiers could read. You couldn't dash off an order for the marketplace grocer to fill, but you could send a note with a slave to the garrison's provisioner at the commissary.
And, you'd have no access to all the many documents written in Tsolyani. Literate in the context of your work, you'd still be functionally illiterate, in that you'd be incidentally cut off from both literature and science. No, you couldn't read the memoirs of a bygone Emperor's seneschal or a treatise on the finer points of dancing. But, boy-oh-boy, are you good at war, and there'd be accounts of military campaigns that you could understand.
Bethorm system-relevant notes. If you decide that soldiers in your Tekumel have access to a script like this, count it as a type of literacy. It costs 1 EP to be able to use it.
In order to learn it, the character needs to be from a military-oriented Clan, hold a warlike position in their Temple, or at least have a plausible story as to why they were taught something that it would be treasonous to teach a foreigner. (See section 3.10.1, Skill Availability). In the military, it is probably learned around 4th Circle (Sergeant/Subaltern), or perhaps begun around 3rd.
This counts towards the 3 profession-related skills (see Section 18.104.22.168, p. 38).