Postscriptum: I'm bored out of my skull in this fort

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A new gallery opened at the British Museum last Thursday, devoted to Roman Britain, and it includes among its exhibits the first surviving example of handwriting by a woman in Western Europe. The letter, according to Radio 4's Today programme, was from the wife of one Roman fort commander to another, inviting her to dinner, and is mostly written by a scribe but finishes with a few words, and a signature, in the woman's own writing.

This set me thinking about the postscript. Perhaps it's one of those afterthoughts people have as they're about to send off an invitation: "Are you still vegetarian?" or "Don't worry about British beef, we brought our own cows with us from Italy." But that's the kind of thing you could safely leave to the scribe, which raises the intriguing possibility that the addition wasn't intended for his eyes. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the very first letter written by a woman, and to survive all these centuries, actually contained a secret?

Perhaps it's a warning about one of the other guests: "I've had to invite Valerius again. I'm really sorry, especially after what happened last time." Or the kind of intimate message that passes between women friends more frequently, I suspect, than most men suppose: "Do come because I won't be here much longer. I've had enough of this bloody fort. Nothing happens and he's away all the time, pacifying Picts. I'm off."

I set out for the museum intending to solve this small mystery. Instead, I got diverted into a fascinating exhibition of mummy portraits from Roman Egypt (it closes today, so this is your last chance) and was so captivated that I didn't get as far as Roman Britain. I'm still no wiser about what that poor governor's wife, stuck up on Hadrian's Wall, wrote in 100 AD. But I hope it wasn't just a moan about the weather.

ONE of the mummy portraits, the face of an olive-skinned young woman of 19 or 20, is inscribed with her name and the Greek word grammatike - suggesting not only that she was literate but that she might have been a teacher. What's so impressive about the portraits as a whole is the level of culture revealed in them, from the number of women holding scrolls - a visual sign of literacy - to the sophisticated hairstyles and elaborate jewellery they were able to afford.

There are lots of examples of the gold Medusa motif appropriated by Gianni Versace, and some frankly sensual faces. I'm particularly interested in these at the moment because the finishing touches are being applied to the mock-frescoes which I'm having painted on the wardrobe doors in my bedroom. The gold leaf was added on Thursday and I've almost got used to waking up to an Italian landscape, which sprouts more decorative features by the day - olive trees, rows of vines, a rippling lake which had to be toned down when it started to resemble a Hackney swimming pool.

The piece de resistance is the pair of Pompeian frescoes above the main cupboard doors - a sort of erotic predella to the trecento landscape and half-size human figures below. I've always loved the sensual scenes of couples making love which decorated the walls of so many houses in Pompeii, they're tender, voluptuous and - it has to be said - slightly comic, which has given me an idea about how to unveil the completed frescoes to my friends.

It's my birthday next month and, as well as the usual party, there's going to be a caption competition. Guests will be sent upstairs as they arrive to inspect the artwork, and asked to come up with suggestions as to what the lovers might be saying to each other. (We've already come up with the obvious ones, "Very nice, dear, but you still have to use a condom.") At the end of the evening, I'm going to read out the winners. I might even translate them into Latin and get the artist to paint them above the couples' heads.

The Romans were quite unprudish about sex, which is one of the things I've always liked about them. A few years ago I was sent to interview an academic who had written a book on Latin sexual language. The chapters were divided into sections such as "basic obscenities", "parts of the female genitalia" and "terminology appropriate to animals". A discussion of the vocabulary relating to sexual acts began with the somewhat exhausted admission that "it would scarcely be possible to discuss all the designations of sexual acts attested in Latin".

I arrived at his office, eager to begin the interview. Why, for example, does the most common Latin word for the penis, mentula, appear to be a diminutive of the spearmint plant (menta)? The man answered my questions drily until I asked about his next project, whereupon his eyes lit up. He was planning, he told me, a major work on the Roman veterinary vocabulary. At this point I lost interest. I really cannot get worked up about Latin synonyms for cat flu.

IT SHOULD be apparent from all this that I am a Classicist, with a longstanding passion for Roman culture. This is something I acquired in the course of an entirely state-funded education, which is why I am so dismayed by leaks, in advance of the Dearing report, suggesting the Government may soon force students to pay tuition fees of pounds l,000 a year.

I come from that generation of working-class families which was very often the first to go to university. Without family money to fall back on (my father was a gardener), would I have gone off to university to read Tacitus, Juvenal, Cicero and Catullus and emerge at the end of three years, heavily in debt? Of course I wouldn't.

If the Government goes ahead with this plan, as well as further cuts in maintenance grants, most middle-class children will continue to get a college education. Kids with a background like mine will not. This is the worst betrayal I can imagine New Labour perpetrating on the millions of people like myself who voted for it less than three months ago.

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