A cast of letters in the Trajan Column inscriptions
THE ROMAN ALPHABET
IN ITS ORIGINAL CONTEXTS
By Karl Young
The Roman alphabet is the product of a long series of simplifications and refinements. Like other forms of writing, its most distant ancestors were tallies and pictograms. These evolved into ideograms which, in turn, resolved themselves into phonetic symbols — first symbols representing syllables, then signs indicating consonants, and finally letters standing for both vowel and consonant phonemes. The Greek alphabet achieved this final step. Simplification of signs involved ease in writing and reading as well as emphasis on smaller units of sound.
A great deal has been written about the origins of the alphabet in it's transition from pictograms to phonetic markers, with a horned ox standing for something like "ah" leading the procession. We may discover further stages in its evolution, filling in links as we do in studying the evolution of organic species. Although it is impossible to prove at this point, it is interesting to conjecture that in some cases the graphic symbols of the West, as those in Chinese, may have evolved from basic human gestures. Some may even form maps of sound formation. You make an "O" with your mouth when you pronounce the letter. Bring your tongue into the picture (and the sound) and you get the Greek letter Theta: "Θ." From there, drop the "O" and note that "T" charts the position of tongue and teeth (turned upward to save space) in pronouncing the phoneme. "B" diagrams lips, as seen from the side, making the sound. And so on. Whether this is how letters evolved or not, the basic strokes of the alphabet mimic body movements, condensed and abbreviated in the movement of a hand as it writes. When the peoples of Italy developed their own scripts, they adapted them from Greek and Phoenician models. Their final synthesis hasn't changed much since its formative period. A few letters have been added to the capitals (which were the only letters in the early period). The largest change has been in the development of what we now call lower case letters and punctuation. When we look at some Roman texts, we see letters that differ little from those we use now. We look back over two millennia of wars, cultural change, technological development, and intellectual reorientation, and see letters that could have been carved, penned, or printed yesterday. Perhaps the major reason for this continuity is simply that, by the year 1, the Roman alphabet had developed to a point where it satisfied the needs of Roman readers, and has (with some adjustment) satisfied the perceived needs of western readers down to the present day.
This may have come at some cost to western civilization. Eric A. Haveloc writes in Origins of Western Literacy, "All systems which use scratching or drawing or painting to think with or feel with are irrelevant . . . A successful or developed writing system is one which does not think at all. It should be a purely passive instrument of the spoken word even if, to use a paradox, the word is spoken silently." A language like written Chinese, which has developed at least as highly as languages in the western alphabet tradition, includes distinct advantages over a language which does not think at all. And a tool that passively records speech can produce unfortunate results, running a gamut from illusions of authority to limitations on perception to excessive reliance on abstraction to the loss of the sense of continuity between what people read and the nature of its production — inevitably resulting in the support of consumer-culture fragmentation of society. During the last century, western poets have worked with forms that try to recapture some of what has been lost in alphabetic writing — though they could not have done this without the western variety of literacy. Although we may try to transcend its limitations, it will remain the basis for writing poetry for some time to come, and the better we understand it, the better we can use it and extend it into areas where we find it lacking. Perhaps the Roman alphabet will be our greatest aid in overcoming the limitations of alphabetic writing.
In this essay, I will sketch the early development of the design of the Roman letters, the manner of book production that went with it, and the nature of reading in the first centuries of its use — roughly from the second century B.C. through the fourth century A.D. We cannot date developments in the alphabet very precisely for this period, but we can point out two inventions that profoundly affected western civilization: the design of the Roman alphabet and the ascendancy of books with separate leaves bound along a spine. The first was an outgrowth of the tools available to the Roman writer, though it's hard to imagine how the results could have been improved with better or more modern equipment. The second was achieved by the identification of a bookform with the rise of Christianity.
Since the Roman period there have been seven other major developments: the combined usage of different letter forms to make meaningful and useful code with the distinctions between what we call, following the usage of relatively recent printers, "upper" and "lower case" letters; consistent separation of individual words by adding blank space, and further reading cues in the form of punctuation; the replacement of vellum and papyrus by rag paper and later by paper made from inexpensive wood pulp; the successful adaptation of printing from movable types; the development of photographic printing techniques; the interaction between written or printed language and computers; and the successive shifts away from reading aloud to silent reading and speedreading. None but the first of these could have happened without an alphabet like that of the Romans.
The Design of the Roman Alphabet
Since the renaissance, artists, typographers, and historians have speculated on the origins and development of the basic characteristics of Roman letter forms. Most have taken inscriptions in stone as their point of departure, and inscriptions will probably continue to be central to the study of Roman letters in the future. The most generally accepted theory goes something like this:
The Romans were fond of inscribing texts in stone — most prominently on buildings and monuments. Such inscriptions glorified individuals or awed the viewer with the massive power of the Roman state. The conditions of carving such inscriptions seem to have given the Roman alphabet some of its basic aesthetic and practical characteristics. Inscription in stone encourages economy in design as well as brevity of text, and lapidary practice may have helped to limit the number of characters in the Roman alphabet.
Inscribing stone is a tricky business. Given the expense of quarrying, dressing, and transporting the stone, the stonecutter would not want to make mistakes; if the letters didn't fit the allotted space, if they weren't properly laid out, if they didn't come out the same height, if they were badly proportioned or poorly executed, he would be in serious trouble. It would be prudent of the craftsman to paint the letters on the stone before he went to work with his chisel so he could correct any errors before it was too late. In the excavations at Pompeii, quite a bit of graffiti has been found painted in whitewash, using a broad, flat brush. Other use of this kind of brush and of whitewash has been found throughout the Roman world. Roman stonecutters apparently used such brushes to paint their texts before they started cutting. This kind of brush can create a thin or a thick line, depending on how the brush is held and how the hand is moved over the surface painted. [See figs. 1a & 1b] The Roman lapidaries apparently held their brushes so that the broad part was more or less parallel to the ground, producing a broad mark when moving vertically, and a thin one when moving horizontally, so that the vertical stroke of the letter "T" would be thicker than the bar across the top. If you wished to paint an "O" in this manner, you would start at the top with the thin edge of the brush. As you moved down and around, you would use more of the breadth of the brush until you reached the middle of the side of the letter. Then you would apply more of the thin edge until you reached the bottom, where you would again hold the thin edge against the writing surface. [Fig. 1c] Certainly the artisans were sensitive to the beauty and legibility of this sort of modulation: it gave the letters variety, energy, fluidity, and balance. The variation of thin and thick strokes has been repeated by many different kinds of brush and pen, and by type designers down to the present time. It is still a major asset of the Roman alphabet.
Figure 1: Brush and pen strokes
It is not easy to stop a chisel stroke precisely or squarely. The best solution to the problem of how to treat the ends of letters like "I" is to make horizontal strokes at the top and bottom of the letter, and then cut the body between these index strokes. Of course, it is also difficult to cut the index strokes to match the body — you may end up with a notch sticking out one side or with the body being wider than the index. Painting and cutting the index stroke wider than the body of the letter provides a simple solution to this problem. The index stroke then brackets the letter, giving it further definition and clarity. We have come to call these index strokes serifs, and they are the second major feature of Roman letters.
Since their carving, circa 114 A.D., many calligraphers and typographers have considered the inscriptions of the Trajan column the finest example of Roman letter forms. [Fronticpiece and 2a] Many type designers have tried to reduce them to mathematical formulae, but none has succeeded. We may only attribute the excellence of these letters to the highly developed sense of proportion and design of the workmen who painted and carved them. It may, however, be instructive to note that, unlike scribes, they were working on large letters (as do most modern type designers, who then reduce them) and that the size of the letters and the slow pace at which the lapidaries worked gave them the opportunity to perfect their art.
Edward M. Catich found flaws in the argument for lapidary origins, and proposed a different line of development. Catich worked as a sign writer in Chicago as a young man, during the 20s and 30s, went on to intensive study of surviving specimens of writing and inscription in Italy, and recreated the methods that seemed most plausible to him. He wrote several books on the subject, particularly The Origin of the Serif, in which he carefully and lovingly detailed his studies. According to Catich, Roman letter forms took their inception in the use of a flat reed pen, which not only provided the origin of the thick and thin lines but also the serifs. [Fig. 1d and 1e]
The top serif originated in a slight movement of the pen to get the ink flowing. The bottom serif comes from a flick of the pen at the end of a stroke to finish it off neatly. Possibly in some types of formal writing, and certainly in large-scale painting or carving, the artist would want to balance these leading and finishing strokes with a similar stroke on the other side of the main stroke. [Fig 2] Catich believed that the workmen who painted and cut the Trajan inscriptions usually held their brushes at a slight angle, in the range of 20°, to produce a usual ratio of 2:1 between thick and thin. However, nothing rigidly bound them to this and they could vary the proportions according to their sense of what looked best and what worked best for them as they moved their hands and arms. This freedom of movement governed by sensibility is a tribute not only to their skills but to the examples of calligraphers from whom they had learned their letters — it also suggests the reason why no formulae will ever adequately recreate letters of this sort. The Trajan inscriptions were cut shallow and would not have been easily legible had they not been painted in again or gilt after their cutting; hence the chisel work is simply one intermediate stage in a larger process, and one that had little influence on letter forms.
Pen and brush strokes as they may have contributed to serif formation
Catich's views remain controversial among calligraphers, type designers, and historians, but it's hard to ignore or dismiss his skillful renderings and painstaking analysis. The fact that he had practical experience with the same tools as the Roman artisans should be taken seriously by anyone who wishes to understand the Roman alphabet. In the summation of The Origin of the Serif, Catich writes "had, by some miracle, a 'brother' from one age been reincarnated in the other, he would have been able to take his place as a journeyman worker in the local sign-writing shop, whether in Trajan's Rome or Capone's Chicago."
The decisions of the Roman letterers were based on the materials they used, the nature of their tools, and their aesthetic sensibilities. At the same time, however, they created basic practical characteristics of the Roman alphabet. In the twentieth century, a number of typographers have decided that serifs are superfluous decoration and modulation of strokes lacks relevance in our streamlined age of uniform, interchangeable parts. They designed sanserif and gothic types that dispense with these frills. Some of these can be used effectively in signs, advertising copy, time tables, graphs, and as display type, but repeated testing over seven decades by a large number of researchers shows that sanserif types are simply not as legible as standard Roman. Clearly, serifs and modulation contribute to legibility, whereas sanserif faces, streamlined as they may be, are actually less functional. These types designed to eliminate superfluous ornament, ironically, find their best use in decoration. There's nothing trivial or decorative about letter forms that reduce eye strain: Roman letter forms contribute to the health and well-being of millions of people, from scholars to stenographers, elementary school students to news junkies, poets to readers of mystery novels.
I don't think we can prove exactly why the standard Roman faces are more legible, but I'll hazard a couple guesses. As to the serifs, they imply boundaries to letter strokes, focusing the reader's eyes on the bodies of the letters, and keeping them from wandering or being pointed away from the letters: the straight body of an "I," for instance, could act as an arrow directing your eyes toward the letters above or below the line you're reading. This, of course, is a subconscious and more or less automatic process — possibly related to the visual cueing we use to focus our vision on single objects. Modulation of thick and thin lines introduces variety into letters, and this, in turn, relieves visual tedium. All the elements of the Roman alphabet — the varied width of letters ("M" is wider than "I" for instance), the limited number of stroke types, stroke modulation, and serifs — create a rhythm, an endlessly varied recombination of a few simple elements. This rhythm seems to act somewhat like rhythm in traditional music: it encourages you to move forward, providing both a predictable base of repetition and a pleasing variation on it. Some types of music help people do manual labor more easily — perhaps the varied rhythms of the Roman alphabet provide a similar aid to readers.
Despite the effort and skill put into revising older type faces for digital use, serifs and modulations may not stand up to standard screen resolutions as the simpler and less detailed sanserifs. It is not unusual for an invention to appear in advance of its most important and successful use. At the same time, I'd like to see digital technology suggest new type faces specifically to maximize its strongest capacities.
Figure 3: Letter styles.
Four basic styles were used in manuscript writing: current, uncial, square, and rustic. Current script [Figs. 3b & 3c] was derived from the Greek models of the Roman alphabet. A blunt instrument — a stubby pen or stick or metal stylus — seems to have determined the form of this style of writing. We find it used most often in more casual situations. It was perfectly suited for writing on the erasable wax tablets used for everything from inventories to rough drafts of epic poems. This style could also be inscribed in clay or written or scratched on a board or stone with a piece of chalk, a knife, or indeed almost anything that would leave a mark. Some examples of this style are elegant and highly sophisticated, while others indicate that cursives were often executed rapidly and in many instances sloppily. Such texts may not be easy for us to read now, but we can see in them hybrids with other forms and experiments which probably influenced the economy of other styles of Roman script.
Uncial [Fig. 3d] also used Greek models as point of departure. Uncial marks a logical development of a reed pen, cut on an angle across the tubular reed, with the point flattened and notched to hold ink. Such a pen was relatively flexible, somewhat like a brush; and like a brush it had a broad, flat writing edge. [Fig. 3d] Uncial is characterized by a more pronounced variation of thick and thin lines and opulent and gracefully curved forms. The pen is held at a strong angle, so the thinnest parts of an "O" occur at the 10:00 and 4:00 clock positions. Uncial allows the writer great freedom of expression and remains a favorite among calligraphers. Although this style takes its name from "uncia," a unit of measure (etymologically related to "inch" and "ounce") because its letters were often one uncia high, we can see in it the beginning of ascenders and descenders, strokes that extend above or below the main body of a letter, like the bottom of the letter "y" or the top of the letter "d." This style was favored by Christian scribes (in part, perhaps, because it flowed easily across the pages of their Bibles) and spread throughout Europe in the period of Christian ascendancy. Some of the most beautiful examples came from scriptoria in Ireland and Northumbria, the end of the known world in Trajan's day. Before the fifth century, scribes drew letters between two imaginary lines: making all letters more or less the same height. By the sixth century, however, scribes developed small uncials, letter forms that implied four parallel lines. The main body of the letter occupied the space between the two central lines, with auxiliary strokes extending to the outer lines. This is the origin of miniscules, which have evolved into our lower case letters. The small uncials were used in conjunction with large uncial or square letters or elaborately ornamented initials. In the Renaissance, when typographers took Roman inscriptions as their models, they redesigned the descendants of the small uncials to harmonize with the capitals. With revision and addition of a few letters, this completed the Roman alphabet we now use.
Were the Square capitals [Fig. 3e] inspired by the work of stone cutters or did it happen the other way around? We've already touched on the argument. In either case, both share the common characteristics of modulated strokes oriented to an instrument held at a nearly horizontal position, both have serifs, and show restrained dignity. The main difference between them is that the square letters show a more pronounced contrast between thick and thin strokes, and more variety and fluidity in the serifs. This style was used when the writer wished to add authority, dignity, and weight to his text. Some may consciously have wished to recreate the grandeur and monumentality of stone inscriptions — this, curiously, could hold true even if the square capitals came first.
Writing square letters was a slow and exacting process. By turning his pen or stylus to a steep angle, a scribe could move more rapidly from one stroke to the next or allow one stroke to flow into the next. Holding the pen this way, he could also make thinner letters, allowing him to get more words on a page and thus economize on papyrus or vellum. [Fig. 1e] This gave rise to the Rustic style [Fig. 3f], characterized by thin vertical strokes, wide horizontal strokes, heavy serifs, and tighter curves. Though probably first developed for economy's sake, this style has a lively quality and could be used in carefully produced and well illustrated books.
The familiar account of Christ's nativity in the Gospel according to St. Luke begins, "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." Such a decree would have gone out in papyrus scrolls. The Roman empire that ruled the world depended on scrolls — in fact, papyrus was probably responsible, in part, for creating the empire, an empire with a distinctly bureaucratic cast. Unlike Athens and other Greek city-states, and despite the longwinded orations of politicians, the centralized government of Rome was less a meeting place where citizens debated face to face, than a focal point for petitions, reports, censuses, tax rolls, etc. Senators did not limit their writing to ballots: they seem to have been constantly making notes on their tablets, receiving information from subordinates and spies, passing messages among party members that they would not like other representatives to hear, and so forth. The movement of armies was choreographed by orders from the capitol. Conquered regions were subdivided and further subdivided, each redelegation of authority requiring more paperwork. After Caesar Augustus had sent out his decree on hundreds of papyrus scrolls, the imperial administration could expect to get thousands of scrolls back.
Papyrus was an ideal medium for this kind of bureaucracy. It was light and could be easily carried in the ships that linked the ports of the Mediterranean world. Horsemen could carry it rolled up in convenient tube-like scrolls. In cases of urgency, runners could carry the tubes in relays, avoiding physical or human obstruction, perhaps moving in secrecy, with great speed. Papyrus could be stored easily in archives and offices. Ordinary papyrus isn't a very durable material — we owe most of what survives to the dry sands of Egypt and the ash of Mt. Vesuvias. As Harold Innis has observed, papyrus favored rapid distribution over space rather than durability through time. In the Roman bureaucratic milieu, volume of quickly accessible information was needed; it was probably best that such material was perishable, otherwise its accumulated bulk might have swamped the bureaucrats who depended on large quantities of it.
And papyrus was cheap. Its stalks grew plentifully in the Nile, lending themselves to plantation culture. Slaves were also plentiful, and could be used in papyrus factories as well as on plantations. In making papyrus, the triangular stems of the plants were split and peeled, the strips of fiber were laid across each other, covered with silted Nile water, and pounded with mallets. The plant contains an adhesive that helped hold the sheets together. The sheets were smoothed and finished with pumice and glued together into strips to make scrolls of the desired lengths. This process lent itself to division of labor and regimentation of workers. By the time of Augustus, plantations and factories had grown to monstrous proportions, able to keep up with the empire's ever growing need for an inexpensive writing surface.
Book publishing could follow a similar factory pattern. Educated slaves were plentiful, and the privileged classes could buy them as easily as those used on the plantations. One slave could read a text, while others transcribed what he dictated. 100 copying slaves could produce 1,000 copies of Martial, Book II, in 10 hours. Although Rome was the center for such publishing firms, other cities also mass produced books. Alexandria remained a major center of book manufacture (primarily in Greek), and copying went on to a greater or lesser extent wherever Latin reading was stimulated by sales of imported books. Book stores could be found in most provincial centers throughout the empire. At the same time, many readers borrowed books and made their own copies, and poets and philosophers often published their works in small editions, copied by themselves or by their servants, for distribution among friends.
Two other writing surfaces were in common use during the period: wax tablets and vellum. The tablets must have been ubiquitous in the Roman world and some survive today. These tablets were rectangular wooden boards with frames around the edges and a thin coat of wax, usually black, spread inside the frames. The wax could be inscribed with the pointed end of a stylus and the inscription erased with the broad, flat surface on the other. These tablets were used for nearly every purpose imaginable: schoolchildren learned to write on them, matrons used them for shopping lists, foremen used them to keep track of work assignments, merchants used them for calculations and orders, poets wrote rough drafts on them. Often two tablets were joined by hinges so they could be folded face to face when not in use. This folding capacity probably suggested one of the most important inventions in western bookmaking: the codex, or book of separate leaves bound at a spine.
At the beginning of the period, vellum was thought of as a cheap substitute for papyrus — a byproduct of the slaughterhouse that could be used when more conventional material was not available. In making vellum, the skins of lambs or calves were washed and scraped, rubbed with pumice, and dressed with chalk. Vellum has a different kind of flexibility than papyrus: papyrus rolls nicely into scroll format but it doesn't fold well. On the eve of the Christian era, people started trying to fold papyrus in much the same way they folded hinged tablets. Groups of these folded sheets could be stitched together at the folds and covered with leather. But papyrus is not a good material for this sort of treatment: the folds turn out uneven, they wear badly, and don't hold stitches well. Vellum, on the other hand, meets these requirements perfectly, and it has several other advantages: it offers a good surface for writing with a reed pen, allowing the writer more freedom of stroke; it is much more durable than papyrus; it becomes more supple with use, whereas papyrus becomes brittle as time goes by; both sides of vellum can be used as a writing surface; it is less bulky than papyrus — books made of folded vellum can contain longer texts and more sheets can be stitched together in one volume.
Books made this way were originally cheap substitutes for scrolls or even tablets; it seems to have taken time and people with special needs before the greatest advantage of spinebound vellum could be realized. Two classes of readers apparently discovered this advantage independently: lawyers and Christians. Lawyers needed to be able to find specific statutes and precedents easily and quickly — this could be particularly important during trials. It is difficult to find a specific passage in a scroll — you could spend hours unrolling one, scanning the lines for the passage you need. A book that is broken up into individual pages, however, allows easy access to specific passages.
The first Christians to use this kind of book were probably among the poorer congregations, who simply used the cheapest bookforms available. An additional advantage for a harassed minority, rich or poor, was portability and ease of concealment: it would be easier to carry one codex under your cloak than a dozen scrolls. The early Christians were revolutionaries, and may have felt a revolutionary bookform appropriate to their radically new doctrine. Most important, however, was the emphasis on the words of Christ and the apostles. Roman paganism was based in cult practice and ritual. Some texts, such as the Sybiline Books, were used by Pagans, but these were reserved for highly specialized priests. Temples sometimes included libraries, but these served an auxiliary function — they may have increased the temple's prestige, but did not touch the heart of pagan religion. The Jewish base of Christianity placed strong emphasis on books and writing. Even God writes the "Book of Life," and the Tablets of the Law are "written with the finger of God." The psalmist affirms that "My tongue is the pen of a ready writer." References to books and writing in the Hebrew Bible run from visions in Exodus ("the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll") to elaborate raging in Job ("Oh that my words were now written! o that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!"). The importance of the book to Judaism, and to the "People of the Book," cannot be stressed too much. During the period of the emergence of the Christian Bible, this emphasis was in the process of transposition not only into a new book in the textual sense, but the form of the book was transmutating into something new. The New Testament features numerous references to books and writing, some of them rather extravagant, perhaps culminating in the supreme act of deconstructionism or performance art — in Revelation, John the Divine eats the holy book to gain wisdom. But on a more practical level, through the Gospels God spoke to humanity, and the Word of God was the key to humanity's salvation. Given this orientation, Christians found it useful to be able to locate specific passages in their Bibles, and this may have been the main reason why Christians retained this bookform after they had triumphed in the political arena, and why it has been the basic bookform of the western world ever since. The Christian King was born in a stable; the Christian book was born in the humble union of the wax tablet and the byproducts of the slaughterhouse.
It is difficult to reconstruct reading practices during the early days of the Roman alphabet, but we do have some primary sources and we can piece together a few tentative conclusions. Much of our data is fragmentary and seems, at times, contradictory. We should assume that Roman literacy was not simple or homogeneous, but a complex nexus of activities, as it is today.
We can say with assurance that writing and reading were more tightly intertwined with speech than they are now. Virtually all modern writers on the subject conclude that silent reading was highly unusual. One of the corroborations for this is a passage from Augustine's Confessions, in which the author expresses amazement at Ambrose's habit of reading silently, something Augustine had never seen or heard of before. "As he read, his eyes moved over the page and his heart received the meaning, but he spoke not and his tongue was still." Augustine's speculations on the reasons for this strange behavior may seem as bizarre to us today as some of the travelers' tales of the ancient world. It would be interesting to see how Augustine might have tried to explain Evelyn Wood's reading methods. Much of the primary material that has come down to us deals with public rather than private reading. Probably this is because Roman writers thought of public readings as events to be recorded, but took their own private reading for granted, as a daily activity that needed no comment. If this is so, we may feel that the importance of public reading is exaggerated. In all probability, the Romans spent more time reading privately at home than they did at public performances, but this doesn't mean that public readings were not central to most if not all types of reading. In a time when nearly everyone read out loud, public recitation probably informed private reading to a degree that may be hard to comprehend today. A Roman citizen reading alone in his study or garden probably used the same intonations, phrasings, rhythms, even gestures that he had learned from public performances. A bureaucrat reading an order might have mimicked the tones of a man in power, either seriously or in comic parody. Even if he were reading a treatise on road building, he probably would have declaimed it, and would have had a hard time suppressing gestures as he read. In discussing Roman reading habits we will have to emphasize public reading — it is the only kind for which we have much evidence, and it probably shaped and reflected private reading as well. We should add, however, that there were times when silent reading would have been socially or politically useful and "eyes only" messages were apparently circulated in the Roman bureaucracy, in the Senate, and at social events.
We may be using the wrong word when we think of "writing" in the Roman context. Almost any author who could afford a literate slave or secretary dictated his poems or decrees or even cellar lists. The composers of many of the Roman texts that have survived probably didn't touch pen or stylus when "writing" their works. However, we do have a documented case of a poet following a different course: Virgil made careful outlines of the Aeneid, and slowly and painstakingly revised them, presumably on wax tablets and then on papyrus. Interesting examples of writing and not writing (albeit in Greek, but part of the same milieu) come from the Biblical epistles of St. Paul, whose custom it was to take the pen from his secretary and write the last few lines himself. Thus we have in II Thessalonians, 3:17: "The salutations of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write." In Galatians, 6:11, Paul writes, "Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand." Some commentators have inferred from this that Paul was nearsighted. It seems more likely that Paul was just enthusiastic or excited in his letter writing sessions. Perhaps his exuberance was the reason why he took the pen from his secretary's hand for the first time. In this case, he seems to be taking childlike pleasure in the difference between his own freer writing and the tighter, more economical script of the professional scribe. Perhaps he adopted the custom of finishing his letters in his own hand because it was unusual, distinctive, and added a personal touch that he hoped might help in some small way to bind the early congregations together.
We have several references to impromptu composition of verse, such as the one in the opening lines of Catullus, 50. These may have run the gamut from completely oral composition to writing done on a tablet passed back and forth between poets. We can assume that compositions could result on some occasions in the earthy pungency of signifyin or dozens still composed by African-Americans today, and on other occasions in the decorum of Japanese linked verse. It seems likely that at least some lines composed in impromptu sessions found their way into finished poems.
Drama was a living and changeable art during this period, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish it precisely from oratory, poetry, and what we might now have to call performance art. At the beginning of the period, Latin literature was largely Greek literature in translation or paraphrase, and Latin adaptations of Greek plays were apparently the first to be staged in Rome. The audience could be large or small and the script could be adjusted to the size and character of the audience. Dramas presented to smaller audiences were more like poetry readings than elaborate stage productions. As far as we can tell, from sources that are usually biased, the early Roman theater didn't develop into the sort of high art associated with its Greek models, but must have opened up many possibilities to dramatists and actors. Later Roman theater included juggling, acrobatics, gladiatorial contests, and grandiose spectacles. During a play that called for a severed head to be brought on stage, a returning army brought the head of an imperial enemy to the actors, who substituted it for the artificial head they had intended to use — the emperor was pleased when he recognized the head carried onto the stage. This story may be bogus, since it comes down differently in several sources, one of them placing the story in Greece — but it conveys some of the spectacular elements of the theater of the milieu. Mime, again often based on Greek models, was a more highly developed art than it is now, employing an elaborate and expressive language of gestures, which were probably related to the gestures used in other forms of drama and in the recitation of poetry. We know little of the texts or scores for these later types of theater, but they did exist, and probably informed the reading habits of the audiences as well as giving instruction to the actors.
Poetry readings grew up along with the drama, beginning, as did drama, with recitations of Greek verses or Latin adaptations of them. During the late Republic, when Latin works became acceptable to audiences, the works read were usually those of earlier Latin poets. By the time of Augustus, readings of new works eclipsed the derivative poetry of the previous era and, if we can trust our sources, the theater as well. In fact, a popular poet might read in a theater to a large crowd. Virgil seems to have adopted the modern habit of ducking out the stage door to avoid the equivalent of groupies. As many as a thousand people could attend a reading, but most were given to small audiences, admitted only by invitation. In some cases, if the poet felt no confidence in his own ability to recite his verse, he could hire a professional reader to declaim the lines while the author stood next to him, supplementing the words with the appropriate gestures. Clearly the author's presence was important and physical gesture essential to Roman reading. Both were as important as the words of the poem or the voice that carried them. We have descriptions of audiences applauding wildly and others of audiences waiting out in the hall until the reading was over, coming in only for the last few minutes, no doubt to curry favor with other members of the audience or to be able to join the party after the reading. Impromptu readings were given in the street with some frequency, and Horace speaks of readers declaiming their poetry in public baths because the acoustics of these structures added resonance to the reader's voice. We have references to readings attended only by poets, and others given by emperors or men of wealth and power that were attended purely for political reasons.
Poetry readings served a number of purposes for Roman poets. As Pliny points out, readings gave a poet the opportunity to test his work and revise it according to criticism given directly by his fellows or implied by audience reaction. Many poets simply wanted to be heard, renting a hall and at times even an audience with their own money. As in twentieth century America, readings gave poets the opportunity to meet each other, exchange views, keep up with their colleagues' latest projects, get new ideas for their own work, and cement bonds of friendship and cooperation between them — or to carry on grudges, arguments, and wars between cliques, or to find new sources to plagiarize. Readings seem to have encouraged the sale of books: we have references to a number of promotional readings, sometimes sponsored by the publisher. We also have references to poets fishing for publishers and patrons by giving readings. Apparently, admission was charged for some of the larger readings and privileges and favors were exchanged at some of the more exclusive ones. Patronage was an important political and economic element in many readings. If a poet impressed his audience, it increased the patron's prestige — the patron expressed his gratitude in cash or other emoluments, and the poet, in turn, responded by flattering his patron in his own works. Perhaps the most impressive example of the poet-patron relationship comes from an account of a reading of book 6 of the Aeneid before Augustus and his entourage. Virgil introduced the emperor's nephew, Marcellus, who had recently died, into the poem as a soul waiting to be born. Octavia, mother of Marcellus, swooned at this passage — perhaps suggesting that poets were not the only ones engaged in theatrics at such readings.
Oratory was one of the basic Roman arts: its techniques often borrowed a great deal from the poet's craft, and vice versa. Prose works such as histories and philosophical treatises were often composed for oral recitation rather than for the page, and some historians apparently made no attempt at publishing their work in writing. On the other hand, some authors circulated their orations in pamphlet form, never intending to present them orally. Some of these, such as Cicero's Against Verres, had been rendered unnecessary by current events, but oratory nevertheless seems to have developed into a genre of its own, not necessarily dependent on public performance. Many Romans included diatribes in their wills expressing feelings that they would not have dared to say to a large public audience while alive. This was so deeply entrenched in the Roman psyche that even Augustus (no friend to freedom of speech) quashed a proposal made by the Senate to ban the practice. Certainly the writers of these wills composed them as oratory, and that is probably how they were received.
It is impossible to determine literacy rates among the Romans, but they must have been relatively high, at least in the cities, and have included a fair number of women, though writing for publication was predominantly a male profession. We have inscriptions on virtually every object imaginable: bottles and leftover tiles from construction sites as well as monuments and tombstones. A number of sources suggest that even poor Romans, with no pretentions of extensive education, owned and used books. The ever-practicle Romans produced a large number of how-to books, ranging from language instruction to travel guides to works on hydraulics and architecture. Though we cannot now be certain how they were read, we should assume that they were read aloud and that memorization played a significant part in reading. We can imagine, for instance, a traveler reading and rereading a guide book, pronouncing the words over and over to make sure he got his directions straight and would remember them. We can imagine him reciting them to himself as he walked or rode, addressing the appropriate passage to a marker or crossroads when he came to it.
We may consider most Roman texts as scores of one sort or another, meant as aids in oral re-creation. When we consider poetry readings, orations, and the like, we should note that the light weight of papyrus and a clearly legible alphabet were admirably suited for use as scores. At the same time, lack of punctuation and word division would demand a great deal of concentration, of invested effort, on the part of the reader: he would virtually have to speak the words aloud to figure out where one word ended and another began, which would, in turn, help embed the words in his memory. Reading texts aloud to themselves, Roman readers probably tried to re-create the intonations, inflections, and gestures of the original authors. The Roman reader probably stimulated his acoustic memory and re-created for his inner ear the sounds of the original performance as he read aloud. This applies, in a somewhat different way, to orations that were never delivered and poems by authors the reader had never heard: the reader of such works had to begin by imagining the delivery of the speaker, and the reader's attempt at inventing a voice to match the written word must have been a powerful oral and acoustic stimulus.
As Moses Hadas has pointed out, many, if not most, Roman texts seem to have a sense of conversation behind them, as though the author had to imagine that he was speaking to someone before he could compose his work. A secretary taking down his words might encourage this sense of speaking to someone, but hardly accounts for it. Inscriptions were often cast in the form of an address. The inscription on a monument might begin, "You who travel this road, stop and hear me;" a box might bear the inscription, "Hands off: I belong to Sota," as though the box or the monument were speaking to someone with the only voice it had. Even the dogmatic statements on grander monuments read like the pronouncements of an emperor directed toward subjects who dare not speak but must listen. This suggests that writing was a transformation of speech into another medium, retaining some of the interchange in immediate conversation. The page or the monument spoke to the reader, who re-created the acoustic dimension of the words. This is a very different notion from our own, in which writing simply conveys information, without a sense of dialogue or participation, but in it we can see the seeds of our modern reading habits.
Memory was one of the basic arts of life for the Romans, and it seems likely that they memorized passages from all sorts of books: from books of poetry to books on mining, from orations to travel guides, probably even books on memory itself. Once committed to memory, a passage could be replayed for the reader's inner ear and reintegrated into life on a number of levels: passages could be used as guides for successful or ethical action, as solace in time of adversity, as models for discourse or composition, as a storehouse for quotations, and so on.
The Roman alphabet is clear, simple, and legible. This makes it appropriate to communiqués and scores. At the same time, when inscribed in stone or written with a pen on papyrus or vellum, it has qualities that differentiate it from modern type. During the twentieth century, book producers have done everything they could to make the book an invisible and impalpable medium. Tactile qualities have been minimized in paper and in impression. Printed letters are uniform throughout a text printed in one face, no matter how long the book is: a "c" on page 1 will be identical to a "c" on page 700. Few readers today have any sense of how the books they read are produced — indeed, most people don't think of book manufacture at all: books, like food, clothing, or cars simply come from specialized stores. For the Roman reader the book was a palpable object, each with its own individual presence. Papyrus and vellum have unmistakable textures and make unique sounds when manipulated — they even have a distinctive smell, much stronger than the faint smell of ink, blanket wash, and glue that books now have when just purchased. The reader of the Roman books never had any doubt about how books were produced: he could not avoid the feeling that the book he held was the product of human labor, that each letter in the book had been written by a human hand. Now we try to make type an invisible medium: the less you notice the type, the faster and easier you can read it. For the Roman reader, letters conveyed a sense of individuality: each was unique, and a written word was more an exhortation to action (however small) than an unnoticed conveyor of information.
The Roman alphabet, then, in its original context, was a nexus for several types of experience. Sounds, speech, gesture, memory were encoded into it and could be reconstructed by means of it. It was an integral part of a continuum that included orations and monuments, social events and private deliberations, political intrigue and individual candor, physical gesture and group identity, human faces and carved trophies, memory and discovery. Despite the bureaucratic nature of imperial government, the Roman reader lived in an intensely oral world, filled with human speech that could not be divorced from human action. A text could not get too far from its source of composition in speech, and the reader had to participate in the recreations of that speech. The Roman alphabet still retained some of the presence and insistence of older forms of writing, but it provided the first step toward the emphasis on information in the modern era. Most of the original sense of human production and the presence of writers, in all senses of the word, is now gone from the alphabet, but the alphabet itself has survived the transition. It has been a major contributor to a world whose gains and losses a Roman reader could not have imagined, not only in social organization and mechanical invention, but in types of reading and writing. After two millennia it is still leading major reconstructions on virtually all levels of human activity. In the area of literature, it may not only continue its role of preserver of texts, but also be an inherent instigator of its own transformations, a stimulus and framework for types of thought, communication, and aesthetic device that transcend its limitations and enhance practices that may have seemed its antitheses at points in its evolution.
Copyright © 1978, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1999, 2010, 2011 by Karl Young
"The Roman Alphabet in its Original Context" first appeared in Open Letter, Sixth Series, No. 7, 1987. This was the last work of mine commissioned by bpNichol, and, like its companion poem, Should Sun Forever Shine, and its related essay, "Notation and the Art of reading," it is further testimony to his ability to bring out the best in people.
The essay, with revisions, has been reprinted and digitally reproduced a number of times. Its most recent reprint has been in The Roman Alphabet in its Original Contexts, published by Dan Waber's Naissance Chapbook series, along with notes and translations related to the reintroduction of the Roman alphabet in Anglo-Saxon England.
Bringing the Text Back Home by Karl Young