Monday, 9 January 2017

Ancient Roman Pen and Ink by Caroline Lawrence

This is the time of year when parents encourage their children to write thank you notes for all the Christmas presents they received. That is until recently. Sadly, the art of letter writing seems to be dying. These days Uncle Frank or Granny is lucky to get an email or text message. I am personally still waiting for mine! 


Romans however, were good at writing. One of the most literate ancient societies, some experts reckon about 15% of the population of the Roman Empire could read or write to some extent, but this figure was probably much higher in towns and fortresses. And the literacy rate would also have varied according to place and time. (photo of the famous ‘Sappho fresco from Pompeii courtesy of Carole Raddato.)


Romans wrote on a wide variety of materials including marble, granite, etc. (for permanent inscriptions); wax tablets (beeswax in shallow troughs on a thin, flat rectangle of wood)precious stones (to identify owner or maker) and even sheets of metal (e.g. thin sheets of lead for curse tablets). To write on any of these materials you would need to inscribe or incise the letters with a chisel, stylus or other pointed tool.


But for letter writing, Romans mostly used pen and ink. You could write on papyrus (pounded reed paper); wooden tablets (thin sheets of wood such as birch, alder, oak and lime); ivory tablets (known to us via the poet Martial); parchment (animal skin) and even pieces of broken pottery (sometimes called ‘ostraka’ in Ancient Greece). 

Pens were usually made of reeds or metal. Quill pens (made from bird feathers) did not appear until medieval times. Black was the most common colour of ink. Called atramentum from the root ater (Latin for ‘black) ink was made from ingredients such as soot or lampblack suspended in a solution of gum arabic or glue. Scribes also used ink made from iron vitriol, the same thing used by shoemakers to dye leather black. In the late antique period scribes used oak gall. Cicero and Galen mention the black ink of a cuttlefish (Latin sepia) though it is not certain if this was used for letter writing or not. 


after Öllerer 1998, fig. 9*
Red ink (purpura), made from cinnabar, red lead or red ochre (Latin rubric), was used sparingly in some manuscripts for important or holy words. One bronze ink pot has Latin words punched around its base: CAV(E) MAL(AM) PUR(PURAM) ‘beware the bad red [ink]. This might indicate that the colour red was apotropaic (i.e. kept away evil) or perhaps it was simply a warning not to suck your pen thoughtfully. 

There are even a few rare references to invisible inks. These were used for magic, love letters and possibly also espionage. For example, words written in milk could be made visible by scattering ash on the text. Some Greek magical papyri even mention an invisible ink made with myrrh. 

Ink was kept in inkwells. These were usually made of metal or pottery, small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. Some had complicated lids to make sure the ink did not spill. Some had chains so a scribe could carry them around. The replica inkwell shown here is based on an ancient original. 

Papyrus was the most common writing material in the Mediterranean area of the Roman Empire. Made of pounded reeds, it was mainly used for scrolls which were unrolled and read horizontally, left to right. The first square of papyrus usually contained the contents of the rest of the scroll. We get the word protocol from the Latin version of the Greek word protokollon ‘first-glued.

Literate people and scribes often had writing sets. These consisted of an inkwell and a pen-holder, usually leather but sometimes wooden. The leather pouch or wooden box would also have space for knives to trim the pens. Sometimes a writing set had two inkwells: one for black ink and one for red ink. 

Visual evidence from antiquity suggests that scribes wrote on their knees. They would spread the scroll across their thighs with one knee slightly higher than the other and find the right amount of tension in the papyrus or parchment. The source text might lie open on a table before them. But common sense suggests that the table or desk in the tablinum (study) was also used for writing. 

In the past, burial sites containing writing sets were assumed to be those of men, but now that forensic archaeology is so accurate, we know that a surprising number of women and even children from all over the Roman Empire had writing sets buried with them. We don’t know all the implications of this but at the very least it shows that Romans who could read and write were very proud of that ability. 

If only kids today were as proud!

My friend Dr Hella Eckardt at the University of Reading has just finished writing a book about inkwells from the Roman world. It will be called Writing Power in the Roman World: literacies and material culture and it will be available in early 2018, published by Cambridge University Press. A free access catalogue of all Roman inkwells found by Hella will soon be online HERE

P.S. Thanks to all my re-enactor friends, especially Zane Green, for allowing me to snap them and their artefacts. 

Öllerer, C. 1998 Römisches Schreibgerät vom Magdalensberg. Carinthia I 188, 121-155

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