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*
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’.
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