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Writing Materials in the Roman World

In the image at right, probably a painting done for this couple's wedding, the woman is shown holding the kind of wax tablet the Romans used for everyday writing like grocery lists and schoolchildrens' lessons. She has a writing stylus pressed to her lips.

Ancient peoples used a much greater variety of materials upon which to write than we do today. Mesopotamians had clay tablets that were impressed with cuneiform symbols when wet and fired to form a permanent record. Tens of thousands of these durable records have survived to this day and are still found in the deserts of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. The Egyptians favored carving their hieroglyphs into stone walls, tombs, and monuments but they also gave us the durable, flexible and lightweight papyrus made from a reed that grows in the Nile River Valley. By the time of the Greeks and Romans, papyrus was being manufactured in OFFICINAE (workshops) in several different grades and qualities, ranging from rough wrapping papyrus to the beautifully smooth product that was used for royal documents and lovely, hand crafted books suitable for presentation and display in wealthy people’s homes. Also available to the Romans were sheep and cow hide. One could write on heavy tanned leather, or the skins of cows and sheep could be shaved very thin to form parchment and vellum. Parchment was very strong and durable, but heavier than papyrus. Both papyrus and parchment were very popular amongst the Romans, but also quite expensive.

The Romans were very fond of writing and valued an education very highly. Therefore, they found many ways to get around the expense and bulkiness of papyrus and parchment scrolls. For personal use and for short notes that would be erased later, they used small wax tablets. These were usually bound together on a leather thong or arranged to fold together like modern book covers or like an accordion. The individual tablets were made of wood and had a raised edge, forming a shallow box. Into this box, molten wax was poured and allowed to cool with a smooth surface. This wax was usually a deep red or reddish brown in color. A metal or bone STILVS (stylus) was used to write upon the tablet, the pointed end to make the letters and the flattened end to smooth over and "erase" writing that was no longer wanted. These folding tablets and styli were the standard writing materials for Roman schoolchildren. They went by many names. In Latin they were called cerae or codices. In the Greek portion of the empire, they were called diptycha, trypticha, and other names which began with the Greek word for the number of individual tablets in the set. The Romans loved to have their portrait painted or a mosaic portrait made of themselves holding a rolled book or a wax tablet and stylus, like the image at top right. They felt that these articles symbolized the education and cultured background of those who were shown holding them. Color photographs of writing stylii, inkwells, and other implements may be seen in the excellent Eyewitness Books title Ancient Rome, which will probably be available from larger booksellers and public libraries for the next few years.

For letter writing, there were different grades of papyrus, depending on whether it was an official imperial dispatch or a personal letter to a friend in a different province. The dry climate of Egypt was perfectly suited to preserving these ancient papyri as well as the parchment documents, though these tended to dry out and become brittle. The contents of some of the surviving documents found in Roman Egypt are much like letters that might be written today by those of us who found ourselves in similar circumstances. These included a letter to a legionary commander recommending a man for recruiting into the army, A similar letter informing that an applicant was rejected because he didn’t pass the eye exam, and letters from soldiers to their families at home asking for money or whining because none had been sent them after their last letter home.

Surprisingly, the ink sometimes lasted longer than the parchment. The city of Herculaneum was destroyed by a volcanic mudflow from Mount Vesuvius in A. D. 79. The damp, corrosive ash caused the leather and parchment scrolls to deteriorate so that they became like flaky, black carbon. However, the ink, of another shade of black, survived in very readable condition. If the scrolls could be unrolled with great care and without crumbling to powder, then the darker letters stood out and could be read and transcribed before the scroll disintegrated totally.

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