Round about World Book Day, I discovered my author friend Alison Morton was about to launch a special tenth-anniversary hardback edition of her debut novel Inceptio, inspired by her love of ancient Rome, and previously published in paperback, ebook and audiobook.
That got me thinking about what formats Ancient Romans used to read – books? scrolls? tablets? (the wax type, not the digital ones). Intrigued, I asked Roman expert Alison to enlighten me, and this post is the result.
But first, a little background…
Inceptio is the start of a long series of alternative history thrillers set in Roma Nova. Roma Nova is an imaginary country in Europe, a remnant of the Roman Empire that’s survived into the present and prospered due to its tenacity, engineering know-how and robust attitude. Out of necessity, sisters and daughters had to take up arms alongside men to help defend their fledgling state in the late 4th century. The descendants of these tough and capable women rule Roma Nova today. Eight contemporary thrillers tell of transformation, deception, rebellion, vengeance takers, comradeship and epic love stories. Inceptio introduces Carina, the first of these 21st century heroines.
The Interview Starts Here…
Debbie: Alison, welcome to my blog! I’m delighted to be able to share your expert knowledge of ancient Roman reading habits. Now, when I think of reading Latin words, I picture stone tablets on which inscriptions are engraved. What other formats did the Romans use to share the written word?
Alison: Everyday writing (accounting, notes) and for teaching writing to children could be done with a pointed stylus on wood-framed wax tablets. The beauty was that mistakes could easily be corrected or erased by using the spatula or spherical shaped end of the stylus. Several of these tablets could be laced together into a codex. Indeed, the word codex means block of wood.
Wax tablets were also used for official documents such as birth certificates or military diplomas giving rights to veteran legionnaires as well as administrative purposes requiring a certain durability and verifiability of the document. One was found still covered with wax at Pompeii.
The Vindolanda messages written on thin pieces of wood are other examples of informal writing mostly about dinner parties and bar bills.
Some documents, and later legal contracts, and books in the form of scrolls were written in pen and ink on papyrus. Use of parchment or its finer version, vellum, eventually overtook papyrus for shorter documents but the latter was still used especially for book scrolls where available.
Codices made of sheets of vellum, papyrus, or other materials gradually replaced the scroll. This change has been called the most important advance in book making before the invention of the printing press.
According to Suetonius, Julius Caesar may have been the first Roman to reduce scrolls to bound pages in the form of a notebook, possibly even as a papyrus codex. The poet Martial mentions the convenience with which such a book can be read on a journey. By the end of the fourth century, codices had almost completely replaced scrolls as the most common format for written material.
Debbie: Why did they write in a continuous line of letters in upper case with no punctuation? Did it make it more challenging to read?
Alison: The interpoint (interpunctus) was used in classical Latin to separate words. Apart from the round form, inscriptions sometimes used a small equilateral triangle, pointing either up or down. The interpoint fell out of use c. AD 200. Latin was then written in scripta continua – with no spaces or punctuation – for several centuries.
Only by knowing the case endings could you hope to read it with any hope of working out the meaning!
Latin was often written down by slave scribes whose role was simply to record everything they heard to create documentation. Because speech is continuous, there was no need to add spaces. Spaces began to be added around the 7th/8th century and by 13th/14th century, most modern European texts contained spaces.
Inscriptions on Roman tombs, arches, buildings and coins that we see today were always in capitals. Lowercase letters developed from cursive versions of these capitals. Old Roman cursive script was the everyday form for writing letters (including love letters and dinner invitations), by merchants writing business accounts, and for any quicker, informal writing. Commonly used from about the 1st century BC to the 3rd century, but it had probably existed earlier. New Roman cursive was in use from the 3rd century to the 7th century with letter forms more recognisable to modern eyes – a, b, d and e had taken a more familiar shape.
Debbie: How many Ancient Romans could read and how did they learn?
Alison: This is a difficult one to pin down. Estimates of the literacy rate in the Empire range from 5% to at least 30%. The state did not provide education so formal education was available only to children from families who could pay for it. For those who did learn, school would be held regularly in a rented space, or in any available public niche, even outdoors. Both boys and girls did receive primary education between ages 7 and 12, but classes were not segregated by grade or age.
Debbie: Were girls and women taught to read too?
Alison: Although some images from Pompeii show women with scrolls, their poses depict them as muses rather than writers. However, some women did write: a Roman relief shows a female bookkeeper working in a butcher’s shop, and writing materials were found in women’s graves almost as frequently as in men’s.
Debbie: Was reading the same popular hobby it is today? What place did reading have in social life?
Alison: Books were expensive, since each copy had to be written individually on a roll of papyrus (volumen) by specialist scribes.
Commercial production of books had been established by the late Republic and by the first century AD certain neighbourhoods in Rome were known for their bookshops (tabernae librariae).
Collectors amassed personal libraries and individual benefactors might endow a community with a library. Pliny the Younger gave the city of Comum a library valued at 1 million sesterces, along with another 100,000 to maintain it. Most major cities in the Roman Empire had public libraries including the famous one in Ephesus.
Ever the opportunist, G. Julius Caesar established books as status symbols. By AD 377 Rome had twenty-eight large libraries where citizens could go and read books free of charge.
Debbie: To what extent did functional literacy aid the expansion and success of the Roman Empire?
Alison: The military needed a vast number of written reports and service records, thus literacy in the army was strikingly high. Widespread urban graffiti, ranging from literary quotations to filthy jokes with misspellings show a basic but general level of literacy. Numeracy was also necessary for any form of commerce from small business to large state enterprises. Slaves were numerate and literate in significant numbers, and some were highly educated.
Latin became the language of conquered areas not because the population was displaced by Latin-speakers nor because was Latin imposed officially.
Local people started speaking Latin out of self-interest as it was the language of government, the Imperial service, and required for any form of advancement.
Debbie: Apart from functional texts such as for legal and political documents, what did the Romans like to read for pleasure?
Alison: Literary texts – plays, poetry, stories, histories – were often shared aloud at meals or with reading groups. Scholars such as Pliny the Elder had works read to them also while they bathed or travelled, times during which they might also dictate drafts or notes to their secretaries.
The reading public expanded from the 1st to the 3rd century, and while those who read for pleasure remained a minority, it was no longer confined to a sophisticated ruling elite.
Illustrated books, including erotica, were popular, but there are very few surviving fragments.
Debbie: Was there any censorship?
Alison: Very much so! To maintain tight control over what people read, government officials selected what appeared on library shelves. Books were seen as dangerous because they spread ideas. At the extreme, the punishment for writing something libellous was death.
The writer Juvenal advised that before you criticised somebody the best thing to do was to wait until they died.
Historians were viewed as being particularly subversive.
Emperor Domitian disapproved of books written by the historian Hermogenes of Tarsus and had him executed. As well as ordering the destruction of all the author’s books, Domitian also had all the copyist slaves killed.
Debbie: The Romans never had the printing press, but how did they influence later developments in reading and writing?
Alison: For printing to prosper, you would need paper, stable ink, a screw press, a system for creating precise matrices and casting lead type, and a system to lock the type. None of these technological tools were developed by the Romans.
But Romans transmitted the discipline of collecting and processing information, the idea of recording and formalising law, they gave Europe a lingua franca, along with a systemic creative framework and a love of reading its output and, of course, the clear Roman type we all know today.
Alison’s afternote: All my heroines read, whether it’s Julia’s love of 4th century poetry, Carina and her movie magazine or Aurelia and her novels.
Debbie: Alison, thank you so much for enlightening us about what the Romans did for reading. Let’s finish by sharing more information about you as an author and about this special 10th anniversary edition of Inceptio.
More about Alison Morton
Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading historical, crime and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Her ten-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue. Inceptio starts the adventure.
Her most recent novel, Julia Prima, is a more traditional historical novel, set in the fourth century AD. Alison lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit.
To find out more about Alison Morton and her books, visit her website: https://alison-morton.com, where you’ll also find all her social media links and a sign-up form for her monthly e-newsletter.
More about Inceptio
“It’s about Roman blood, survival and money. Mostly yours.”
In an alternative New York, Karen Brown is running for her life. She makes a snap decision to flee to Roma Nova – her dead mother’s homeland, the last remnant of the Roman Empire in the 21st century. But can Karen tough it out in such an alien culture? And with a crazy killer determined to terminate her for a very personal reason?
Stifled by the protective cocoon of her Roma Novan family, deceived by her new lover, she propels herself into a dangerous mission. But then the killer sets a trap – she must sacrifice herself for another – and she sees no escape.
A thriller laced with romance and coming of age, this first in series is Roman fiction brought into the 21st century through the lens of alternative history and driven by a female protagonist with heart and courage.
This 10thAnniversary hardback edition includes bonus content: Three character ‘conversations’, two short stories and the story behind INCEPTIO.