6 things you (maybe) didn’t know about how ancient texts were written

latin palaeography, latin manuscript, latin script, learn latin, speak latin, latin texts

Although you probably know that Latin texts were not originally produced in the form we know and read them today (no pocket-format, easily readable printed books you could buy in a bookshop for a few euros; no e-book reader-friendly nor digital editions ready to be consumed, of course), maybe you don’t have in mind how different was, let’s say, the text of Cicero’s orations from the one we think about today.

The history of how – and in which forms – many Latin text took their journey through the centuries before they landed on our bookshelves is very fascinating, long and complicated, as it has undergone many different phases.

Today, however, I just want to point out to you 6 facts that are worth knowing about the way in which Latin texts were written in the antiquity. You will find that some of them are really mind blowing, and they will give you an idea of how arbitrary are, sometimes, the choices of modern editors of ancient texts.

#1 Different kinds of writing supports:

This is perhaps a rather obvious fact, but it is still very relevant: Latin texts were not written into book-like supports, at least not in the beginning. Firstly, they were just short inscriptions engraved on everyday objects (like small vases or other artifacts) or, often, in stone. Afterwards, rolls made of papyrus, a plant growing in Egypt, became the usual means to preserve literary and not literary texts. They are called rolls (volumina in Latin) because one had to unroll them in order to read the text they contained. They could be very long, and thus very uncomfortable to consult (imagine you have to find a particular verse in a poem which is contained in a 20-metres roll!), and also very wasteful, since only one of their two sides could be covered in writing. Then came the codex, the ancestor of our modern books, which was made of a series of big sheets (either made of papyrus or in parchment, which is animal leather treated in a particular way) bent in two and successively bind together. They were much easier to consult, since they were smaller and more manageable than rolls, their pages could be numbered and the text could often be written on both sides of the page.

#2 Scriptio continua:

Separation between words was introduced only very late in the history of writing: still in the 12th century, it was often applied only in a not so systematic way. That means that in the greatest majority of cases, texts engraved in stone or written on rolls and books were written in the so-called scriptio continua “continuous writing”, often without any graphic tool that could help the reader in understanding where a word was beginning, or ending. Because of this, texts were all but easy, fast and comfortable to read, and misreading a word (maybe splitting it in the wrong place) could be very common!

#3 No punctuation:

To make things even more difficult, no punctuation has been used until very late, too. Cicero and Vergil ignored what a point was, or commas or inverted commas; they were only grammarians who, some centuries later, started introducing some forms of punctuation, and still in a very sporadic way, which often differs a lot from our modern way of using it. No capital letters were usually used, either. Therefore, as you can easily imagine, it is not always easy for a philologist who is deciphering a manuscript to determine where a sentence should be ended, or a direct speech started. This is often a matter of his own interpretation…

#4 Capital letters only:

Although we just said that no capital letters were used to mark the beginning of a sentence or proper nouns, things are a bit different if we want to be more precise: as a matter of fact, no lower-case letters were used in the beginning. Everything was written in capital, to the point that the most ancient Roman script is called capital. There is a reason to that: since texts were initially engraved in stone, and then traced on papyrus or parchment by the means of writing tools which were not as sophisticated as ours, cursive writing, with all its round elegant forms, was not a viable option. It was much easier, instead, to use letters that could be traced only by straight, simple tracts.

#5 No difference between U and V:

These two letters have been both traced (and pronounced) as “U”s for centuries, so there wasn’t any specific sign to mark a “V”, either. This was introduced only much later – and there are many editors who still prefer to not differentiate the two letters while printing Latin texts, and many Latin speakers who choose to adopt the pronunciation “u” for both.

#6 Abbreviations:

Just in case that lack of punctuation, scriptio continua and lack of differentiation between lower and upper-case letters was not enough to make things difficult for modern readers of ancient manuscripts and inscriptions (and for ancient readers, too), both on stone and on paper-like supports abbreviations were used. Abbreviations, which have been more or less used depending on different ages and places, consist in not writing down every letter of a particular word, but to “sum up” one or more of them in a specific sign (which is not necessarily the same within different areas, times or scribes!). This was initially made to make it for the lack of space to write in (as on stone or at the end of the page), but then it became just a normal feature of ancient writing. Some of the most common abbreviations are those used for nasal letters (“n” and “m”), which were replaced with a sign placed above the preceding vowel, the well known “&” for “et” (along with many other signs) and “XPS” for “Christ”.

You feel more grateful that you can just open a book and read now, don’t you? I personally love learning about ancient ways of writing (and actually reading) them, and I think that every Latin-learner should have at least a rough idea of how different ancient texts were from the modern ones.

Did you find this interesting, too? Have you discovered something you did not know? Let us know in a comment!