Latin Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by A. M. Piazzoni]


The first written testimonies in Latin characters date back to the 7th to the 8th century BC. There are several hypotheses about its origins, which have been traced to the two cultures that already possessed advanced alphabetic writings, and which had territory bordering with that of Rome (founded in the middle of the 8th century BC): the Etruscan civilization to the north and the Greek civilization to the south. The Latin world certainly was influenced by both cultures. The Etruscan cities, like Cerveteri, which at the time were much richer and more powerful than the newborn Rome, were not farther than a couple of days’ walk, and the Greek cities such as Cuma were present and close to the Tyrrhenian sea. Currently the most well-grounded thesis is that which attributes the origin of the Latin script to the Etruscan civilization, but the origin of Etruscan writing still remains quite undetermined (from the Phoenicians? from the Greeks?), and a derivation composed of both Etruscan and Greek has not yet been excluded.

3.1. The first examples

The earliest indication of a piece of writing in Latin characters is that found on hard objects and dates back to a time before the use of books in papyrus rolls. The dating for each of these objects is difficult and debated; the following list includes the main examples.

The Fibula prenestina

The fibula prenestina is dated to about the end of the 7th century BC; it is a masculine jewel, a golden brooch, and presents writing that is oriented from right to left (today in Rome, Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico Pigorini). Some scholars doubt that the language of the inscription is Latin (but it is probably a “provincial” Latin).

The stone of lapis niger

The stone of lapis niger located in the Roman Forum, is dated to the middle of the 6th century BC, and is a memorial stone with a brief text (oriented vertically) in bustrophedic writing (that is, the line goes from left to right, and the next from right to left, just as an ox [bos] while it plows a field).

The tablet of Lavinium also dated between the middle and the end of the 6th century BC, is a metal tablet that contains a dedication to Castor and Pollux, and is written with writing that goes from right to left (today in Rome, at the Museo Nazionale Romano).

The kernos of Duenos, dated according to various hypotheses between the 7th and 5th centuries BC, is a small ceramic object, a trio of small globular vases adjoined by three clay struts, with a graffito inscription that goes from right to left (today in Berlin, at the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Antiken Abteilung).

The Stone of Satricum, dated to the beginning of the 5th century BC, is a block of tufaceous stone bearing an inscription that goes from left to right (today in Rome, Royal Dutch Institute).

3.2. The first latin alphabet

On the basis of these examples, we have succeeded in reconstructing what turns out to be an uppercase script of 21 letters (to which other letters were later added by Greek influence: the G in the 3rd century BC, the Y and the Z in the 1st century AD). It is very important because it constitutes the original form of all Latin writings, ancient, medieval and modern.

Reconstruction of ancient Latin alphabet

The following letters are particularly characteristic to note:

  • A with oblique cross-stroke;
  • E and F with cross-strokes that are not placed at a right angle and with prolonged headstroke;
  • H closed at the top and the bottom;
  • K with smaller shafts detached;
  • L at an acute angle;
  • M and N with the second and third strokes of smaller dimensions;
  • P open;
  • Q with vertical shaft;
  • R in the form of the Greek ro;
  • S at an angle;
  • V in the shape of Y;
  • X in the form of +.

3.2. Subsequent stages: epigraphy and private writing

The successive stages of archaic writing moved in the direction of a “graphic normalization”, that is, towards a more regular and stable writing, with two very distinct results: the epigraphic capital and the cursive capital.

EPIGRAPHIC CAPITAL: a script used especially in the public sphere, which stabilized in the second half of the 3rd century BC and was developed further afterward. The texts were written on stones usually on display to the public, with a very regular, well-aligned, and uniform writing (both in size and in the forms of the characters). It was almost geometric (in general it has right angles and the curves are sections of a circle). This type of writing was heavily influenced by the way in which it was made. The pieces of writing were in fact designed by an ordinator with a brush and then carried out by a stone-cutter who engraved the stone with a hammer and chisel. The result is a perfectly legible text, with elegant and harmonious shapes. Ancient examples include some funerary epigraphs of the Scipiones; among the most distinguished examples is the epigraph at the base of Trajan’s Column (from the 2nd century AD). The term “capital” is of medieval origin and was coined at the time when these characters were used especially for the capita, i.e. the beginning of chapters.

Corsiva epigrafica romana.jpg
Some letters (in order A, E, F, O, R) from cursive capital

CURSIVE CAPITAL: a script for private use, developed in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC from the same archaic alphabet, but with a very different outcome. The way in which it was produced likewise had a significant effect on its outcome. When writing on hard materials (such as a wooden board) and using an engraving tool (which is called “by graffito”), the horizontal and curved sections are very difficult to trace. This is why the various letters appear to be disjointed.

On the other hand, when writing on soft materials (such as wooden tablets with wax or papyrus) and with a calamus, rapid writing is generally produced, which ends up changing the shape of the letters, for example, joining two lines (originally made in two moments) in one stroke.

P. Hawara inv. 24.jpg
E.g. from papyrus Hawara 24 (London, University College): il verso trascritto come esercizio di scrittura è Verg. Aen. II, 601 ("non tibi Tyndaridis facies [invisa Lacaenae]"). To note the shape of B and D with the bulge to left side

Cursive Capital on papyrus, which was not used for book production, spread increasingly between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. It was used not only for private writing but became the script used in the documents of the civil and military public administration of the Roman Empire.