Writing Instruments and Materials

As an exceptionally literate and literary people, the Romans relied on a wide variety of writing materials and instruments. There were two chief means of writing: pen and ink on parchment and papyrus or by a stylus on a waxed tablet.

The stylus (pl. styli) was made of bronze, bone, or iron, with a sharpened, pointed end for writing. The other end was flattened to serve as a counter weight, but it had the added practical value of serving to smooth out the excess wax that developed in the process of scratching the waxed tablet. Styli were often decorated. The pen for writing upon parchment of papyrus was a type of pen made of reed or bronze.

The tip of the pen had a split nub. Ink was made of a mixture of carbon black, gum, and water. It was held in inkpots made of samian, bronze, and other pottery forms. They were crafted with a hidden lip to prevent easy spills and a small hole in the top where the pen could be dipped with ease.

The two main writing materials were papyrus and vellum. Papyrus was certainly the most common writing material in the ancient world, originating in Egypt and eventually adopted by the Romans around the third century B.C.E.

Made from the pith of a water plant that grew along the banks of the Nile, papyrus was sold in rolls of 33 feet. Typical papyrus sheets were about 16 inches wide and 9 inches high.

Vellum (vellus, from skin or hide) was made from the skins of cattle, goats, and sheep that was scraped, rubbed with pumice, and then finished with alum. It was later termed parchment, from the city of Pergamum, which was the best-known center of vellum manufacturing. Over time, vellum, or parchment, replaced papyrus as the writing material of choice.

To use, the papyrus roll (volumen) was unrolled from the right and rolled up from the left. Once the scroll had been used, it was then rewound. Sometimes, the end of the scroll was attached to a wooden roller (umbilicus) with knobs.

It was customary for the title of a book or document to be placed at the end of the scroll, as this was the part that was least exposed on a regular basis and was most likely to survive the passage of time.

Scrolls housed in libraries were organized into pigeon holes and were identified by a hanging label, the titulus (pl. tituli). Additionally , important scrolls were rendered official by the attachment of imperial or other types of seals.

One of the most common ways of protecting seals for perpetuity was to enclose them in seal boxes, normally made of bronze. The box had a hinged lid, and wax was poured into the depression of the box. The wax was then stamped by means of an official seal or by a seal ring.

Along with scrolls, papyrus and parchment were used in book form. Called a codex, it dates from around the first century C.E. and was made from eight folded sheets of papyrus or parchment, creating a “book” of 16 pages.

The pages were then stitched together at the spine and bound between wooden boards. Slowly growing into popular usage, the codex replaced the scroll in the fourth century .

Important documents, such as business transactions, were written and preserved on waxed tablets. Normally, such a tablet was a recessed piece of wood filled with beeswax.

Each tablet was then bound into a set by leather thongs or rings threaded through hinge holes in the outer edge. Two tablets bound together formed a diptych; three bound tablets formed a triptych, creating four or six pages of writing space.

The first or outer page was left unwaxed; pages two and three were waxed; page four was either waxed or plain, and sometimes there was a groove down the middle of the page; page five was waxed and always contained a summary of the information on the other pages; page six was plain.

Page four was used for the placement of signatures by witnesses, written either in ink or inscribed in wax. Seal impressions were then added into the groove running the length of the page. Writing was inscribed in the wax by use of a stylus.


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