Writing and Language

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Writing and Language


Necessity. Communication in the Roman empire was expensive, slow, unreliable, and yet, utterly crucial. Emperors, generals, soldiers, tax collectors, priests, businessmen, and women, and any other kind of traveler, had to send and receive information in order to function and survive. An accurate knowledge of events was necessary to preserve order at all levels of society: news of a military victory or failure would affect the subsequent decisions of an army on campaign; the yield of an individual’s farm in an unpredictable season would affect his credit, either positively or negatively, in commercial transactions abroad; the political maneuvering of a provincial magnate would have to be reported with accuracy to his rival elsewhere; a matter of law that had been settled by the emperor would have to be made known to all residents of the empire. Written documents were needed to carry information into the future, as well: the marriage of a relative, divorce of a spouse, birth of a child, manumission of a slave, conviction for a crime, acquittal from a charge, all of which could alter an individual’s status or testament, would have to be recorded in an organized and verifiable way. Communication, broadly defined in all its styles and ranges of effectiveness, across space and time, affected millions of lives. Yet, in the diverse world of ancient Rome, one had to deal with dozens of competing languages, varying degrees of literacy, the high cost of writing materials, and irregularities in the physical delivery of messages. A mastery of communication was an indispensable key to success, yet it did not come easily.

Materials for Writing. Written communication, in all its forms, was a costly undertaking. The closest equivalent to use of paper was the papyrus (plural, papyri), which was made from the Egyptian plant of the same name. The papyrus plant was a reed that grew along the Nile, whose stalks, when cut and layered in crisscross patterns on top of each other, would dry into stiff, yet pliable, sheets. A quill dipped in ink was the primary writing utensil. Given the proper conditions of dryness and heat, documents on papyrus could and did last for thousands of years; archaeologists have found large numbers of papyri in excavations throughout Egypt. The method was widespread, but it was not cheap; the cost of single sheet of quality papyrus was nearly the same as that of a daily wage for an unskilled worker. An alternate means of writing—one that was recyclable and thus more cost-effective—was on shallow wooden tablets that held a thin layer of wax. The writer could carve letters into the wax with a stylus and later erase them by heating the tablet slightly. Still cheaper was writing on broken pieces of pottery called ostraka, although this method was unwieldy. The most-expensive and least-portable forms of writing were carving on stone and painting on walls, yet these methods had the benefit of permanence.

Literacy. Writing was everywhere in the Roman world. On just the briefest of excursions through the ruins of Pompeii (a town buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E.), one is surrounded by honorary inscriptions, public edicts, campaign posters, price lists, and graffiti. Writing is in evidence for all contexts—social, political, diplomatic, and so forth—and for all levels of society. The ubiquity of the written word, however, belies the modern understanding

of literacy rates of the time. Education in reading and writing was limited only to those who could afford formal tutors or who had the time and devotion to learn it on their own. For those who could not write, a hired scribe or an educated slave could lend assistance. Papyri from Roman Egypt, which record contracts of marriage, trade, and other types of transactions, frequently are signed on another’s behalf, when the person was unable to make out its meaning on his or her own. For those who could write, their knowledge was something to brag about; some portraits from various parts of the Roman world, both painted and sculpted, show the sitter with tablet and stylus in hand, demonstrating their possession of this highly valuable skill.

Latin and Greek. As opposed to reading and writing, spoken communication, of course, was universal, yet it was, at times, no less complicated. The principal languages of the empire were Latin and Greek, the former being dominant in the West and within the Roman army; the latter being prominent in the discourse of literary artists and intellectuals and in the East, where Alexander the Great had transported Greek culture before Rome came on to the scene. Remnants of the Latin language in western Europe demonstrate its inertia: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian—called the Romance Languages because of their link to the Romans—are all directly descended from Latin. Many Romans, however, particularly of the ruling elite, would have been fluent in both Latin and Greek, and provincials who had not been reared speaking either of these languages would have striven to learn them if they had ambitions to rise in the empire in any field of endeavor—commerce, politics, or the arts.

Bilingualism. Other languages besides Latin and Greek continued to be spoken long after the arrival of the Romans. As an imperial power, Rome thrived in part because of its willingness to let provincial communities retain many aspects of their culture, language included. Archaeologists have found thousands of Roman-era inscriptions and papyri from around the Mediterranean that demonstrate the wide variety of languages: Punic in Carthage, Demotic in Egypt, Aramaic in Palestine, and so forth. Authors who wanted to direct their messages at as many people as possible might write the same text in more than one language; bilingual inscriptions have been found throughout the empire. Interpreters were valuable to Roman armies as they negotiated with natives or sought intelligence from deserters and hostages from the other side. Some leaders understood the value of being able to communicate freely with others in their native tongue and the honor it paid to their conversers: Cleopatra reportedly spoke seven languages and was the first Hellenistic monarch of Egypt to learn the local dialect.


Roger S. Bagnall, Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History (London & New York: Routledge, 1995).

Raffaella Cribiore, Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).

William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).