Latin Scripts: Classical Antiquity

Overview — Cursives and Capitals

Introduction

 

Roman Cursives: Two varieties of informal script were used in the Roman period: a majuscule script known as Older Roman Cursive (also called Ancient Roman Cursive), which was used at least from the first century BCE through the third century CE, and a minuscule script known to scholars as Later (or New Roman Cursive), which succeeded Older Roman Cursive as the script of Roman imperial administration.

Roman Capitals: Two formal, majuscule scripts are very widely attested in Roman inscriptions, but in books, they survive only for a comparatively small number of very high-grade books. These are Square Capitals and Rustic Capitals. Despite being rare in manuscript in antiquity, these scripts have a very long after-life and huge influence. Both were used as display scripts throughout the Middle Ages, and Square Capitals give us our modern upper-case alphabet.

See the images below to explore and compare these scripts before we discuss them in detail.

Older Roman Cursive

Later Roman Cursive

Square Capitals

Rustic Capitals

Cursives

Roman Cursives

 

Older Roman Cursive: (a.k.a. Ancient Roman Cursive) was in use from at least the first century BCE — probably significantly earlier — through the third century CE. In 367 CE, its use was restricted by decree to the imperial chancery, after which Later Roman Cursive succeeded it as the everyday script of the later Roman Empire. Despite its name, Older Roman Cursive wouldn't immediately strike us as "cursive" — perhaps not even in the technical sense of being written with few lifts of the pen. Older Roman Cursive is called "cursive" because of the impression it gives of being hastily written. It is constructed mostly of individual angular strokes, and has something of the appearance of hen-scratches. In fact, the Roman comic playwright Plautus has a character say, "Surely a hen wrote these letters." 

Note that Older Roman Cursive is classified as a majuscule script: despite the irregular appearance of the lines of writing, the letters are generally the same size as each other, with few ascenders or descenders.

Later Roman Cursive (a.k.a. New Roman Cursive), on the other hand, is recognizably both cursive and minuscule. It is the ultimate ancestor of all subsequent medieval minuscules and, therefore, of our own lower-case alphabet, so its forms are familiar. Ascenders have loops; b looks like the modern lower case b, whereas in Older Roman Cursive it faced backwards, like a d. The g has assumed the minuscule form that will persist through most medieval scripts. The aspect is, in general, upright and loopy. Later Roman Cursive is often not at all easy to read, but once you pick out the individual letterforms, you will realize you are on familiar turf.

Later Roman Cursive was the administrative script of the later Roman Empire, and as such it formed the basis for subsequent scripts in the successor states to Rome all over Europe. (More about this in subsequent lessons.) It was used from the third century through the fifth century, and persisted in various forms into the seventh, by which point it had evolved into distinct local scripts associated with various early medieval kingdoms and monastic centers.

Papyrus: Notice that these examples of ancient cursive scripts are written on papyrus, which was the normal writing support for books in the ancient Mediterranean world. We discussed the characteristics of papyrus in the Paleography Basics lesson. In the next lesson, on Christian Late Antiquity, we will discuss the transition from the papyrus roll (volumen) to the parchment codex in late antiquity.

Capitals

Square Capitals

 

Square Capitals: The most formal of the ancient Roman scripts is based on inscriptional capitals used on monuments in ancient Rome. These are Square Capitals, or, in Latin, Capitalis Quadrata. Square Capitals are a majuscule script. This script is the model for the capital letters in our modern typography, so you should have no trouble in either recognizing it or reading it.

 

The only tricky thing about reading Square Capitals is that ancient manuscripts are written in scriptio continua — without any separation between words. 

If you look at the example above, a late-antique manuscript of Vergil's Aeneid, you'll see almost no difference from our upper-case letters. If you read Latin and want to try reading from this manuscript, you can go on to the Classical Antiquity: Transcription lesson after this one.

(One difference to remember for future lessons is that there is no upper-case U. In Latin, u and v are just different versions of the same letter. Some scripts use one form, some the other. It is not till the very end of the Middle Ages that we see the v-form and the u-form used in the same word. Square Capitals use only the V form. This usage is probably familiar from Roman inscriptions you have seen.)

Note that the aspect of Square Capitals is very regular. This impression comes from the fact that it's a majuscule, with the letters predictably confined between two imaginary lines, but also from the fact that most letters are almost as wide as they are tall. The O is very nearly circular, and its spacious form sets the rhythm for the whole script.

Considering how familiar Square Capitals are from Roman inscriptions, it is a shock to learn that only two manuscripts in Square Capitals survive from antiquity. Both are manuscripts of Vergil from the 4th and 5th century CE. (One is the fragmentary manuscript shown here, and the other is the so-called Vergilius Augusteus, of which one fragment is in the Vatican Library and the other in Berlin.) The extreme rarity of books in this script suggests that it was not in any way an ordinary book script in the ancient world. It is more likely that these late-antique, super-luxury Vergil manuscripts were written in imitation of ancient inscriptional capitals as a way of signifying the status of Vergil in the canon of ancient authors. Note that these manuscripts are contemporary with the comparably high-grade Christian manuscripts of the Bible that we will study in the next unit.

We treat Square Capitals as an ancient script in the history of Latin bookhands because it seems clear that the makers of these manuscripts, as well as subsequent users of Square Capitals, chose this script because of its associations with Golden-Age Roman culture. Even though Square Capitals were probably not really part of the system of scripts in Roman antiquity, they have had an outsized influence on the whole subsequent history of the Roman alphabet. Their presence in our own writing system is evidence of that. Square Capitals were imitated by scribes in the Carolingian period, who were consciously cultivating classical models. The Carolingian scribes used Square Capitals as a display script for titles, headers, and the like, and this script continued to be used for that purpose to the end of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. When Renaissance Humanists looked to Carolingian models for their own revival of Classical book aesthetics, as well as to Roman inscriptions surviving in Italy, they gave Square Capitals new life. The adoption of Humanist scripts in early printing assured that Square Capitals would survive into the modern era.

Square Capitals used as a display script in a 9th-century Carolingian manuscript

Square Capitals used as a display script in a 15th-century Italian manuscript

Rustic Capitals

 

Several of the most famous copies of Vergil's works from the 5th and 6th centuries are in Rustic Capitals, and it is probably significant that only two of the surviving books in Rustic Capitals are copies of the works of Christian authors. The manuscript below is a famous manuscript of Vergil that has recently been digitized by the Vatican Library, the so-called "Vatican Vergil." It is roughly contemporary with the Vergil manuscript in Square Capitals that we looked at above. 

Aspect and letterforms: Compared to Square Capitals, Rustic Capitals have a slender, laterally-compressed appearance. Letters are distinctly taller than they are wide. While Rustic Capitals also appear inscribed in stone in the Roman world, as a bookhand they do not give the impression of having been written in imitation of letters chiseled in stone. All the letters in Rustic Capitals are easily recognizable as our upper-case letters.

Like Square Capitals, Rustic Capitals had a long after-life as a display script in medieval manuscripts. The example of Rustic Capitals below is taken from a 9th-century manuscript in which the capitals serve as a display script. Note that a manuscript written all in Rustic Capitals from late antiquity would not have any separation between words of the sort you can see in this manuscript.

Rustic Capitals used as a display script in a 9th-century Carolingian manuscript

Compare Square and Rustic Capitals

 

Click on the images to zoom in and explore up close, and also consider how a group of lines written in one of these scripts compares to a group of lines written in the other. What clues would you use to tell these scripts apart?

After you've had a chance to study these examples closely, click through to try a quick quiz to see if you can tell one script from the other. 

Square Capitals

Rustic Capitals