Early Evolution of Roman Letters 1
Roman capital letters are monumental in two senses. They were frequently inscribed on monuments. And, they are large and formal, bestowing importance on words and dates cut into the stone. Roman capitals are elegant, commanding attention and respect. This “typographic attitude” was suitable for graphic communication intended to last for millennia; it was less appropriate for everyday communication that included business records, technical documentation, literature, social correspondence, and even shopping lists. All of these documents were as much a part of ancient Roman culture as they are of ours. Over several centuries, Roman inscription letterforms evolved to better serve these other, less epic, purposes.
Easier Writing Styles
Stonecutters carved the inscriptions on monuments using metal tools, after having drawn the letters on the stone with a writing utensil. Scribes were specialists who wrote by hand all manner of documents on papyrus or other, less durable writing surfaces, to produce ephemeral graphic communication. Their handwriting tools gave them more freedom and flexibility than cutting in stone, and new suites of letterforms began to emerge. Today, scholars are still uncertain whether the scribes gradually adapted inscriptional capitals to their needs or whether they created completely new writing styles based on practical considerations. Over time, three distinct styles of handwriting – or hands as they are called – emerged to replace formal capitals in everyday graphic communication. These styles came to be known as square capitals, rustic capitals and Roman cursive.
Square capitals are generally considered by typographic historians as attempts to approximate inscriptional letters. This writing style was used almost exclusively to produce the most formal books and documents. These letters definitely embody gravitas: the precision and regularity of their form shows that they were drawn slowly and carefully. Nonetheless, they were written more quickly, with a more flowing hand, than was possible in stone. As a result, square capitals, although they were patterned after the capital letterforms, differed from the inscriptional form on monuments.
Square capitals were wide, taking up a lot of space on a page or scroll. Patrons who used scribes realized that they could appropriately reduce the cost of producing certain, less important books and documents if the writing were done in a letterform that was narrower (thus saving space) and simpler to draw (thus saving time). The ultimate result was what has come to be known as rustic (or “simple”) capitals.
The word cursive means “running” in Latin, and the Roman cursive form enabled the writer to keep the pen running along the writing surface. This was ideal for recording business transactions, bookkeeping, correspondence and similar uses. Roman cursive was the ordinary business and correspondence hand of the Romans until approximately AD 500. Since the writings were not usually intended to be permanent, the letters were often scratched in tablets of wax, clay or masonry, or written on papyrus. Sometimes they were so carelessly recorded that the result illegible to anyone other than the writer. Still, the very speed and casual manner in which these letters were written led to the present forms of many of our lowercase letters.
An important aspect of the Roman cursive hand was that evolved into the creation of ascending and descending parts on some of the letters. This probably came about because it is easier to make longer stems when writing quickly, than to draw the precise short ones used in more slowly written formal documents. Although the scribes were unaware of it at the time, the ascenders and descenders they incorporated into this more casual writing style helped create a major differentiator from capital letterforms.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.