Following the Stylus Manual: Roman everyday writing equipment

A unique inscribed Roman stylus uncovered by MOLA archaeologists during excavations for Bloomberg's European headquarters in London. The inscription has been highlighted in yellow (c) MOLA
Inscribed iron stylus from ca. 70 CE found on the banks of a tributary to the river Thames, London (Image via MOLA).

‘ab urbe v[e]n[i] munus tibi gratum adf(e)ro
acul[eat]um ut habe[a]s memor[ia]m nostra(m)
rogo si fortuna dar[e]t quo possem
largius ut longa via ceu sacculus est (v)acuus’

‘I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift
with a sharp point that you may remember me.
I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able (to give)
as generously as the way is long (and) as my purse is empty.’
(trans. Tomlin 2019)

In 2019, an inscribed iron stilus (“stylus”) used for writing on wax tablets was found on the banks of the Walbrook, a tributary river which used to feed into the Thames in London. The inscription was what we call a titulus loquens (“speaking inscription”) because it addresses the reader directly as if the object is a person in conversation. It seems like such an ordinary object, this Roman souvenir pen, but also captured the magic of quotidian writing; a reminder that not everything has to be a great literary work of Cicero or Sophocles to qualify as worthy of reading.

I reflected on the find this morning, when I saw that epigrapher Anna Willi and her team had published a new open access guide to such implements, the Manual of Roman everyday writing vol. 2: writing equipment (funded by the LatinNow project via the European Research Council). The book is separated into five sections: an introduction, social aspects of literacy and writing, Roman writing techniques and materials, evidence for Roman writing equipment, and then an impressive catalogue of writing equipment.

Bronze statuette of an artisan with silver eyes and a writing tablet tucked in his belt (1stC BCE, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY).

I am looking forward to digging into this book and to marrying it with many of the open access epigraphy handbooks I gathered together a few years back. This manual is also a reminder that teaching epigraphy within the classroom should never divorce the text from the material and also from the physical space, whether that is etched graffiti at Pompeii or a stone epitaph along the Via Appia.

The glossary (A. Willi, Manual of Roman everyday writing vol. 2: writing equipment, 2021: 106-107).

The study of epigraphy and the materiality of writing in the ancient world is becoming ever more accessible. And it is notable that one of the most significant things about this new publication is not the writing utensils or inkwells discussed within, but rather the mode of publication. The OA initiative provides a “how to” for self publication that encourages authors to seize the digital stylus on their own following their steps:

1. Certification with the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB) and the creation of a transparent peer review workflow and board.
2. Purchasing an ISBN Number
3. Preserving your data and the formatted publication into perpetuity (they have chosen GitHub and Zenodo, though uploading it to the Internet Archive is also helpful).

Three cheers for this new and free addition to the field, which will be sure to be helpful to beginners, but perhaps will be most helpful as a pedagogical tool for those hoping to connect students to the material culture of literacy in Roman antiquity.

A togate man holding a wax tablet and proclaiming  A saeculare bene dicte pie z(eses) (“Blessed for all generations, drink, may you live!”) (Vatican Museums, Vatican City, photo by Sarah E. Bond).

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