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The earliest extant Greco-Roman letterforms did not have serifs – they were monoline and frequently rather light in weight, and the lack of variation in the weight of the main strokes continued well after serifs had made their ﬁrst appearance. Contrast between thick and thin strokes came later. The Golden Bowl shown below is from the mid to late seventh century bc. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Unfortunately, early evidence of Roman letterforms is scant.We have only a handful of inscriptions that were made prior to 300 bc. One of them, part of the Castor & Pollux inscription from the 6th century bc is shown below. It is in the Museo Nazionale Romano.
The ﬁrst known serifs in the Greco-Roman tradition appear at the end of the 4th century bc on inscriptions from Priene, one of the Greek colonies on an island close to Turkey. The Greek example shown below is from the 3rd century bc. Stanley Morison conjectures in Politics and Script that the serifs were borrowed from Persian cuneiform (cuneiform means “wedge-shaped”).
Persian culture was perceived to be older and richer, and was greatly admired by Alexander the Great. The example of Persian cuneiform shown below, 6–4th century bc, is from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Romans serifs came later and were copied from the Greeks in the second century bc. The following example of a bilingual Latin and Greek inscription is from 112 bc, shown in Politics and Script.
The use of serifs on monoline Roman forms continued into the 1st century bc until thick and thin contrast in the main strokes was introduced. The two blocks of stone seen below show an inscription on the oldest bridge in Rome the Pons Fabricius, built in 62 bc. The two blocks are clearly distinguished by their color and by the damage to the one on the right. They are also distinguishable by the letterforms used. Those on the left are newer. They evidently had been recut after a serious ﬂood of the Tiber, most likely the one that occured in 44 bc. They have thicks and thins with serifs and are much more crisply cut than the letterforms on the right which are the older style, monoline with serifs from about 62 bc.
We know very little about the artisans, including scribes, who worked in Rome during the 1st century bc and the 1st and 2nd centuries after Christ. However, we do know that many were likely either slaves, freedmen or freedwomen. The highest status occupation for a slave was that of scribe.
The slaves of aristocrats were often people who had been aristocrats in one of the city-states that Rome had conquered. These slaves, especially those from Greece, may have been quite sophisticated and well educated. Cicero’s slave Tiro was an example. He was responsible for writing down Cicero's prodigious written output. To help him accomplish this task he invented a system of shorthand known as Tironian notes which originally contained over 4,000 signs. The system was extended in medieval times by an additional 1,300 signs and there is evidence of its use up until the 17th century.
In 46 bc Julius Caesar brought Cleopatra to Rome. She traveled with a large retinue. This precipitated a fad in Rome for Egyptian culture. The Egyptians had a long history of writing with an edged brush/pen which naturally produces a thick to thin contrast in the main strokes when it is held at a constant angle as can be seen in the Egyptian hieratic manuscript below dating from 1800 bc.
A similar tool was used to write the letters used for the early Roman manscript shown below, the Geissen Papyrus, from the second half of the ﬁrst century bc. These letterforms are less formal than the high level inscriptional forms of the same period, but they are clearly written with an edged tool.
An edged brush was used to write the election poster shown below on a wall in Pompeii in ad 79.
The large letterforms in this wall writing have forms that are similar in many ways to those used in the most sophisticated Roman inscriptions of the same period. They are somewhat less formal, but they have a similar gradation and contrast between thick and thin parts and the same kind of serifs on the bottoms of A, I, R, and T.
This is support for the theory proposed by Edward Catich in The Origin of the Serif. He made a thorough, careful examination of the letters used in the inscription on Trajan’s column constructed in ad 113-114. Catich had trained as a sign painter as a young man, and recognized that the letters of the inscription must have been laid out with a chisel shaped brush much like the one he had learned to use.
Could the highly skilled craftspeople who wrote and cut the ﬁrst letters in the new elegant style have come with Cleopatra's retinue? The difference in elegance and sophistication between the old and the new is striking as can be seen on the Pons Fabricius.
These new forms came to characterize the Imperial era, and they lasted in their subtle, sophisticated form with remarkably little variation for over 200 years. A rubbing by Edward Catich of the inscription on Trajan’s column is shown below. It is now in the Harrison Collection at the San Francisco Public Library, donated by Don Moy, one of Catich's students.
As mentioned at the beginning of the blog, the oldest Roman letterforms did not have either serifs or thick and thin strokes. They were monoline. Typographic sans serifs are a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the early 19th century. The use of sans serifs grew steadily during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the late twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst have witnessed a dramatic increase in the use of the sans. Serifs enjoyed a long, successful career, and only in the 19th century was the sans reborn to assert itself in the mainstream after lying dormant for many hundreds of years.
Whether the individual strokes in a particular style of letterforms have a marked contrast between thick and thin is at least as important as the presence or lack of serifs, but contrast is not a primary consideration in classifying typefaces. When I went to school, there were two kingdoms in biology – plants and animals. In typography the current kingdoms are serif and sans. In biology the classiﬁcation system has become more elaborate. Perhaps we need to pursue a similar strategy for the classiﬁcation of typefaces.
As mentioned earlier, the seriﬂess letter was the ﬁrst form to appear in the Roman tradition. It came from the Greek writing that was being used in the colonies of Southern Italy and Sicily, and it lasted for several hundred years. The water basin with bronze inliad letters shown below is from the early 2nd or late 3rd century bc. It is one of the earliest examples of this form of inlaid inscription. MNR, Epigraphic Museum.
Multiple coexisting mainstream styles, used for different purposes, have been present in previous eras. For example, starting in 15th century Italy, blackletter and roman existed side by side, blackletter used primarily for ecclesiastical texts, and roman for the revival of ancient Latin literature and Humanist writings. This was also true during the time when the Trajan letters were made. The earlier unseriffed, monoline forms continued to be used at the same time that the Imperial forms became popular. The image below is a stamp used for branding bricks during Trajan’s era. Plotina, Trajan’s wife, owned a brick factory and hired a woman, Valeria Nice, to be its manager. The bricks were stamped with a “logo” like the one shown below.
Magma Bold Condensed
The bold, condensed letterforms on the stamp shown above have only hints of serifs. The strokes tend to swell at the ends. There are numerous examples of this style in the stamps used for tiles, bricks, and other ceramic products made in Rome during the ﬁrst and second centuries ad. In 2016, there are stamps on display in the Capitoline Museum, the Epigraphic Musem at the Baths of Diocletian, and in the exhibition Made in Roma at the Museum at Trajan's Markets.
The swelling stems on much lighter letterforms also occur several centuries earlier in Greek inscriptions and again in Tuscany during the 15th century. Hermann Zapf's Optima is based on these Tuscan letterforms.
Catich, Edward, The Trajan Inscription in Rome, The Catﬁsh Press, 1961, and
The Origin of the Serif, The Catﬁsh Press, 1968, 1991.
Gordon, Arthur and Joyce, Album of Dated Latin Inscriptions, University of
California Press, 3 Volumes, 1958 – 1966.
Morison, Stanley, Politics and Script, 1972.
Alfano, Carla, “Egyptian Influences in Italy”, in Cleopatra of Egypt, Princeton
University Press, 2001.
La Naissance de L’ecriture, Édition de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1982.
La Collezione Epigraﬁca, Terme di Diocleziano, Electa, 2016.
Made in Roma, Gangemi Editore, 2016.
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