Life In The Roman Empire : Books And Writing

Girl with a stylus and writing block. Wall painting from Pompeii, 1st century AD. This lovely image of a reflective young women is often called Sappho, after the famous Greek poet, althought she is equally likely to have been a bright young Pompeian with literary leanings.
Girl with a stylus and writing block. Wall painting from Pompeii, 1st century AD. This lovely image of a reflective young women is often called Sappho, after the famous Greek poet, althought she is equally likely to have been a bright young Pompeian with literary leanings.

Latin, the language of the Romans, was originally spoken only in the small region of Central Italy known as Latium. It might well have been displaced by geographically more widespread Italian tongues such as Oscan and Umbrian, but Roman conquests made it the received speech of the peninsula, and ultimately of most wealthy or educated people all over a vast empire.

Writing began in the 7th century BC, when the Latin alphabet was devised as an adaptation of the Greek letters used by the Romans Etruscan neighbours. The earliest known written Latin is on the Lapis Niger, an inscriped block of stone, found in the Forum Romanum, that probably dates from the early 6th century BC. There is no way of establishing how many Romans became literate, but written records, orders and transactions were vital to the efficient running of the Empire, while poems, plays, political and philosophical reflections, letters, prayers and graffiti provided outlets for vivid self-expression that often bring the Romans very close to us.

Commemorative inscriptions and some official decrees appeard on stone or bronze, but a variety of materials were available for other purposes. A wooden tablet with a coating of wax was particularly useful for temporary personal memoranda and school work; the metal or wooden stylus that scratched letters into the wax had a flat  top that could be employed for corrections or to erase all the written content so that the tablet could be used again. However, occasion this unstable medium also seems to have served for quite important documents.

Letters and other personal statement could be written with pen and ink on thin sheets of wood. Pens were made of metal, or sharpened reeds of feathers; Roman ink, variously mixing soot, resin and cuttlefish ink, was surprisingly black and durable, as surviving documents have shown. Those who could afford it bought a much less cumbersome, paper-like material made from the papyrus reed (an Egyptian invention from which the word paper is actually derived). This was also used for Roman books, which took the form of long papyrus scrolls. A book, or part-book, was called a volumen, or roll (the origin of the English word volume); the reader held it in both hands, simultaneously rolling and unrolling it so that the text was progressively revealed. Under the Empire, parchment and and vellum (made from hides) were also used as writing surfaces, and the book with pages, or codex, began to be made, but surprisingly it never replaced the much clumsier roll.

Roman interest in books only became intense under the influence of Greek culture in the 2nd century BC, when libraries were part of the booty brought back from the East by Sulla and other successful generals. An influx of well-educated Greek slaves facilitated the development of the book trade in Rome, where something resembling mass production was achieved by booksellers whose slaves wrote out copies of texts dictated by one of their number. The influence of ardent collectors such as Cicero helped to create a fashion for possessing a private library, and booksellers flourished in the capital and ultimately in most parts of the Empire, advertising the latest authors on the pillars outside their shops. The first public library in Rome was founded during the reign of Augustus by the retired politician-poet Gaius Asinius Pollio, and within a century there were over 20, some of which allowed members to take out books for private reading. Authors were paid an outright fee for their works, and even the most famous were unable to live on their literary income. Martial for example, complained that in spite of being read even on the Danube and in Britain, his work brought him little profit. The bookseller-publisher could not afford to be generous, since there was no copyright law and consequently he could never acquire exclusive rights to any publication. As soon as he put a work on sale, a rival bookseller could acquire a copy, put his own scribes to work on it, and publish his own edition. Impecunious authors were therefore dependent on the generosity of one or more patrons and as Martial lamented, there was not a Maecenas in every generation.

Writing materials used by Romas at various times. The hinged book was filled with wax (shown here as a separate item in ready to melt block form), which when hard could be written on with the elegant stylus; pen and inkpot are to hand for more durable writing, along with a lighted lamp, a spare wick and a seal.
Writing materials used by Romas at various times. The hinged book was filled with wax (shown here as a separate item in ready to melt block form), which when hard could be written on with the elegant stylus; pen and inkpot are to hand for more durable writing, along with a lighted lamp, a spare wick and a seal.

Source: Nathaniel Harris : History Of Ancient Rome

Brass sestertius of Nero

Roman, AD 64-66 ,Minted in Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France).

Pax Romana, the Roman Peace.

The emperor Nero is mostly remembered as the tyrannical emperor who played on his lyre while Rome burned around him. He saw himself as a great artist, musician, and military victor. To celebrate the universal peace of his reign, he ordered the gates of the Temple of Janus in the Forum in Rome to be closed. This only happened when the Roman armies were not at war anywhere in the empire.

The back of this coin celebrates this event. The building shown is the Temple of Janus with doors closed. The legend around the edge reads: ‘He has closed Janus, because peace has been won for the People of Rome on land and sea.’ For the warlike Romans, peace was won through conquest, not concord. Universal peace meant that the Romans were everywhere victorious, not that they had made peace with their enemies.

Janus was a god with two faces who looked in two directions. The first month of the Roman year, January, was named after him as it too looked in two directions – back to the old year and forward to the new.

Source : British Museum


Aspendos, Turkey

Aspendos or Aspendus (Greek Άσπενδος) was an ancient Greco-Roman city in Antalya province of Turkey. It is located 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) northeast of central Serik.


Aspendus was an ancient city in Pamphylia, Asia Minor, located about 40 km east of  the modern city of Antalya, Turkey. It was situated on the Eurymedon River about 16 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea; it shared a border with, and was hostile to, Side. According to later tradition, the (originally non-Greek) city was founded around 1000 BC by Greeks who may have come from Argos. The wide range of its coinage throughout the ancient world indicates that, in the 5th century BC, Aspendus had become the most important city in Pamphylia. At that time the Eurymedon River was navigable as far as Aspendus, and the city derived great wealth from a trade in salt, oil, and wool.

Aspendos did not play an important role in antiquity as a political force. Its political history during the colonization period corresponded to the currents of the Pamphylian region. Within this trend, after the colonial period, it remained for a time under Lycian hegemony. In 546 B.C. it came under Persian domination. The face that the city continued to mint coins in its own name, however, indicates that it had a great deal of freedom even under the Persians.

In 467 B.C. the statesman and military commander Cimon, and his fleet of 200 ships, destroyed the Persian navy based at the mouth of the river Eurymedon in a surprise attack. In order to crush to Persian land forces, he tricked the Persians by sending his best fighters to shore wearing the garments of the hostages he had seized earlier. When they saw these men, the Persians thought that they were compatriots freed by the enemy and arranged festivities in celebration. Taking advantage of this, Cimon landed and annihilated the Persians. Aspendos then became a member of the Attic-Delos Maritime league.

The Persians captured the city again in 411 B.C. and used it as a base. In 389 B.C. the commander of Athens, in an effort to regain some of the prestige that city had lost in the Peloponnesian Wars, anchored off the coast of Aspendos in an effort to secure its surrender. Hoping to avoid a new war, the people of Aspendos collected money among themselves and gave it to the commander, entreating him to retreat without causing any damage. Even though he took the money, he had his men trample all the crops in the fields. Enraged, the Aspendians stabbed and killed the Athenian commander in his tent.

When Alexander the Great marched into Aspendos in 333 B.C. after capturing Perge, the citizens sent envoys to him to request that he would not establish that he be given the taxes and horses that they had formerly paid as tribute to the Persian king. After reaching this agreement. Alexander went to Side, leaving a garrison there on the city’s surrender. Going back through Sillyon, he learned that the Aspendians had failed to ratify the agreement their envoys had proposed and were preparing to defend themselves. Alexander marched to the city immediately. When they saw Alexander returning with his troops, the Aspendians, who had retreated to their acropolis, again sent envoys to sue for peace. This time, however, they had to agree to very harsh terms; a Macedonian garrison would remain in the city and 100 gold talents as well as 4.000 horses would be given in tax annually.

In 190 BC the city surrendered to the Romans, who later pillaged it of its artistic treasures.Toward the end of the Roman period the city began a decline that continued throughout Byzantine times.

Roman structures

The Roman theatre in Aspendos.

Aspendos is known for having the best-preserved theatre of antiquity. With a diametre of 96 metres (315 ft), the theatre provided seating for 7,000.

The theatre was built in 155 by the Greek architect Zenon, a native of the city, during the rule of Marcus Aurelius. It was periodically repaired by the Seljuqs, who used it as a caravansary, and in the 13th century the stage building was converted into a palace by the Seljuqs of Rum.

In order to keep with Hellenistic traditions, a small part of the theatre was built so that it leaned against the hill where the Citadel (Acropolis) stood, while the remainder was built on vaulted arches. The high stage served to seemingly isolate the audience from the rest of the world. The scaenae frons or backdrop, has remained intact. The 8.1 metre (27 ft) sloping reflective wooden ceiling over the stage has been lost over time. Post holes for 58 masts are found in the upper level of the theatre. These masts supported a velarium or awning that could be pulled over the audience to provide shade.

Until recently the theatre was still in use for concerts, festivals and events. Due to some damage caused by fitting modern theatrical equipment during these events the Turkish authorities have suspended further shows. A new modern facility known as Aspendos Arena has been constructed nearby to continue the tradition of open air theatre in Aspendos.

Nearby stand the remains of a basilica, agora, nymphaeum and 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) of a Roman aqueduct. The Roman Eurymedon Bridge, reconstructed in the 13th century, is also in the vicinity.

The Basilica.


Aspendos was one of the earliest cities to mint coins. It began issuing coinage around 500 BC, first staters and later drachmas; “the hoplite on the obverse represents the soldiery for which Aspendus was famous in antiquity,” the reverse frequently depicts a triskelion. The legend appears on early coins as the abbreviation ΕΣ or ΕΣΤϜΕ; later coinage has ΕΣΤϜΕΔΙΙΥΣ, the adjective from ΕΣΤϜΕΔΥΣ (Estwedus), which was the name of the city in the local Pamphylian language. The city’s numismatic history extends from archaic Greek to late Roman times.

Source: Wikipedia


This is the most magnificent structure in Ephesus ancient city. The Great Theatre is located on the slope of Panayir Hill, opposite the Harbor Street, and easily seen when entering from the south entrance to Ephesus. It was first constructed in the Hellenistic Period, in the third century BC during the reign of Lysimachos, but then during the Roman Period, it was enlarged and formed its current style that is seen today.

It is the largest in Anatolia and has the capacity of 25,000 seats. The cavea has sixty six rows of seats, divided by two diazoma (walkway between seats) into three horizontal sections. There are three sections of seats. In the lower section, Marble pieces, used for restoration, and the Emperor’s Box were found. The seats with backs ,made of marble, were reserved for important people. The audience entered from the upper cavea.

The stage building is three-storied and 18 meters high. The facade facing the audience was ornamented with relieves, columns with niches, windows and statues. There are five doors opening to the orchestra area, the middle one of which is wider than the rest. This enhanced the appearance of the stage, giving it a bigger, monumental look.

The theatre was used not only for concerts and plays, but also for religious, political and philosophical discussions and for gladiator and animal fights.


Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius. British Museum, London.

Marcus Aurelius (c. A.D. 121 – 180) was a Roman Emperor (the last of the “Five Good Emperors”) and philosopher of the Roman period. He is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers.

Although, perhaps not a first-rank or original philosopher, his “Meditations” remain revered as a literary monument and as a succinct statement of Stoic philosophy. Looked at as a series of practical philosophical exercises intended to digest and put into practice philosophical theory, his works have had a profound influence over the centuries.

Marcus Aurelius was born on 26 April A.D. 121 in Rome (originally named Marcus Annius Catilius Severus at birth). His father was Marcus Annius Verus (of Spanish origin, served as a praetor and died when Marcus was just three years old); his mother was Domitia Lucilla (from a wealthy family of consular rank). He had no brothers and just one sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, who was about two years younger than he. After his father’s death, Marcus Aurelius was adopted and raised by his mother and paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus.

He had several family connections to various Roman emperors, mainly on his father’s side, and he had already attracted the attention of the ruling Emperor Hadrian as a young boy. He was made a member of the equestrian order when he was six. When Hadrian’s first adopted son died young, he adopted Anoninus Pius as his son and successor, on the precondition that Antoninus would in turn adopt both Marcus Aurelius (then called Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus) and his own grandson Lucius Aurelius Verus, and arrange for them to be next in line. Thus, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Verus were adopted by Anoninus Pius when he became Emperor in A.D. 138 and designated as his joint successors. Continue reading Marcus Aurelius

Plutarch of Chaeronea

Bust of Plutarch in the museum at the Temple of Delphi where he werved as a priest.

Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122): influential Greek philosopher and author, well known for his biographies and his moral treatises.

It is not overstated to say that, together with Augustine of Hippo and Aristotle of Stagira, Plutarch of Chaeronea is the most influential ancient philosopher. He may lack the the profundity of Augustine, the most influential philosopher in the early Middle Ages, and the acumen of Aristotle, considered the master of all intellectuals of the late Middle Ages, but the Sage of Chaeronea is an excellent writer and from the Renaissance to the present day, his moral treatises have found a larger audience than any other ancient philosopher. In his own age, he was immensely popular because he was able to explain philosophical discussions to non-philosophical readers, Greek and Roman alike. The fact that he was priest in Delphi will no doubt have improved his popularity.


Plutarch was probably born in 46 in the Boeotian town Chaeronea. His parents were wealthy people, and after 67, their son was able to study philosophy, rhetorics, and mathematics at the platonic Academy of Athens. However, Plutarch never became a platonic puritan, but always remained open to influences from other philosophical schools, such as the Stoa and the school of Aristotle. It is likely that the young man was present when the emperor Nero, who visited Greece at this time, declared the Greek towns to be free and autonomous.

Because Plutarch was a rich man,  he became one of the leading citizens of Chaeronea and he is known to have represented his town on several occasions. For example, he visited the governor of Achaea, and traveled to Alexandria and Rome (several times). Again, this proves that he was a rich man.

Among his friends was Lucius Mestrius Florus, a consul during the reign of Vespasian, and Plutarch’s guide during his visit to Cremona, where two important battles had been fought in 69, the year of the four emperors Galba, Vitellius, Otho, and Vespasian. Mestrius also secured the Roman citizenship for Plutarch, whose official name now became Mestrius Plutarchus. At the end of his life, he was honored with the procuratorship of Achaea, an important office that he probably held only in name. His involvement in the Roman world, although from a carefully maintained distance, explains why he shows so much interest in the history of Rome. Nevertheless, he was slow to learn Latin (Demosthenes, 2.2).

In the 90’s, Plutarch, who had seen much of the world, settled in his home town. When asked to explain his return to the province, he said that Chaeronea was in decline and that it would be even smaller if he did not settle there. For some time, he was mayor.

In his treatise Should Old Men Take Part in Politics?, Plutarch tells us that he occupied an office in the holy city Delphi, and he is known to have become one of the two permanent priests, responsible for the interpretation of the inspired utterances of the Pythia, the prophetess of Delphi. In these years, a library was built near the sanctuary, and it is tempting to assume that Plutarch was behind this initiative.

In the two first decades of the second century, he studied and wrote many books. According to an incomplete third-century catalogue, there were between 200 and 300 titles. These books brought him international fame, and the home of the famous author became a private school for young philosophers. He was often visited by Greeks and Romans, although not necessarily to study philosophy. The emperor Trajan may have been one of the visitors (winter 113/114?), and it may have been on this occasion that Trajan honored Plutarch with the ornaments of a consul, an important award. From now on, Plutarch was allowed to wear a golden ring and a white toga with a border made of purple.

Plutarch died after his procuratorship, which was in 119, and before 125. The year 122 is just guesswork. The Delphians and Chaeroneans ordered statues to be erected for their famous citizen.

In the Consolation to his wife, Plutarch mentions four sons and we know that at least two survived childhood. It has often been remarked that in his many publications, Plutarch shows that he was devoted to his parents, grandfather, brothers, his wife Timoxena, and to their children, but this is of course an impression that every author wants to convey. Continue reading Plutarch of Chaeronea

Who was Cleopatra?

The struggle with her teenage brother over the throne of Egypt was not going as well as Cleopatra VII had hoped. In 49 B.C., Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII—also her husband and, by the terms of their father’s will, her co-ruler—had driven his sister from the palace at Alexandria after Cleopatra attempted to make herself the sole sovereign. The queen, then in her early twenties, fled to Syria and returned with a mercenary army, setting up camp just outside the capital.

Meanwhile, pursuing a military rival who had fled to Egypt, the Roman general Julius Caesar arrived at Alexandria in the summer of 48 B.C., and found himself drawn into the Egyptian family feud. For decades Egypt had been a subservient ally to Rome, and preserving the stability of the Nile Valley, with its great agricultural wealth, was in Rome’s economic interest. Caesar took up residence at Alexandria’s royal palace and summoned the warring siblings for a peace conference, which he planned to arbitrate. But Ptolemy XIII’s forces barred the return of the king’s sister to Alexandria. Aware that Caesar’s diplomatic intervention could help her regain the throne, Cleopatra hatched a scheme to sneak herself into the palace for an audience with Caesar. She persuaded her servant Apollodoros to wrap her in a carpet (or, according to some sources, a sack used for storing bedclothes), which he then presented to the 52-year old Roman.

The image of young Cleopatra tumbling out of an unfurled carpet has been dramatized in nearly every film about her, from the silent era to a 1999 TV miniseries, but it was also a key scene in the real Cleopatra’s staging of her own life. “She was clearly using all her talents from the moment she arrived on the world stage before Caesar,” says Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, author of a forthcoming biography, Cleopatra the Great. Continue reading Who was Cleopatra?

The Roman Forum

Forum Romanum. Photo by Branislav L. Slantchev.

Situated in a valley between the Palantine, the Capitoline and the Esquiline hills, the area was originally a most inhospitable zone, swampy and unhealthy, until surprisingly modern reclamation work was carried out by the king Tarquinius Priscus, who provided the area with a highly developed drainage system (Cloaca Maxima). Once this reclamation work was finished, the Roman forum became a place for trade and barter. Numerous shops and a large square known as the market square were built and a zone was set apart for public ceremonies. It was here that the magistrates were elected, the traditional religious holidays were kept and those charged with various crimes were judged by a real court organization. After the Punic wars, thanks to the extraordinary development of the city, the urban fabric of the Forum took on a new look. As early as the 2nd century B.C., various basilicas, Porcia, Sempronia and Aemilia, were built, the temples of the Castors and of Concordia were rebuilt, and the network of roads connecting the Forum to the quarters of the city continued to grow. After various transformations under the emperor Augustus, the Roman Forum became so large as to be considered the secular, religious and commercial center of the city. After a period in which secular and political interests centered on other parts of the city, the Roman Forum reacquired its orginal prestige under Maxentius and Constantine who ordered the construction of the Temple of Romulus and the great Basilica of Constantine. With the decadence of the Roman Empire, the splendid venerable structures of the Forum were severely damaged by the Barbarian invasions, especially the Goths 410 A.D. and the vandals 455 A.D. The Roman Forum meanwhile became a place of worship for the early Christians who built the churches of SS. Sergio e Bacco (on the Via Sacra), of S. Adriano (on the curia), SS. Cosma e Damiano (Temple of Peace). As time passed, the Forum was completely abandoned. What was left of the antique monuments was used by the people or demolished. During the Middle Ages the Forum became a pasture for sheep and cattle (hence its name of Campo Vaccino). For many centuries the prestige of the Roman Forum was a thing of the past. Not until the early 20th century was there a systematic re-evaluation of the area with excavation campaigns which lasted for various decades and which brought back to light the splendid evidence of the Rome of the kings as well as that of the republic and the empire.

Cato the Younger

The Death of Cato of Utica by Pierre Bouillon, Oil on canvas, 113 cm x 145 cm, École des Beaux-Arts

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95BC—April 46BC), also called Cato the Younger, Cato Minor, or Cato of Utica, was the great-grandson of Cato the Elder, himself a Roman statesman who held the sequential order of public offices known as the Cursus Honorum: Tribune (214 BC), Quaestor (204 BC), Aedile (199BC), Praetor (198BC), Consul (195BC) and Censor (184BC). Being of noble birth, Cato of Utica received a good education, in particular under the guidance of Antipater of Tyre, a Stoic philosopher. As he progressed through the Cursus Honorum, Cato of Utica distinguished himself with his moral integrity and rigor: He was tenacious and stubborn, immune to bribery, and famously held a disdain for the pervasive political and economic corruption of the time. For example, when he was appointed in 65BC to Quaestor of Rome—a public official who supervised financial affairs—one of his first decisions was to prosecute former Quaestors’ illegal appropriation of treasury money.

In 54BC, the political alliance of Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), known as the First Triumvirate was broken—the same year that Cato was elected as Praetor, a magistrate with chiefly judicial duties. It was a tumultuous time, with politicians vying for power by appealing to prejudice, emotion and fear, and with elections won through bribery, fraud and violence. By 49BC, Cato allied himself with Pompey who was deeply concerned with Caesar’s widespread corruption and power. The Senate, led by Pompey, ordered Caesar to disband his army, and return to Rome following the conclusion of hostilities in Gaul because his term as Proconsul had finished. Further, Caesar was forbidden to stand for a second consulship without returning to Rome. Striped of his Consul immunity and without the power of an army, Caesar feared he would be prosecuted and exiled.

Caesar declared war on the Senate. With the order to send the thirteenth legion across the Rubicon into Italy on 10 January 49BC, Gaius Julius Caesar began a civil war from which he would emerge as the dictator, and unrivaled leader of the Roman world until his assassination on 15 March 44BC. Pompey, along with a small army, fled to Greece with Cato, one of his commanders, since they were not capable of defending the city of Rome against Caesar. On 9 August 48BC, Pompey’s army was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus, despite an overwhelming advantage—Caesar commanded an army composed of 22,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, while Pompey had 45,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry. Pompey escaped to Alexandria in Egypt, where he was assassinated on the order of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII.

Cato did not concede defeat to Caesar, and instead continued his resistance from the port city of Utica in North Africa, along with other resistance fighters clustered along the North African coast. Again, the outnumbered Caesarian army defeated resistance fighters, led by Pompey’s father-in-law, at the Battle of Thapsus on 6 April 46BC. Although 10,000 opposition soldiers wanted to surrender to Caesar, they were slaughtered instead. In nearby Utica, Cato, knowing of his imminent defeat, and unwilling to live in a world led by Caesar, nor refusing to grant Caesar the power to pardon him, committed suicide.

The Greek historian and biographer Plutarch describes Cato of Utica’s final hours, and the death by his own hand:

And now the birds were already beginning to sing, when Cato fell asleep again for a little while. And when his chief agent in public matters, Butas, came and told him that the harbours were very quiet, he ordered him to close the door, throwing himself down upon his couch as if he were going to rest there for what still remained of the night. But when Butas had gone out, Cato drew his sword from its sheath and stabbed himself below the breast. His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to inflammation in his hand, and so he did not at once dispatch himself, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a small abacus such as geometricians use that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician, Cleanthes, went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound. Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and immediately died.

Cato of Utica was 48 when he committed suicide. Upon hearing of his death, Plutarch wrote that Caesar remarked: “Cato, I begrudge you your death, just as you would have begrudged me the preservation of your life.” Lucan, a Roman poet, wrote Cato’s epitaph: “Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni” (“The conquering cause pleased the gods, but the conquered cause pleased Cato”).

Source : 1797 Grand Prix de Rome winners