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

The Secrets of Ancient Rome’s Buildings

What is it about Roman concrete that keeps the Pantheon and the Colosseum still standing? The Colosseum, inaugurated in A.D. 80, seated 50,000 and hosted gladiatorial games, ritual animal hunts, parades and executions.

The Romans started making concrete more than 2,000 years ago, but it wasn’t quite like today’s concrete. They had a different formula, which resulted in a substance that was not as strong as the modern product. Yet structures like the Pantheon and the Colosseum have survived for centuries, often with little to no maintenance. Geologists, archaeologists and engineers are studying the properties of ancient Roman concrete to solve the mystery of its longevity.

“Roman concrete is … considerably weaker than modern concretes. It’s approximately ten times weaker,” says Renato Perucchio, a mechanical engineer at the University of Rochester in New York. “What this material is assumed to have is phenomenal resistance over time.”

That resistance, or durability against the elements, may be due to one of the concrete’s key ingredients: volcanic ash. Modern concrete is a mix of a lime-based cement, water, sand and so-called aggregates such as fine gravel. The formula for Roman concrete also starts with limestone: builders burned it to produce quicklime and then added water to create a paste. Next they mixed in volcanic ash—usually three parts volcanic ash to one part lime, according to the writings of Vitruvius, a first-century B.C. architect and engineer. The volcanic ash reacted with the lime paste to create a durable mortar that was combined with fist-size chunks of bricks or volcanic rocks called tuff, and then packed into place to form structures like walls or vaults.

By the beginning of the second century B.C., the Romans were already using this concrete in large-scale construction projects, suggesting their experimentation with the building material began even earlier. Other ancient societies such as the Greeks probably also used lime-based mortars (in ancient China, sticky rice was added for increased strength). But combining a mortar with an aggregate like brick to make concrete was likely a Roman invention, Perucchio says.

In the earliest concretes, Romans mined ash from a variety of ancient volcanic deposits. But builders got picky around the time Augustus became the first Roman emperor, in 27 B.C. At that time, Augustus initiated an extensive citywide program to repair old monuments and erect new ones, and builders exclusively used volcanic ash from a deposit called Pozzolane Rosse, an ash flow that erupted 456,000 years ago from the Alban Hills volcano, 12 miles southeast of Rome.

“Emperor Augustus was the driving force behind the systemization, standardization of mortar mixes with Pozzolane Rosse,” says Marie Jackson, a geologist and research engineer at the University of California at Berkeley. Roman builders likely favored the ash deposit because of the durability of concrete made with it, she adds. “This was the secret to concretes that were very well bonded, coherent, robust materials.”

Jackson and her colleagues have been studying the chemical composition of concretes made with Pozzolane Rosse. The ash’s unique mix of minerals appears to have helped the concrete withstand chemical decay and damage.

The Romans favored another specific volcanic ash when making concrete harbor structures that were submerged in the salty waters of the Mediterranean. Pulvis Puteolanus was mined from deposits near the Bay of Naples. “The Romans shipped thousands and thousands of tons of that volcanic ash around the Mediterranean to build harbors from the coast of Italy to Israel to Alexandria in Egypt to Pompeiopolis in Turkey,” Jackson says.

Seawater is very damaging to modern concrete. But in Roman concrete, the Pulvis Puteolanus “actually plays a role in mitigating deterioration when water percolates through it,” Jackson says. Although the exact mechanism is unknown, it appears that chemical reactions among the lime paste, volcanic ash and seawater created microscopic structures within the concrete that trapped molecules like chlorides and sulfates that harm concrete today.

Despite the success of Roman concrete, the use of the material disappeared along with the Roman Empire. Concrete structures were seldom built during the Middle Ages, suggesting volcanic ash wasn’t the only secret to the durability of Roman concrete, Perucchio says. “These really large projects could only be done with the appropriate bureaucracy, with the proper organization that the Roman Empire would provide.”

Article By Erin Wayman

Erin Wayman is an assistant editor at Smithsonian and writes the Hominid Hunting blog.


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