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Roman cursive

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Urn of Titus Flavius Verus, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Urn of Titus Flavius Verus, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

On the tombstone visible in the photo I came across in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The full Latin text reads: D(is) M(anibus) / T(ito) Fl(avio) Vero Aug(usti) / lib(erto) tab(ulario) rat(ionis) / aquarior(um) co(n)/iugi bene me/renti Octa/via Thetis fecit.

It is the tombstone of a former slave named Titus Flavius Verus, an imperial freedman, who worked as an administrator. It was commissioned by his wife, Octavia Thetis.

The unusual shape of the letters M, N and A immediately caught my attention. The diagonal lines, instead of connecting at their ends at the top, are connected by starting the left line from the middle of the right one. In the case of the letter A, the horizontal bar is also directed from the right to the bottom left. You can also notice that the letters F and L are rounded.

It is an example of Roman cursive, an alphabet that has been in use since the late Republic (1st century BCE). The old Roman cursive was used until the 3rd century CE and was replaced by the new Roman cursive, which was used until the 7th century CE and influenced the formation of medieval writings in the former empire, including the lowercase letters we use today.

This colloquial script was used mainly for handwriting and was used by all social classes: from merchant accounts, through learning Latin in schools, to orders issued by emperors. However, it was not a standardized script and the above examples of letters could differ from each other, depending on the handwriting style of the author.

You can immediately see that handwriting requires a lot of attention to be able to decipher it. An in-depth analysis of Roman cursive was undertaken by, among others, Henry Bartlett Van Hoesen, who in 1915 published the book “Roman Cursive Writing” for his doctoral dissertation.

If anyone is interested in how our alphabet has evolved over the centuries, I recommend the book “Zarys Dziejów Pisma Łacińskiego” by Aleksander Gieysztor (published in 1973), which describes how the Latin alphabet was formed, what forms it had and how it changed throughout history, until modern times.

Author: Jakub Bajkowski

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