Research And Reconstruction

Writing On The Wall - Roman scripts around 400 A.D.

I’ve had a few inquiries about the writing on my parade shield, so I thought it might be worth explaining what I based it on.

We paint our shields with our names because Vegetius tells us that, aside from the unit signa, in Greek digmata (designs) “The name of each soldier was also written on his shield, together with the number of the cohort or century to which he belonged”, implying that this was a field recognition sign (Liber II.18). Milner explains that Vegetius’ indifferent use of ‘cohort’ and ‘century’ reflects the complex Late unit names and small legion sizes. Cassius Dio specifically says that this was so “that those of their number who should perform any particularly good or base deed might be more readily recognized”. On the other hand, Plutarch claims that consul Catulus’ name was carved into the javelins of his (twenty thousand) men, which enabled their deeds to be confirmed after a battle. The 2nd century shield boss found in the Tyne was punched “IVL MAGNI” and “IVNI DVBITATI” (of Junius Dubitatus, of Julius Magnus' [century]), clearly a property marker due to the size.

In this period there was no J, U or W and K, Y and Z were sometimes used for writing Greek loan-words. Letters might be joined together as “ligatures”, such as AE (Æ), AN, AV, MA, ND, NE, NT, PE, PR, TR and VM. Sometimes some words might be separated by a mid-level dot or other mark, but this was not a comma or full stop. Variety was the norm.

Whilst many earlier Latin inscriptions are in formal lettering which closely resemble modern capital letters, a number of writing styles coexisted in Late Roman times (and could even be mixed in the same text). In the late 4th century ‘Square Capitals’ (capitalis quadrata or scriptura monumentalis) were used in the “Vergilius Augusteus” manuscript. The ‘F’ and ‘L’ are taller, words are squashed and most letters are angular:

idaliaelvcos’vbim / floribvs’etdvlciad / iamq·ibatdictopar

Two rectangular lead ‘tags’ are in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, simply inscribed (or rather, scratched) “VIII>TITIANI” (8th [cohort?] legion?] Titianus' [century]) and “COH II > ATILIIMAIORI” (2nd Cohort Atilius Major's [century]) and one circular bronze one, carefully double punched with “LEGXX IULICANDID[I]” (20th Legion Julius Candidus’). These have been interpreted as ‘dog tags’ or ‘luggage labels’. The latter is perforated around the edge, perhaps to sew onto fabric. The > is a backwards ‘C’ (for century).

Rustic Capitals (capitalis rustica) were a relaxed written form, more curved and compressed than the formal capitals, made with a broad pen held at a 45 degree angle, resulting in more ‘italic’ looking thick and thin lines. They can be seen in the advertising and election slogans painted on the walls of Pompeii. They were very common by our period, seen in the "Vatican Virgil” and “Roman Virgil” with little puncuation and no spaces between the words. The ‘A’ typically has no crossbar, the ‘v’ is becoming more rounded and some letters like the ‘I’ show a stronger ‘serif’: horizontal finishing strokes.

volvitvraterodortectis·tv / intvssaxasonantvacvas / accidithaecfessiset iamfo…

A digitised Rustic Font
I have used this script for my name & unit number (I) on the face of my shield as a field recognition sign. I have left the name in the nominative case, the > might be unnecessary (e.g. the Duerne helmet unit inscription:

The form of everyday handwriting used on the Vindolanda tablets in the first and second centuries A.D. is now called Old Roman Cursive. The form it took by the fourth century is termed New Roman Cursive. I have used this script for my name & unit name on the back of my shield, as a property identifier. Both of the names are in the possessive ‘genitive’ case: “> victoris salviani” (of Salvianus, of Victor’s [century].

Cursive letter on papyrus, Egypt, 4th century

Roman Uncials (Uncialis) seem to have been developed out of combined elements of capitals and cursive from their use in official records. The name, perhaps meaning ‘inch high’ may have been coined by Jerome. Uncials were very rounded, with descenders, and the pen nib was held almost horizontally. It was used particularly in church writings, such as the ‘Codex Bobiensis’:

Josephus, Cassius Dio, Plutarch, Arrian and Procopius wrote in Greek, Ammianus Marcellinus was Greek. The experiences of Gratian’s tutor Ausonias and Donatus’ publication of the Ars Grammatica indicates that, in the C4th, Greek was still key to the classical education of the rich and presumably thus much of the officer class. Church writings from the fifth century often survive in Greek Uncials such as the ‘Codex Sinaiticus’:

Bishop and Coulston (2006 p.41-47) describe a number of further examples of writing by Roman soldiers, including names and units incised into spearheads. Manfred Klein has kindly made computer fonts Mkwadrata and MKapitalis Rustica available free on the net, which may help with planning script projects.

Primary Sources
Cassius Dio Roman History, Epitome of Book 67
“Codex Sinaiticus” (London, Brit. Libr., Add. 43725), New Testament and parts of the Septuagint
“Codex Bobbiensis” (k), National Library at Turin (G. vii. 15), Vetus Latina excerpts from Mathew and Mark
Plutarch, Cauis Marius
“Vergilius Augusteus”: manuscript, excerpts from Georgics and Aeneid in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican (Vat. lat. 3256), and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Lat. fol. 416).
“Vergilius Vaticanus”: (Vat. lat. 3225)
“Vergilius Romanus”: (Vat. lat. 3867), fol. 106r

Birley, R. 2005 Vindolanda: Extraordinary records of daily life on the Northern Frontier, Haltwhistle: Roman Army Museum Publications
Bishop, M.C. and Coulston, J.C.N. 2006 Roman Military Equipment: From The Punic Wars To The Fall Of Rome Second Edition, Oxford: Oxbow
Greetham, D.C. 1994 Textual Scholarship: An Introduction, New York, London: Garland
Milner, N.P., 1996: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science, 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press