Spoken words fly away, written words remain

Baths of Diocletian

Written communication of the Romans

Still today we use a motto created by the Romans, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”. Every kind of person, from the emperor to the slave, needed to communicate messages that lasted over time. Some of them are now museum pieces: tombstones, signs, trademarks, love declarations ... They now tell us the stories, the lives, the habits of men and women who lived more than two thousand years ago.
People who write
In ancient Roman world, not everyone knew how to read but everyone understood the power of writing. Anyone could decide to entrust their message to written words: the emperor, a slave, an artisan, a mother ...

The slave Aprilis made the cinerary urn for Felix, his "vicarius". The vicarius was a slave who could take the place of another slave to carry out some work.

At the death of her son, Iulia Tryphaena commissioned a precious lamp to decorate his tomb; she also recorded this act of love by writing their names on this bronze nameplate.

The slave Scirtus Cornelianus was a symphoniacus, a musician who performed in small orchestras, probably at the service of his masters. His work is symbolized by the Pan's flute on his gravestone.

Coelia Mascellina was an oil and wine importer from Spain. With this seal she put her name on her amphoras.

Marcus Cocceius Hilarus was employed at a warehouse; on his gravestone, his wife recorded that he had received great affection from his colleagues.

What they write
Just like today, writing can be entrusted to any kind of message: the property of an object, a law to be respected, a trademark, a prayer, a votive offer, a gift of love. Along with the simple information, writing could allow people to perpetuate the memory of their name and sometimes even of their intimate feelings ...

The right to be connected to an aqueduct was a privilege of high ranked people and the name of the concessionaire was indicated directly on the pipelines: in this case it is the emperor Vespasian.

The name, written in Greek characters above the portrait of a thoughtful man, identifies him as the Greek philosopher Anaximander from Miletus.

The curse was put on Rhodine, a woman guilty of loving the same man loved by another woman; the rival carved the curse on a lead foil and left it in a tomb to let the underworld gods solve the problem

The famous sculptor Athanadaros signed his work on this stone base, almost certainly the miniature of one of his sculptures.

On the bottom of a bottle the names of two craftsmen who made it, Hilarus and Ylas, are carved.

The document attesting the end of military service was written on small bronze slabs that veterans could carry with them: this document belonged to the knight Mucatralis, a soldier coming from Thrace.

How they write
To write, Romans used different tools and techniques: besides the inscriptions engraved by chisel on stone, the most common ones, we know many others of them made by engraving metal, or made up of mosaic tiles, molds, brushes, gold, graffiti ...

This gold leaf inscription was inserted between two small glass layers on the bottom of a cup.

The inscription was engraved on a metal foil with the burin, a small sharp chisel.

The small colorful mosaic tiles make up the names of the owners of a tomb.

The inscription was engraved over the walls of a tomb to indicate the name of the deceased.

The inscription, hallmark of the lamp producer, is obtained in mould.

The compass, called in Latin circinum, was used to create the layout of the inscriptions.

The chisel, called in Latin scalprum, was the main tool for writing on stone.

Credits: Story

Project managers: Daniela Porro, Francesco Prosperetti
Anna De Santis, Rosanna Friggeri

Concept and text: Francesca Boldrighini, Claudio Borgognoni, Carlotta Caruso, Luca Zizi

Photographs: Giorgio Cargnel, Romano D'Agostini, Luciano Mandato, Simona Sansonetti

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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