BMCR 2024.04.09

Orthographic traditions and the sub-elite in the Roman empire

, Orthographic traditions and the sub-elite in the Roman empire. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. xviii, 295. ISBN 9781009327664.

Open access


I venture to guess that few BMCR readers would share my anticipatory pleasure in curling up by the fireside with a good book on Latin orthography. Nevertheless, this fine book by Nicholas Zair is not only a good read, but also makes a number of interesting contributions that go well beyond the purely orthographic.

The book begins with an unusually comprehensive and (therefore) helpful introduction, Chapter 1. Straightforward enough is discussion of the book’s basic articulation into two major sections, addressing the two forms of “optional” spelling Zair addresses in the orthographic practice of (mainly) sub-elite writers, namely “Old-fashioned spellings” (Part I) and “Apices and i-longa” (Part II, these referring to diacritic markings familiar to those who have spent time with Latin inscriptional material). This is followed by a series of valuable treatments of both theoretical and methodological issues, beginning with the fundamental question of “the extent and type of literacy in the ancient world,” especially as this pertains to sub-elite education in the Roman empire. Here Zair carefully teases out evidence for the education of (for example) slaves, soldiers, and scribes, as background for his analysis of orthography in sub-elite documents. He goes on to critique the frequently vague notion of “old-fashioned” or “archaizing” spelling, substituting a more rigorous evaluation based on three main sources of evidence: the testimony of writers on language from the period in question, the orthography of “official” inscriptions and other texts known to have been produced by members of the social elite, and the results of his searches conducted among the online inscriptional corpus EDCS (Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/Slaby)—this being, in fact, only one of a series of epigraphic databases that Zair makes use of throughout the work, and one of the book’s attractive features. Zair goes on to explain his use of the terms “standard” and “substandard” spelling, along with the nature of spelling variation at the time, all this of importance with regard to one of his main claims, i.e. that “old-fashioned spelling can be found in the writing of substandard spellers as well as those whose spelling is otherwise standard”. The remainder of the introduction addresses methodological issues,  describes the sub-elite corpora on which the book is based (some relatively familiar, such as the Vindolanda Tablets, Bu Njem Ostraca, and curse tablets in the collection by Kropp [2008], others less so), lists the “writers on language” Zair deploys in his argumentation, and provides a handy sketch of the Latin vowel system and its development from early Latin through the period of the empire. The book ends with a substantial chapter of “Conclusions”, followed by a brief Appendix on “<uo> and <uu> in Catullus”,[1] a full bibliography of all works cited, and a somewhat skimpy one-page index (nominum and rerum), to some extent compensated for by the detailed table of contents and list of some 46 tables deployed effectively throughout the work. Zair’s presentation is everywhere extremely clear and well-organized, not without touches of humor,[2] and occasionally self-deprecating.[3]

The material of Part I, in sixteen chapters on old-fashioned spellings, is about equally divided between vowel- and diphthong-related phenomena and those involving consonants. The more extended treatments tend to involve fine-grained analysis of a nexus of orthographic and linguistic issues, as for example spellings with <ei> and <e> for /i:/ (“long ī”), which intersect with the operation of iambic shortening in the history of Latin, whence e.g. ubĭ ‘when’ from earlier ubī, itself from earlier ubei. In such cases, where (as often) the data are at least to some degree equivocal and susceptible of multiple interpretations, Zair does not hesitate to characterize the resulting indeterminacies and the challenges that stand in the way of clear-cut conclusions. This is all to the good and leads to a number of interestingly nuanced treatments. It is impossible in this context to summarize all the individual results of these chapters; but see further below on Zair’s concluding chapter for some additional detail.

Part II (50 pages) is much briefer than Part I (nearly 160 pages) but no less interesting. Zair painstakingly tabulates and evaluates the use of apices and i-longa spellings in successive chapters devoted to the different texts in his corpus, and the results are sometimes revelatory. For those who work with Latin inscriptional material, the broad inconsistencies in usage surrounding apices and i-longa will be familiar.[4] Yet as Zair makes clear in his helpful introductory chapter to Part II, the use of these symbols in the sub-elite corpora differs markedly in some respects from their more familiar behavior in official inscriptions. For example, usage can vary according to particular scribes or stonemasons (or groups of those figures, such as the scribes in and around Vindolanda, who seem to have developed some fairly consistent practices); and this in turn may provide evidence for the “orthographic education” of sub-elite writers. Moreover, while usage can be governed by all sorts of factors (such as position within the word or even within the text as a whole), Zair is certainly attentive to considerations related to linguistic factors, such as vowel length—or what remains of it during the time periods in question.

Despite the book’s focus on imperial-period orthography, Zair adduces, from time to time, potentially illuminating data from republican Latin, such as an “intriguing hint” from two of the Scipionic elogia (CIL I2 9 and 10) about spellings related to iambic shortening (61n16), or (64) the hypercorrect spelling seine for sine (CIL I2 583, 2nd cent. BCE), among many other examples of this kind.[5] Sometimes additional such material might have been considered: thus spellings in inscriptions and papyri with <ei> for /ĭ/ and /ĕ/ are taken to be mistakes (53n2, 54n4), which may of course be true; yet here one thinks of the bizarre spelling inpeirator (CIL I2 614, 189 BCE), which may actually have quite a complicated aetiology.[6] More important, though—and testimony to the stimulating nature of Zair’s analyses—is that some of his discussions about imperial usage may shed light on earlier problems. Perhaps worthy of consideration in this way is the stele of Duilius (cos. 260 BCE), the so-called “Columna Rostrata” (CIL I2 25): this notorious text, which apes some early Latin orthographic habits, displays many features inappropriate for 3rd-century BCE Latin, whence Wackernagel’s suggestion (by now widely accepted) that this is an imperial composition or at least an imperial redaction of an earlier text.[7] Naturally enough, almost all of these features make appearances in Zair’s book: use of i-longa, <e> for /i/ (e.g. in 3 sg. perf. -et, navebos) and <ei> for /ī/ (acc. pl. claseis), inconsistent spelling of superlatives (-imus vs. -umus), hypercorrect <o> for /u/ (exfociont ‘effugiunt’),[8] use of <ae> rather than <ai>, and others. While Wackernagel’s overall conception is assured, it seems likely that Zair’s findings might lead to new insights about points of detail.

In his informative concluding chapter, Zair begins by noting the extreme variability to be found in most of the spellings initially registered as “old-fashioned”, which turns out to be something of a misnomer, whence his preference for the less freighted term “optional” spellings. The subheadings of the remainder of the chapter give a sense of the range of his conclusions: “Optional Spellings and Sub-elite Education”, “The Education of Scribes and Stonemasons”, and “Optional Spellings: Evidence for Sound Change”. As already indicated above with reference to the main text, the material here is rich and impossible to summarize in a brief review. Zair’s study, in short, will be rewarding for epigraphists and linguists, and indeed for anyone interested in the development of Latin orthography and the Latin language, as well as those interested in sub-elite populations and their textual reflection in the Roman empire.

The book is well-produced (including the online version): typographical errors and other small problems are few and far between[9] and for the most part do not impede understanding.[10] Quoted material in Latin (including frequent citations from grammarians, not always easy to understand) are helpfully provided with clear (and generally problem-free) translations.[11]



Ernout, Alfred. 1973. Recueil de textes latins archaïques (Nouvelle edition, 4e tirage). Paris: Klincksieck.

Fortson, Benjamin W. IV. 2020. “An overlooked usage of apices and i longae? Notes on CIL VI 2080,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 214.67–79.

Kropp, Amina. 2008. Defixiones. Eine aktuelles Corpus lateinischer Fluchtafeln. Speyer: Kai Brodersen.

Marchesini, Simona. 2023. “Identifying Latin in early inscriptions,” in J. N. Adams, Anna Chahoud and Giuseppe Pezzini (eds.), Early Latin: Constructs, Diversity, Reception, 41–62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vine, Brent. 1993. Studies in Archaic Latin Inscriptions. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck.

Wachter, Rudolf. 1987. Altlateinische Inschriften: Sprachliche und epigraphische Untersuchungen zu den Dokumenten bis etwa 150 v. Chr. Bern: Peter Lang.

Weiss, Michael. 2020. Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin2. Ann Arbor: Beech Stave.



[1] This is essentially an extended footnote to Ch. 8, analyzing evidence from the manuscript tradition of Catullus relevant to the material and proposals in that chapter.

[2] E.g. 211n8 (“the scribe was apparently on a roll after three apices on long vowels, and saw no reason to stop”), similarly 218 (on an “enthusiastic” use of apices).

[3] E.g. 185n5 (referring to a description by the editors of a Vindolanda text with regard to its “crude and sprawling” hand: “Then again, the same could be said of my handwriting”).

[4] For the latter, see the recent important treatment by Fortson (2020).

[5] A recent capsule survey of salient orthographic features of republican Latin is conveniently available in Marchesini 2023:48–54.

[6] Discussion, from various perspectives, in Wachter 1987:287–8, Vine 1993:96, Weiss 2020:110n30.

[7] See in detail, with earlier references, Wachter 1987:359–61.

[8] One of several “véritables barbarismes sans existence réelle” (Ernout 1973:110).

[9] E.g. missing “<u>” (152n19, after the first “the” in “the in the second syllable”), “Hoffman” (192n15) for “Hofmann”, missing (but easily supplied) words in “written by a scribe” (105) or “that it is” (120), “inuieniatur” for inueniatur (200, in a translation from Festus, but the correct form appears in the Festus quotation on the preceding page).

[10] The following more serious issues may be noted here: “non-long vowels” (212) should read “on long vowels”; “takes place” (223) seems to stand for “takes part”; “CIL I2” (247n5) is presumably “CIL I2” (rather than CIL 12, Narbonese Gaul); “horizontal stroke” (257n18) should read “vertical stroke” (cf. 256 on “several vertical strokes close together”).

[11] At 171, peccant is omitted from the translation of a statement by Terentius Scaurus, but the overall sense of the passage is clear from the context of the discussion.