BMCR 2024.04.14

Uniformity and regionalism in Latin writing culture of the first millennium C.E.

, , , Uniformity and regionalism in Latin writing culture of the first millennium C.E. Philippika, 162. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2022. Pp. x, 220. ISBN 9783447118880.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]

Open access


The volume edited by Rodney Ast, Tino Licht, and Julia Lougovaya aims to provide an approach to the physical remains of Latin written materials in different contexts and chronological periods. The challenge in carrying out this task lies precisely in the fact that it is composed of contributions from different authors rather than being a unified volume. However, this challenge turns into a virtue as it provides the reader with heterogeneous perspectives and various approaches to phenomena, often complementary, and diverse materials. Furthermore, the selection of authors, known for their significant scientific contributions and prestige, helps to offer a cutting-edge overview of the research topics presented. With a brief initial preface and a final index, the editors facilitate the development of the volume through the selected works.

Eleanor Dickey initiates the section on Multilingual Context. The study aims to analyze the arrangement of Latin and Greek texts in various bilingual papyri dating from the 1st to the 7th century AD and its implications for language learning. The habitual layout of these bilingual texts typically appears in a columnar format with “two narrow columns that translate each other line for line, with Latin in the Roman alphabet and Greek in the Greek alphabet.”.

The previous contribution aligns well with the work of Julia Lougovaya, entitled “A Greek-Latin Glossary from the Fort of Didymoi”. Comparison of this “glossary” on an ostracon with the column layout in papyri is followed by analysis of the text lines and vocabulary. At the same time, Lougovaya examines its significance within the process of acquiring oral skills in Latin within a Greek-speaking environment. The material aspect forms a very interesting comparison to the papyri analyzed by Dickey, which tells us about two distinct yet complementary writing habits.

In the third contribution by Maria Chiara Scappaticcio we return to the use of papyrus and to bilingualism, specifically focusing on the rare examples from the Eastern Roman Empire containing fables in Latin or bilingual Latin-Greek versions. This study, based on a limited sample, acknowledges the scarcity of translations from Aesop and Babrius. It examines the arrangement of languages in a Greek-speaking context. It appears that fables were used as a method for learning a second language, a practice that dates back to Quintilian (Quint. Inst. 1.9.1) and seems to persist in Late Antiquity and the Medieval tradition.

Rodney Ast discusses ostraca used for accounting purposes found in North Africa, which are divided into two chronological groups: those before the Vandals’ conquest in AD 430 and those afterwards. Two aspects of this article are worth highlighting: first, the analysis of differences between the ostraca from Gigthi (Tunisia) and Assenamat (Libya), where Ast identifies a contrast in terms of adherence to standardized bureaucratic formulas, with the latter exhibiting local elements; second, the significant amount of material published and referenced in the attached tables, which provides a comprehensive view of North African ostraca. The chapter by Carles Múrcia, “A note on Names in O. Assenamat (Inv. 63/4499a)”, moves in the same latitudes. Despite its brevity, this contribution raises a linguistic discussion concerning the morphological and lexical identification of certain Libyco-Berber names, and possibly a Punic one, found in this piece.

With a focus on the eastern part of the Empire and northern Africa, along with the Latin-Greek dichotomy, nuanced by the works of Rodney Ast and Carles Múrcia, this first section offers intriguing advancements regarding writing habits, textual development, structure, and bilingualism and its learning. The analysis of various materials such as ostraca and papyri broadens the significance of their conclusions, which, however, would be highly interesting to compare in other provinces like Gaul and Hispania and with other writing habits such as epigraphy.

The second section, “On the Frontiers,” focuses on studying Latin in border or frontier contexts, with a particular emphasis on the role of the military. Mariola Hepa and Sofía Torallas Tovar present two ostraca from the archaeological site of Aswan (currently known as Syene) in Upper Egypt. Of particular interest is O. Syene Swiss 1, which consists of a letter between two legionaries requesting money for one from the other. The analysis of the archaeological context is strongly present in the potential identification of one of the individuals as originating from the western part of the Empire. In this sense, the aim of the work is to emphasize the necessity and usefulness of collaboration between archaeology and papyrology. The well-structured and thoughtfully selected contributions are evident in the transition from the first to the second work within this section. James N. Adams revisits the ostracon O. Syene Swiss 1. The article is organized according to the linguistic analysis of the various terms that appear. The depth with which the study of words and expressions is addressed, such as rogo mitas me sumtaria, is one of the most significant aspects. Furthermore, the constant comparison with other corpora of texts, such as the letters from Didymoi or the Vindolanda[1] tablets, greatly enriches the discussion.

Ornella Salati’s work is dedicated to lists of the Roman army written on papyrus in Latin and originating from Egypt. The article has a logical structure that starts with an introduction to this writing phenomenon and then proceeds to a specific analysis of the elements that appear in it. All of this is supported by high-quality graphics that help the reader identify the elements of the formatting. Moreover, the comparisons offered with other similar sets of materials from Dura Europos[2] and the Vindolanda tablets satisfactorily conclude the analysis.

To conclude this section, Roger S. O. Tomlin provides a comprehensive review of the phenomenon of writing on wooden supports in “Writing on Wood in Roman Britain”. Preserved wooden materials are relatively abundant in excavations in Britain. These materials found in places such as the Vindolanda camp and the London Bloomberg site[3] allow for an approach to the more everyday military context while also fitting into more recognizable political history.

Like the previous section, this one primarily focuses on Egypt, driven by the abundant written documentation available. But here, the theme revolves around the military. In this regard, one of the most intriguing aspects of the materials (papyri, ostraca, and wooden tablets) is that they exhibit different writing materials compared to other documents of military origin, such as diplomas, thereby broadening our perspective on the socio-cultural reality of this context.

The section “Transformations and Adaptations” closes this volume with several contributions that delve into writing in later chronologies. In “Frühmittelalterliche Reliquienauthentiken auf Metall,” Kirsten Wallenwein focuses on the authentications of relics during the Early Middle Ages.[4] The author analyzes three case studies from different origins and time periods. The goal, however, is not to delve into the authenticity of the relics but to establish criteria for studying these pieces when researching the veneration of saints and writing culture. The article also emphasizes the importance of these objects in the cultural and religious history of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Isabel Velázquez Soriano reviews the Latin writing ‘habit’ on slate tablets. Specifically, the article focuses on this Visigothic era, where the corpus of materials is abundant and to which the author has already dedicated several previous publications.[5] The article, which also explores these materials in later time periods, provides insights into the different typologies and contents that slate tablets manifest and their historical relevance. For example, it examines tablets from “Los Azafranales” (Coca, Segovia) and their connection to accounting, as well as the specimen known as the “Carrio slate” (Carrio, Asturias), a philacterium to protect the fields.

Tino Licht focuses, “Zur Frühgeschichte der Westgotischen Minuskel und zur Bewertung des Sinai-Psalters,” Visigothic minuscule script. The contribution revolves around the idea of the origin of this type of writing, the evolution of some of its letters and abbreviations, and the chronological analysis of its earliest evidence, such as the Hilarius Basilicanus[6] or the Sinai Psalters[7]. Considering all these elements, it seems that the 7th century is crucial in the regionalization of Roman writing culture. Finally, the Visigothic minuscule script could be interpreted as a form of regional cursive handwriting in the Iberian Peninsula.

Wolf Zöller addresses papal epigraphy as a fundamental means of transmitting values of continuity and tradition. The preservation of writing communication codes inherited from the Christian and Imperial world, such as the epigraphic legacy of Damasus, was meant to connect with necessary authority and legitimacy in succession in conflictive contexts.

The final section presents a broad overview of writing during the Medieval period although lacking the thematic structure of the preceding sections. Nevertheless, the section culminates a volume that progresses with naturalness and balance in its contributions, providing a coherent and general view of Latin writing culture.


Authors and Titles

Multilingual Contexts

Eleanor Dickey, Where Do You Put the Latin of a Bilingual Text, and Why Does It Matter?

Julia Lougovaya Greek-Latin Glossary from the Fort of Didymoi

Maria Chiara Scappaticcio, Fables from the East: Latin Texts on Papyrus and the Role of Fables in Second-Language Acquisition

Rodney Ast, Uniformity and Regionalism in Accounts on Ostraca from North Africa

Carles Múrcia, Note on Names in O.Assenamat inv. 63/4499a


On the Frontiers

Mariola Hepa & Sofía Torallas Tovar, On the Southern Frontier: Latin Ostraca from Aswan

James N. Adams, The Latin of a Non-Native Speaker: O. Syene Swiss

Ornella Salati, Listing in the Roman Army:  Formatting and Graphical Conventions of Latin Lists on Papyrus

Roger S.O. Tomlin, Writing on Wood in Roman Britain


Transformations and Adaptations

Kirsten Wallenwein, Frühmittelalterliche Reliquienauthentiken auf Metall

Isabel Velázquez Soriano, The ‘Habit’ of Writing on Slate in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Tino Licht, Zur Frühgeschichte der westgotischen Minuskel und zur Bewertung des „Sinai-Psalters“

Wolf Zöller, Schriftlichkeit im Zeichen von Kontinuität? Die Inschriften der Päpste zwischen Spätantike und Frühmittelalter



[1] A.K. Bowman and J.D. Thomas, Vindolanda: The Latin Writing-Tablets (Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1983)

[2] C. B. Welles, R. O. Fink, and J. F. Gilliam, “Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, I. The parchments and papyri” (The Antiquaries Journal, 40(3-4), 230-231, 1959).

[3] R. S. O. Tomling, Roman London’s First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations 2010-14 (MOLA, 2016)

[4] See also K. Wallenwein and T. Licht, Reliquienauthentiken: Kulturdenkmäler des Frühmittelalters (Schnell & Steiner, 2020)

[5] Las pizarras visigodas. Entre el latín y su disgregación. La lengua hablada en Hispania, siglos VI-VIII (Real Academia Española- Fundación Instituto Castellano y Leonés de la Lengua, 2004)

[6] Hilarius Basilicanus, Rom, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Arch.Cap.S.Pietro D.182.

[7] Sinai Psalter, Sinai, Bibliothek des Katharinenklosters, Slav. 5.