The evolution of Roman lettering

The average person with a beginning interest in ancient coins will find Roman coins in particular the most accessible. As I’ve made the case in other venues, the coins of other major civilizations despite being intriguing in their history and haunting in their unique designs are unfortunately inscribed in glyphs that are difficult to comprehend to most Westerners. Of the many legacies Rome has handed down through the millennia none however matches the raw utility of their most fundamental contribution to our cultural infrastructure: the alphabet. It is truly an unheralded miracle that a handful of Etruscans on the dawn of history could have engineered a system with which to convey the most complex and nuanced human thought with a palette of but twenty graceful characters. They did so using the already long-established Greek alphabet as a starting point and, of course I can’t prove this, aimed at coming up with a new set that would be easier to write quickly by hand and chisel into marble. The more tortuously curvy and size-disparate of these they whipped into angular shapes consisting of generally equal-length strokes and minimal sloping that would be easily reproducible at speed yet maintain sufficient distinction between each other to avoid unnecessary confusion. If it sounds simple it is only because a lifetime of everyday usage clouds the significance. Yet, the naked fact that the alphabet from that point forward some 2,500 years ago has hardly changed to this day, and indeed has rapidly become globalized, is all the testament needed to validate the greatness of their innovation.

By the beginning of the imperial age the Romans had reached a level of consistency in their script that was unmatched until the invention of movable type over a millennium later and reached its apogee during the Julio-Claudian years. The way the letters were rendered was an elegant style so widely disseminated, so fussed over in execution, that it became the world’s first and most enduring font. While in commerce the serif-less Helvetica has largely replaced Times New Roman, the 20th century implementation of this legendary font, the elder script is still preferred in literature, law and particularly architecture where it would seem almost unnatural to carve into stone any style other than the granddaddy of all.

Despite their remarkable consistency in the core fundamentals the Roman era was nevertheless subject to evolution and, as elsewhere in art and fashion, stylistic flourishes migrated to the written word. Roman coins again are a very reliable record of these changes and, due to the ease with which they can be dated, provide an equally easy means with which to in turn date inscriptions in stone, metal and other media which would otherwise be of ambiguous chronology.

There are roughly five main epigraphic style groups. The nascent first period of the Republic is mainly distinguished in its overall freer hand that places emphasis on ease of execution for the writer and legibility. While greater care is of course invested in the careful engraving for monuments the coins do not yet show the same stickler spirit.

Then, rapidly, the Augustan age gives birth to master artisans who commit their labor into the sublimely finished works that are demanded by a burgeoning and sophisticated upper class. The Caesar likewise sees but liability in the sloppy execution of his name or a depicted god committed unto those millions of silvery ambassadors that will travel within and beyond the borders. They must be slick and must do their equal part in commanding the awe of the beholder so high-grade typography is mandated.

Not until the third century do we begin to see a decline that mirrors in kind the waning state of the empire’s fortunes. At first the degradation is just barely perceptible; a slight increase in typos here, a drop in spacing precision there… and before you know it in the mid-250’s there are unmistakable signs that the coins, at least, are no longer being as fastidiously designed (much less manufactured) as they once were. An ‘M’ that takes only slight care to assess the correct slope for its central strokes to touch at their ends now typically becomes just a sloppy IVI and likewise with the A’s that more resemble H’s and R’s which warp into ugly degenerates that seem to be a cross between a D and a Q.

The decline in lettering must have alarmed the more learned and artistically gifted future emperors, or perhaps we may credit a non-imperial source but either way the late 3rd century and into the fourth there is again a shift towards neoclassical forms even if never again achieving the initial level of detail and quality control. Notably, whereas the Julio-Claudian lettering tended to be tall and graceful, the letters of this age are more compact and with rather haphazard, stocky serifs but still given emphasis on maintaining correct leading (letter-to-letter spacing) and vertical evenness.

The fifth and final century sees a comparatively sudden and irreversible collapse in all care of design and workmanship. In the precious metal coinage the typography is still unmistakably Roman but the style is highly irregular, rushed and – horrors of horrors – liberally peppered with illiterate touches like reversed N’s and S’s and foreign letter-forms.

What part of the Roman soul of ancient survives 476 AD is scattered in different directions. In time, the lay Roman had forgotten his ancient skills and the people's Latin evolved into Italian. However, that rich lexicography and the art of the scribe had survived unharmed within the protected innards of monasteries. Here the vocal and written Latin, and in fact the whole body of Roman literature, was to be carefully - even obsessively - preserved. True, it would be continually nourished and molded into the service of promoting Christianity but it would be preserved all the same.