Tag Archives: Rome


‘Serifs’ are those pointy corners of a lettering stroke. It’s thought that stonecutters came up with them to add a little flourish to their letters. But if you watch the videos I link to in my previous post, you see that a serif (or a ‘grace’) is the natural way to end a letter stroke when you write with a brush. So who knows who invented serifs—the stonecutters or the calligraphers?

The chiseled stroke without serifs

Side view of the V-shaped chiseled stroke

I used to think that serifs came about because it was difficult for stonecutters to chisel the end of a letterstroke, and the serif made that job easier. Nowadays I believe serifs were added to chiseled letters because they provide more surface to catch the sunlight. They enhance the letter’s visibility. Watch the video linked below of a guy carving 2 Rs—with and without serifs. He has no trouble ending the stroke. If you compare the two letters, the serifs on the left show a bit more deep shadow or bright light. They accentuate the ends of a stroke and make it easier to see.


DON’T FORGET: Midnight tomorrow is the deadline to submit your Romans-looking-at-a-Greek-urn gag! The winner will be chosen Friday!

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Writ large

Meanwhile, big-shot Roman emperors needed to have inscriptions put up on walls and columns—letters were to be carved into stone. The letters had to be big and easy-to-read—legible. The guys carving the inscriptions must’ve sketched out the letters first. They mimicked the lettering you get from a broad nib by drawing their letters with two pieces of crayon in a holder.

Maybe it looked like this?

Aside—’Writ large’ is a pointy-headed way of saying something is bigger and easier to read than another thing. I think Plato used it first: “The State is the individual writ large.”

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Calligraphy is a word that means ‘beautiful writing.’

Remember the Egyptians used reed pens to write, but since they were drawing images—pictures of things—the nib was kept narrow or else they used a fine-tipped brush. I’m not sure when it happened, but either Greek or Roman scribes began drawing letters with a broad-nibbed pen (a nib is the tip). They became concerned about the angle of the pen when they wrote. They kept their pens always at the same angle, so that a group of letters would have a pleasing consistency. Or maybe they used a chisel-tipped brush. Several calligraphers I link to below use a brush.*

In Italian a serif is called a ‘grazia,’ a grace:
You can even use a chisel-point marker for calligraphy:

* The idea of writing with thick and thin strokes may well have come from the Muslim world, where the Phoenician abjad was evolving into Arabic script. I’ll look into that.

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Greece’s savage conqueror

“Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts into rustic Latium” —Horace, that old smartypants

Don’t forget! We’re still looking for dialogue for these two Roman characters admiring a Greek vase. Deadline is midnight Thursday, February 25! https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2021/02/18/we-need-a-gag-writer/

Greek culture—and the Greek alphabet—flourished and got spread around the Mediterranean world by Alexander the Great, through his program of Hellenization. We talked about this a few posts back when I was yapping about the Rosetta stone. Eventually Alexander’s empire got taken over by the Roman Empire.

The Romans were crazy about Greek culture. They loved the architecture, the statues, the literature, the theater, their weird habit of painting on wet plaster—and the alphabet. They liked the alphabet so much they adopted it as their own. The Romans changed a few of the Greek letters. They didn’t have J, K, U and W. But the Latin alphabet is pretty much the one we use today here in good old Western Civilization.


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We need a gag writer!

We’re coming up on the Roman Empire, and I want to do a post about how much the Romans were in love with Greek art. I drew this cartoon. I just can’t think of anything funny for the characters to say. It’s up to you guys. I’m counting on you to write some dialogue for these two ancient Romans.

So put on your funniest thinking cap. You have one week to write words for both dialogue balloons. You can put your joke in the comments or send it to John@johnmanders.com. Everybody who participates gets a post card. The writer of the winning gag gets this drawing. DON’T PUT YOUR CONTACT INFO IN THE COMMENTS, YOU GOOFBALLS! Tell me your postal address at John@johnmanders.com. I’ll post the results Friday, February 26, 2021. May the odds be ever in your flavor!

The new religion

The Roman Empire became so enormous that it was too huge for one emperor. The Empire got split into East and West. Rome was still the capital city of the western half. Byzantium became the capital city of the eastern half. Within both halves of the Empire was a growing movement, a new religion—people who worshiped Jesus Christ. This was a problem, because—just like the Egyptians and pharaoh—Romans were expected to worship their emperor as a god. Christians had to worship in secret. Whenever they were found, Christians were rounded up, punished and even executed in grisly spectacles at the Colosseum where they were put in an arena with abused, starved lions. People bought tickets to watch. Human beings can be horrible, gang.

https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-27/persecution-in-early-church-did-you-know.html (requires subscription)

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We locked a bunch of astronomers in a room and you’ll never believe what happened next!

Roman astronomers trying to get the lunar and solar cycles to match up. I threw a couple of Sun-worshiping Druid priestesses in there, too.

A big headache with ancient calendars is that they had to be constantly updated to make them agree with the movements of both the Moon and the Sun. Months are based on the Moon’s cycles. Years are based on Earth’s orbit around the Sun. ‘Calendae’—we say ‘calends’—is a Latin word for ‘first day of the month.’ ‘Ides’ is the day in the middle of each month. Astronomers (scientists who study the stars and planets) would first determine the ides (when the moon will be full) for each month and calculate the rest of each lunar cycle/month from there. It is a tricky business to get the twelve cycles of the Moon to work out to be the same amount of time the Earth orbits the Sun.

Measuring distance in Rome

The Romans borrowed religion, art, architecture and literature from the people they conquered to make a hodge-podge, eclectic culture for themselves. Mostly they borrowed from the Greeks—the Greek gods got Latin names. Ares (the god of war) became Mars. Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, Poseidon became Neptune, Aphrodite became Venus.

The Romans also borrowed technology. They measured distance the same way the Egyptians and Greeks did, by using parts of a typical grown man for standardized units.

finger—digitus (1/16 of a pes)
thumb-joint—uncia (inch, 1/12 of a pes)
four fingers—palmus (1/4 of a pes)
foot—pes (plural: pedes)
one step—gradus (2.5 pedes)
pace—passus (5 pedes)

For longer distances, a mile (mille passus) was 1000 passus or 5000 pedes. (I hope I’m getting the plurals right—https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/passus)

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