2 Ways The Romans Recorded Information

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The Romans wrote nearly everyday to record information about their life and ambitions. Because of this extensive writing tradition a ton of Roman sources have survived to the modern day. Here are the 2 ways that Romans recorded information.

During the Roman Republic and early Empire there were two ways that information was recorded. For everyday matters such as record keeping, diary/journal entries, or directions Romans would write on wax tablets or wooden bark. For official records of state and massive books the Romans would instead use ink and papyrus.

The ancient Romans were one of the few civilizations before the modern era that kept meticulous records of everything. To this day historians are uncovering sources that detail almost insane levels of record keeping by the Roman state.

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Without further ado, here are the 2 ways Romans recorded information.

Using Wax Tablets To Record Everyday Information

Peter van der Sluijs - Own work
Writing tablet with wax and stylus. Roman period. The sharp tip was used for writing and the flat end was for wiping it out.

The first way that Romans recorded information was by writing it down on reusable wax tablets.

These wax tablets would fold together like a book to protect the writing from accidentally being wiped clean. The Roman would have a stylus that had a pointed and flat end.

The pointed end of the stylus was used to write on the soft wax. Here Romans would write down shopping lists, diary entries, business ledgers, and anything else that needed to be remembered.

The flat end of the stylus was used to flatten out the wax to be reused. This meant that one wax tablet could be reused several times before having to have the wax replaced.

The Romans did not invent these wax tablets. Sometime around the 3rd century BC the Romans would learn of these wax tablets from the Greeks who in turn learned about them from ancient eastern sources.

Before the 3rd century BC the Romans are believed to have written either on stone tablets or on wooden bark. Unfortunately nearly nothing from this time period survives.

The use of writing on wooden bark continued up through the Empire. Naturally nearly nothing of these wooden bark messages survive except for one stunning example.

In 1973 a team of archeologists in Britain discovered an ancient Roman fort in northern England. This fort was covered with a thick layer of sediment which preserved nearly all artifacts. Deep under this dirt a set of wooden bark tablets were discovered that are today called the Vindolanda tablets.

These wooden bark tablets date from the early Roman Empire. The message on these tablets contain relay messages to be sent from Vindolanda around Britain. Included in these messages was a birthday party invitation.

As such, one of the ways in which Romans recorded information was by writing on either reusable clay tablets or wooden bark.

For Official Documents Of State And Massive Books The Romans Would Use Papyrus And Ink

The second way in which Romans would record information was by using papyrus and ink.

Typically papyrus and ink was only reserved for large documents such as books and official state documents that were complex. It is believed that the Romans started using papyrus sometime during the 4th century BC but nearly nothing survives from that time period.

The Romans themselves would get the invention of papyrus from the ancient Egyptians who discovered how to create it. Historians don’t know how fast papyrus and ink writing took hold over Roman culture but we can estimate that sometime between the 200-100 BC there was a large shift from writing on stone tablets to papyrus.

The reason for this is because by the 1st century AD the Roman writer Pliny the Elder documented the prices of papyrus in the Roman market. He writes that papyrus would be graded on four qualities; how firm, fine, white, and smooth the blank papyrus was.

The best papyrus was called Augustan and was ten inches wide. The worst papyrus was discounted and only came in rolls of 4 inches wide. This bad papyrus was only to be used for wrapping paper.

The ink used for the Roman’s papyrus was blank ink. To create this ink the Romans would mix charcoal and soot with some water to create an ink substance that clung well to the papyrus.

The problem with this ink however is that it does not hold up well to time. Eventually the ink itself will begin to degrade and break down the parchment. This is one of the main reasons why a ton of primary sources from the Roman empire don’t survive to our modern day.

As such, one of the main ways in which Romans recorded information was by writing official state documents and large books on papyrus using black ink.


There you have it; an entire article dedicated to the 2 ways Romans recorded information.

The study of Roman writing utensils and methods is a fascinating subject. Not much has been done in this field recently and as such any prospective graduate student looking to provide fresh research could look into either ink production in ancient Rome or wax tablet adoption from Greece.

Here at The History Ace I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing around the internet.

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