Capital Letters

How ancient Romans turned bad handwriting into a monumental type

BLKBK makes script-based fonts primarily in the Latin alphabet. When we craft our fonts, we maintain a delicate balance between basic legibility and expressive character; finding novelty in forms that have evolved over thousands of years. If we look back on earlier iterations of our alphabet, we can see how fraught this process has been, and the challenges modern typographers face in breaking new ground.

There's an ancient piece of literature that demonstrates that the challenges of making letters are about as old as letters.

Pseudolus was a man with a full life. Full of slaving. His master was not only too lazy to labour, making his labourers labour proved laborious. So, he enslaved Pseudolus to manage his house, business, other slaves, and everything else that distracted him from an otherwise bacchanalian existence. Head-slave was an important job, and Pseudolus was therefore awarded liberty over all things besides his work, time, and whereabouts.

When his master’s son, Calidorus, walked up to him, waving a letter in his face, blatantly under the influence of Venus, crying that his beloved was about to be sold out from under him, Pseudolus seized on the greatest liberty still available to him: choice words.

“These are love letters,” he agreed, looking over the parchment Calidorus had handed him. “The letters are mounting each other.”

Pseudolus is the titular character in one of the oldest examples of Roman literature. Pseudolus (the play) is, therefore, one of the first plays written in the Latin alphabet—over 2200 years ago. In its opening scene, Pseudolus levels the above criticism at some handwriting. It's funny. But it's also laden with meaning as to how text works, both in his society and universally.

In the world of Pseudolus, literacy is widespread. Pseudolus is a slave, yet can read. Calidorus’s love interest is also a slave, yet can write. The implication is that literacy is a skill that extends beyond political or merchant classes and across genders. Further, while Pseudolus may not like the handwriting he’s forced to read, he can still actually read it. That’s because he’s reading words written in letters that, for all their flaws, still contain the essential signal of letters: semantic meaning conveyed by a regular, repeatable system, without which the wide spread of literacy wouldn't even be possible.

Beyond that, Pseudolus shares the fundamental insight behind everything we do at BLKBK: Letters impart meaning before and beyond the words they form. Before he even bothers to read the letter, Pseudolus has made a judgment on its meaning, based on the appearance of its letters. While he says so ironically, letters couldn’t look loving if they didn’t betray the emotion driving the hand that wrote them.

His joke at the expense of someone’s handwriting is also indicative of the difference in quality and legibility of script produced by different writers in its day. Old Roman cursive varied widely in legibility and style, and while many people were capable of writing, not all could do so well, and professional scribes turned in letters superior in legibility and style.

The problems brought about by illegible writing in a society with widespread literacy lead the Romans to develop square capitals, a form of writing used for monuments and public inscriptions typically found in capital cities. Featuring serifs and clean lines with differentiated weights, capitalis monumentalis was slower to write, but clear and easily readable. This type is the precursor to the capital letters we use today, and a clear visual and nominal progenitor of Times New Roman.

Capitalis monumentalis was the perfect innovation for a regime seeking to enforce uniformity across a vast empire. Its letter forms are as clear as they are rigid and as distinct as they are regular; they're a characteristically Roman subsumption of the individual. Nobody could accuse these letters of mounting each other.

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