Sans Roman

How Egyptology erased the Roman brand from letters

When you look at the font we use for the text of Letters, you won’t see something that has appeared in every typeface featured in this series, from Square Capitals on: serifs.

Little or long, feathery or fat, these details ornament and punctuate the terminals of lines. They point the sinuousness of “S”, they underline an “A”, they finish “F” and square off every “E”; no letter is safe. At a certain point, the serif was ubiquitous in type design. It’s worth asking why. We can write just fine without adding tiny flourishes at the ends of each line, and yet type designers working over centuries, from Alcuin to Gutenberg, Griffo to Caslon, and on, and on, couldn’t not put a serif to every letter.

Until the 19th century.

One thing about serifs we know is that they originated in the Latin alphabet, with Roman inscriptions. Conventional wisdom says that serifs are a function of the inscription process; in order to make clean, square ends to lines, carvers made serifs. This makes some sense: think of the width of a chisel exceeding the weight of a line. A stroke of the chisel to square off a line would create a serif. But that raises the question: why not use a thinner chisel? The theory weakens further in the face of ancient inscriptions—particularly in non-Latin languages—without serifs.

In the 1960s a priest, sign painter, type founder, and calligrapher Edward Catich presented a better theory in his book The Origin of the Serif. He studied Trajan’s Column, a second century victory column in Rome, which features an example of Square Capitals so intact that Adobe took the name Trajan for their square capital font. Catich found in the inscriptions a “reliance on standard shapes”, and submitted the letterforms to a Fournier-esque grid. The letters were indeed very regular; they deviated little from each other and conformed to a consistent size.

Looking at the inscription on Trajan’s column, the letters are obviously uniform. But to Catich, this trivial observation suggested something else. Catich was himself an accomplished inscriber, and he brushed his letters on stone before carving them. Using the same method—first painting letters with a flat brush, then carving them into the stone—he was able to reproduce the Square Capitals. Serifs, then, were not a product of carving, but of painting.

That’s a good mechanical explanation of why serifs existed in a second century inscription. But serifs are visible on Republican Roman coins from centuries earlier. Romans made coins by hammering a punch into metal slugs. Were these punches created by following a template laid with a flat brush? Whatever the mechanics of creating serifs were, they were a long-standing feature of Latin letters; they may have persisted as long as they did simply because they existed as long as they did. 

The Romans were the conquerors and caretakers of an enormous empire. In a space so vast and diverse, with so many competing influences, they would enforce what regularity they could. Latin, both as a language and an alphabet, was part of the Roman brand. Anyone who saw a Roman inscription, even without being able to read it, could immediately identify it as the work of Rome based on its strong visual characteristics.

Ironically, sans serif letters emerged in the late 18th century as part of the neo-classical movement—because of interest in other inscriptions in the Roman empire. When Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, he flooded the country with 165 scholars, who founded the field of Egyptology. Suddenly captivated by classical influences beyond the ubiquitous Roman, architects and type designers noticed the absence of serifs in Egyptian, but also Greek and Etruscan alphabets, and adapted the look to the Latin alphabet.

The not-Roman-yet-classical look of these new types lent the popular name “Egyptian” to the emerging style. It exploded in popularity in 19th century England, with sans serifs appearing on signs and labels, reportedly to astonishing effect. In 1816, William Caslon IV created the first sans-serif font, a large, all-capitals Egyptian.

Over the following decades, printers would create more dramatic, bold, and compressed sans serifs, influenced by the development of Fat Face and the market demand for eye-catching display fonts. Many later additions to the style took other names from antiquity as alternatives to “Roman”. Sometimes it was “grotesque” a word derived from the Italian word for “cave”, possibly a reference to Etruscan letters. In other cases it was “Gothic”, a reference to the non-Roman civilizations of northern European antiquity. Gothic remains a popular name for sans serif fonts today, such as the digital typeface Century Gothic.

Whatever the name, the fonts were workhorses. They were excellent for signs thanks to their simplicity, ease of painting, and legibility from a distance. Removing serifs reduced the letterforms to their most basic elements—the parts that actually carried semantic information. Romans used serifs as a part of their Roman brand, to enforce regularity over diversity. It was a statement so striking that it took centuries for anyone to notice that the Roman brand and Latin letter were distinct. Finally, in the 19th century, we learned how to express things in letters, without expressing Rome.