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Classical Antiquity: Paleography

Section 2: Roman Cursives

Older Roman Cursive (a.k.a. Ancient Roman Cursive) was in use from at least the first century BCE — probably significantly earlier — through the third century CE. In 367 CE, its use was restricted by decree to the imperial chancery, after which Later Roman Cursive succeeded it as the everyday script of the later Roman Empire. Despite its name, Older Roman Cursive wouldn't immediately strike us as "cursive" — perhaps not even in the technical sense of being written with few lifts of the pen. Older Roman Cursive is called "cursive" because of the impression it gives of being hastily written. It is constructed mostly of individual angular strokes, and has something of the appearance of hen-scratches. In fact, the Roman comic playwright Plautus has a character say, "Surely a hen wrote these letters."

© The British Library Board, Papyrus 229.

Note that Older Roman Cursive is classified as a majuscule script: despite the irregular appearance of the lines of writing, the letters are generally the same size as each other, with few ascenders or descenders.

Later Roman Cursive (a.k.a. New Roman Cursive), on the other hand, is recognizably both cursive and minuscule. It is the ultimate ancestor of all subsequent medieval minuscules and, therefore, of our own lower-case alphabet, so its forms are familiar. Ascenders have loops; b looks like the modern lower case b, whereas in Older Roman Cursive it faced backwards, like a d. The g has assumed the minuscule form that will persist through most medieval scripts. The aspect is, in general, upright and loopy. Later Roman Cursive is often not at all easy to read, but once you pick out the individual letterforms, you will realize you are on familiar turf.


 partially deteriorated bilingual  Greek and Latin document of uncertain nature, P.Mich.inv. 4295
P.Mich.inv. 4295r. Image digitally reproduced with the permission of the Papyrology Collection, Graduate Library, University of Michigan

Later Roman Cursive was the administrative script of the later Roman Empire, and as such it formed the basis for subsequent scripts in the successor states to Rome all over Europe. (More about this in subsequent lessons.) It was used from the third century through the fifth century, and persisted in various forms into the seventh, by which point it had evolved into distinct local scripts associated with various early medieval kingdoms and monastic centers.

Papyrus: Notice that these examples of ancient cursive scripts are written on papyrus, which was the normal writing support for books in the ancient Mediterranean world. We discussed the characteristics of papyrus in the Paleography Basics lesson. In the next lesson, on Christian Late Antiquity, we will discuss the transition from the papyrus roll (volumen) to the parchment codex in late antiquity.