Parents of the Roman Alphabet : Phoenicians and Greeks
Meyer1 Greek

Bringhurst greek brush

Take a Field Trip to Turkey to see early Greek lettering...
Hans Eduard Meyer

First, an acknowledgement of Hans Eduard Meyer (Meier) whose work is used on these pages to demonstrate some of the early writing and type developments.

Meyer devoted his career to teaching letterform for over 35 years at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich. As a teaching aid, Meyer drew 70 models of historical writing samples ranging from ancient Greek stone inscriptions of the fifth century BC to contemporary sans serif. The drawings were published in his book, The Development of Writing (Die Schriftenwicklung) in 1959. 2

Meyer makes it clear that his work is not a faithful reproduction of original examples but rather demonstration models to illustrate more clearly the typical forms that developed. After more than ten editions, the book is still available and remains a classic. The entire illustrated set has been posted on line by Dean Allen at this link

Early Greek / 5th C. B.C.E.

Built on the Egyptian logo-consonantal system, the Phoenicians developed a phonetic alphabet consisting of 22 letters.

The Phoenicians system then was adopted by the Greeks who added the necessary vowels. Early Greek was comprised of only capital letters, written between two guidelines to organize them into horizontal rows.

The words may have been in rows but the direction of reading was not yet fixed. Greek was often read in a format known as boustrophedon or “as the ox plows.” One row would read left to right and then switch from right to left.

Greek Type by R. Bringhurst

"The earliest surviving European letterforms are Greek capitals scratched into stone. The strokes are bony and thin, almost ethereal—the opposite of the heavy substance they are carved in. The letters are made primarily from straight lines, and when curved forms appear, they have a very large aperture. This means that forms like S and C and M, which can be relatively open or relatively closed, are about are open as they can get.

These early Greek letters were drawn freehand, not constructed with compasses and rule, and they had no serifs —neither the informal entry and exit strikes left by a relaxed and fluent writer, nor the symmetrical finish stroke typically added to letters by formal scribes.

In time the strokes of these letter grew thicker, the aperture lessened, and serifs appeared. The new forms, used for inscriptions throughout the Greek empire, served as models for formal lettering in imperial Rome. And those Roman inscriptional letters—written with a flat brush, held at an angle like a broad nib pen, then carved into the stone with mallet and chisel—have served in their turn as models for calligraphers and type designers for the past two thousand years."4

We highly suggest Mr. Bringhurst's book, shown above left, which is primarily dedicated to the principles of working with type but includes a nice concise section on type history.

The Roman Letter : Written and Carved
romanlapidary5 mosley brush sample



Early Roman Lapidary
2nd Century B.C.E.

Following the Greek style, the first Roman stone carved letters were of equal width and without serifs. The Romans added some word spacing to divide the words into single units via dots placed midline.

Twenty letters of the modern alphabet are derived from Roman lettering. K,Y, Z came from Greek. Later additions of J (a version of I) and U, W (from V) complete the 26 letters

Painting with a Square-cut Brush, The Origin of the Serif?

During the 1st century lettering changed in composition from monoline evenness to forms made from thick and thin strokes. Exactly why this happened remains unknown. Type historians have theorized that serifs resulted from stone cutters following the forms left by a square-cut writing implement; not a reed or quill, but a flat stiff brush.

Above is a late example of Rustic Capitals shown currently on James Mosley's blog Typefoundry, where he quotes the observations of W. R. Lethaby in 1906, "The Roman characters which are our letters today, although their earlier forms have only come down to us cut in stone, must have been formed by incessant practice with a flat, stiff brush, or some such tool. This disposition of the thicks and thins, and the exact shape of the curves, must have been settled by an instrument used rapidly; I suppose, indeed, that most of the great monumental inscriptions were designed in situ by a master writer, and only cut in by the mason ." 6

Classical Roman Lapidary
1st Century, C.E.

In the late 1960's a similar observation was made by Father Edward Catich, a calligrapher, stone carver and expert on the Roman alphabet. While studying for the priesthood in Rome, Catich was able to visit the sites of original Roman stone engravings. He published his findings in a 1968 work The Origin of the Serif, Brush Writing and Roman Letters.

The lapidary stone-engraved letters were painted on stone with a square-cut tool and then incised; from such means resulted the thick and thin variations of the strokes and the serifs.8

Link to Catich stone inscription of Trajan letters and their basic brush strokes.

Trajan Inscription

Probably the most revered example of Roman capitals appear in an inscription at the base of a war monument in Rome— Trajan's Column, C. E. 117. Many considered this particular work to embody the ultimate resolution of Latin letterform evolution.

Numerous type designers over 20 centuries have used the Trajan lettering as a prototype for derivative typefaces— including the famous Edward Johnston, Eric Gill and Carol Twombly reinterpretations.

trajanTrajan's Column in Rome 10
Readings and Links
Information on brush to stone
translations on James Mosley's typeblog, Typefoundry.

"See the Catich Collection stone-carved Capitalis Monumentali Watch a modern day stone cutter carving the Trajan letters here.  
Image: Detail of cover of The Development of Writing.

Hans Eduard Meier, En toutes letters, Typotheque, Roxane Jubert, 2001.

The Development of Writing.

The Elements of Typographic Style,
Robert Bringhurst. Hartley and Marks, Canada, 2002. Pages 119–120.

James Mosley, Roman Tragedy, May 2008, Typefoundry blog.

Edward Catich, The Origin of the Serif, Brush Writing and Roman Letters, 1968.

Image Source
© Jeff Banke/

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