Tag Archives: Eleanor Dickey

How the technology of writing shaped Roman thought

I have two bits about the Romans: the first is noted in the head for this posting and the second is about a chance to experience a Roman style classroom.

Empire of Letters

This January 8, 2019 news item on phys.org announces a book about how the technology of writing influenced how ancient Romans saw the world and provides a counterpoint to the notion that the ancient world (in Europe) was relentlessly oral in nature,

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest surviving scientific treatise written in Latin. Composed around 55 B.C.E., the text is a lengthy piece of contrarianism. Lucreutius was in the Epicurean school of philosophy: He wanted an account of the world rooted in earthly matter, rather than explanations based on the Gods and religion

Among other things, Lucretius believed in atomism, the idea that the world and cosmos consisted of minute pieces of matter, rather than four essential elements. To explain this point, Lucretius asked readers to think of bits of matter as being like letters of the alphabet. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin—probably derived from the grouping of L,M, and N in the alphabet

To learn these elements of writing, students would copy out tables of letters and syllables, which Lucretius thought also served as a model for understanding the world, since matter and letters could be rearranged in parallel ways. For instance, Lucretius wrote, wood could be turned into fire by adding a little heat, while the word for wood, “lingum,” could be turned into the world for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters.

Students taking this analogy to heart would thus learn “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” says Stephanie Frampton, an associate professor of literature at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in a new book on writing in the Roman world.

Moreover, Frampton emphasizes, the fact that students were learning all this specifically through writing exercises is a significant and underappreciated point in our understanding of ancient Rome: Writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world.

A January 3, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin — the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.”

Frampton explores this and other connections between writing and Roman society in her new work, “Empire of Letters,” published last week by Oxford University Press [according to their webpage, the paper version will be published on February 4, 2019; the e-book is now available for purchase].

The book is a history of technology itself, as Frampton examines the particulars of Roman books — which often existed as scrolls back then — and their evolution over time. But a central focus of the work is how those technologies influenced how the Romans “thought about thought,” as she says.

Moreover, as Frampton notes, she is studying the history of Romans as “literate creatures,” which means studying the tools of writing used not just in completed works, but in education, too. The letter tables detailed by Lucretius are just one example of this. Romans also learned to read and write using wax tablets that they could wipe clean after exercises.

The need to wipe such tablets clean drove the Roman emphasis on learning the art of memory — including the “memory palace” method, which uses visualized locations for items to remember them, and which is still around today. For this reason Cicero, among other Roman writers, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.”
As Frampton writes in the book, such tablets also produced “an intimate and complex relationship with memory” in the Roman world, and meant that “memory was a fundamental part of literary composition.”  

Tablets also became a common Roman metaphor for how our brains work: They thought “the mind is like a wax tablet where you can write and erase and rewrite,” Frampton says. Understanding this kind of relationship between technology and the intellect, she thinks, helps us get that much closer to life as the Romans lived it

“I think it’s analagous to early computing,” Frampton says. “The way we talk about the mind now is that it’s a computer. … We think about the computer in the same way that [intellectuals] in Rome were thinking about writing on wax tablets.”

As Frampton discusses in the book, she believes the Romans did produce a number of physical innovations to the typical scroll-based back of the classic world, including changes in layout, format, coloring pigments, and possibly even book covers and the materials used as scroll handles, including ivory.

“The Romans were engineers, that’s [one thing] they were famous for,” Frampton says. “They are quite interesting and innovative in material culture.”

Looking beyond “Empire of Letters” itself, Frampton will co-teach an MIT undergraduate course in 2019, “Making Books,” that looks at the history of the book and gets students to use old technologies to produce books as they were once made. While that course has previously focused on printing-press technology, Frampton will help students go back even further in time, to the days of the scroll and codex, if they wish. All these reading devices, after all, were important innovations in their day.

“I’m working on old media,” Frampton says, “But those old media were once new.” [emphasis mine]

While the technologies Carolyn Marvin was writing about were not quite as old Frampton’s, she too noted the point about old and new technology in her 1990 book “When Old Technologies Were New” published by the Oxford University Press in 1990.

Getting back to Frampton, she has founded an organization known as the Materia Network, which is focused on (from @materianetwork’s Twitter description) “New Approaches to Material Text in the Roman World is a conference series and network for scholars of books and writing in Classical antiquity.”

You can find Materia here. They do have a Call for Proposals but I believe the deadline should read: December 20, 2018 (not 2019) since the conference will be held in April 2019).

Also, you can purchase the ebook or print version of Frampton’s Empire of Letters from the Oxford University Press here.

I have a couple of final comments. (1) The grand daddy of oral and literate culture discussion is Walter J. Ong and I’m referring specifically to his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy. BTW, in addition to being a English Literature professor, the man was a Jesuit priest.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

(2) The University of Reading (UK) has organized over the last few years, although they skipped in 2018, a series of events known as Reading Ancient Schoolroom (my August 9, 2018 posting features the ‘schoolroom’). The 2019 event is taking place January 23 – 25, 2019. You can find out more about the 2019 opportunity here. For anyone who can’t get to the UK easily, here’s a video of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom,

According to the description on YouTube,


Published on Feb 22, 2018

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is a historically accurate reconstruction of an ancient schoolroom. It gives modern children an immersive experience of antiquity, acting the part of ancient children, wearing their clothes and using their writing equipment. It was developed by Eleanor Dickey at the University of Reading. Find out more at: www.readingancientschoolroom.com

There you have it.

Ancient Roman teaching methods for maths education?

I find this delightful (from a July 7,2017 news item on phys.org),

Schoolchildren from across the region have been learning different ways to engage with maths, as part of a series of ancient Roman classroom days held at the University of Reading [UK].

Organised by the University’s Department of Classics, the Reading Ancient Schoolroom event saw pupils undertake a series of ancient-style school exercises, including doing multiplication, division, and calculating compound interest with Roman numerals. A key difference between how maths was taught then and now is that sums were not written down in ancient Roman times – instead an abacus or a counting board with dried beans was used.

In addition, school children in antiquity were taught individually by the teacher and worked on their own assignments, rather than being taught as a whole class. This meant pupils were able to work at their own rate of ability.

A July 6, 2017 University of Reading press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Professor Eleanor Dickey, who organised the series of events, said: ‘We’ve been running these ancient schoolroom days for a few years now and what we’ve learnt during that time is that the children really engage with the ancient teaching methods, especially when it comes to maths. We’ve found that children who aren’t naturally gifted at maths actually enjoy using the abacus and counting boards and this helps to stimulate their interest and learning of the subject.

“As follow up to the day we provide teachers with a pack of teaching materials they can take back to their own classroom and this includes instructions on how to make a counting board, as well as other maths-related and non-maths-related activities. It is my hope that some of these ancient methods can help to further modern teaching practice.”

Other activities on the day included reading poetry written without word division or punctuation, learning to write with a stylus on a wax tablet and reading from papyrus scrolls. Wearing Roman costumes, students also got to sample some authentic Roman food and handle objects from the University of Reading’s Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology.

Professor Dickey continued: “Ancient education methods, by being very different from our own, help us better appreciate both the advantages and the disadvantages of our own system, and show that doing things our way is neither natural nor inevitable.

“The ancient Roman school days are also a great way to get children interested in history more generally.”

The research which helped determine what a day in an ancient Roman classroom was like came from Professor Dickey’s discovery and translation of a set of ancient textbooks describing what children did in school. Parts of these historical records were published last year in a book by Professor Dickey: Learning Latin the Ancient Way: Latin Textbooks in the Ancient World, published by Cambridge University Press.

In hindsight it seems obvious. Of course an abacus helps with learning as it’s more engaging. You get to make a range of gestures and you make sounds (the clicking of the abacus beads) neither of which are  typically part of the maths experience. Then, there’s the individualized attention and your own special maths problems.