How Writing Shaped the Empire

Empire of Letters: Writing in Roman Literature and Thought from Lucretius to Ovid | Stephanie Ann Frampton | Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Heidi White

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest known natural philosophy poem in Latin. An Epicurean, Lucretius wanted to explain the fundamental nature of the cosmos in terms of imperceptible atomic matter alone. To do so, he turned to a linguistic metaphor. Atoms, Lucretius wrote, are like letters. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin. Just as we can manipulate letters to create meaning (the Latin word for wood, “lignum,” becomes the word for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters) so we can manipulate the natural world (wood becomes fire by adding heat). Readers of Lucretius steep themselves in “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” writes Stephanie Frampton, Associate Professor of Literature at MIT, in Empire of Letters, her new book on the art of writing in the Roman world.

Dr. Frampton traces this and many other threads that weave ancient writing customs into the tapestry of Roman society. Conventional wisdom among scholars of ancient literature holds that the poetic tradition in antiquity was primarily oral and thus Roman writing was essentially an afterthought, a cultural blip. But Dr. Frampton challenges that perception in Empire of Letters, arguing that Lucretius and other Roman writers demonstrate that Roman forms of writing profoundly shaped Roman ways of thinking and acting.

“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.” To Frampton, this is significant because it indicates that the physical act of writing was common enough among Romans to use it as a metaphor to prove a philosophical point in a scholarly treatise. Lucretius' elemental metaphor is one of many examples explored in Empire of Letters that demonstrates the widespread impact of writing practices on Roman society.

Frampton investigates more than just the content of the written record. Much of the book explores how the physical act of writing—its customs and technologies—in Roman society formed the way Roman citizens thought and acted on a daily basis. For example, Roman students used wax tablets to practice writing. Before a new lesson, they would wipe their tablets clean. This meant that they could not preserve their work beyond the present lesson, necessitating Roman students to commit each lesson to memory. Writing, then, was not a substitute for memory—as it has become in the modern world—but an aid to it. Indeed, Cicero, that consummate Roman, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.” Due to the physical nature of wax tablet technology, writing and memory were inextricably connected to the Roman mind, while to the moderns they are nearly opposites. Romans wrote in order to remember; we write so that we do not have to.

This and other explorations in the book illuminate not only Roman society, but our own. By comparing the techniques of writing in the ancient world to the modern one, Dr. Frampton examines the foundations of technology in western culture, shedding light on how the innovations of Roman writing compare to more recent cultural advancements, like the computer, which profoundly shape the way we think and act today. Thoughtful readers will draw parallels between the progressive impact of ancient writing customs on Roman culture to the technological innovations in the modern world.

For those bibliophiles who love the sensory experience of holding a well-made book in your hands, Empire of Letters offers fascinating insights into the historical craft of book-making. The grammarian Quintillian, for example, apparently bewailed the distraction of dipping the nib of his reed pen in ink. Pliny the Elder recorded a papyrus shortage during the reign of the emperor Tiberius which would have “sent life into chaos” if not for the intervention of the senate. Not only do these charming anecdotes throw the writing life of antiquity into sharp relief, they also enable us to enter vicariously into the physical realm of beloved ancient writers, bringing Virgil and Cicero that much closer to those of us who read their work on, say, the hottest new e-reader.

Empire of Letters is a book-lover's book. In it, Dr. Frampton explores the fascinating minutiae of the physical act of writing in Roman antiquity. From Lucretius' famous elemental metaphor to wax tablet technology to the trials and tribulations of Roman letter-writing and the manufacture of scrolls, Dr. Frampton argues that writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world. For those of us who love the Roman literary tradition, Empire of Letters immerses us in the grit and gravel of Lucretius' and Virgil's tools of the trade, giving classically-minded readers the delightful opportunity to feel the papyrus and smell the wax.


Heidi White is managing editor of the Forma Journal, host of the FORMA Podcast, and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.

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