typography in ancient rome
by Sarah Bassett
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2012]
lettering on the arch of constantine

Throughout this semester in Rome, I've been mesmerized by the large architectural structures I walk by every day, but more specifically, the typography integrated into these buildings. Last semester, I took a typography class and fell in love with letters, they just have this divine presence, and after coming to Rome, I believe that even more. I found myself asking questions like: "How did it get here?", "Where did it come from?", "How was type created?", "What do the words mean?".
The Romans actually developed their alphabet from greek letter-forms, and created the letter system we are familiar with today. When carving the letters into stone, the chisel would slip out, causing the letters to be uneven and unappealing. To solve this problem, the Romans developed a 'hook' in their letters, CREATING THE FIRST SERIF FONTS THE WORLD HAD SEEN. For example, in the image to the left, the letter 'M' is depicted in a quick sketch from the Arch of Constantine. You can see the hooks at the bottom of each leg of the letter.

The Romans also made it so that letters higher up on a structure were larger than letters lower to the ground, to trick the eye into thinking they were all the same size. In addition, there were little holes in the letters so that pegs could be inserted to support the bronze cut-out letters that covered the engraving.
Letters are not only meant to give information, but they are also used as illustration, to tell a story. For example, on the Arch of Constantine, the varying letter spacing echoes the pattern of the frieze that runs all the way around, decorated with spheres and rectangles, symbolically representing the divinity and power of Constantine. Typography today has evolved so much from the Romans, but modern design's roots will always remain in Rome, where it all began.

lettering on the arch of constantine