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p1091 Tabulae

Unsigned article on pp1091‑1092 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

TABULAE. This word properly means planks or boards, whence it is applied to several objects, as gaming-tables (Juv. I.90), pictures (Cic. de Fin. V.1; Propert. I.2.22), but more especially to tablets used for writing, of which alone we have to speak here. The word Tabulae was applied to any flat substance used for writing upon, whether stone or metal, or wood covered with wax. Livy (I.24) indeed distinguishes between Tabulae and Cera, by the former of which he seems to mean tablets of stone or metal; but Tabulae and Tabellae more frequently signify waxen tablets (tabulae ceratae), which were thick pieces of wood usually of an oblong shape, covered over with wax (cera). The wax was written on by means of the stilus. [Stilus.] These tabulae were sometimes made of ivory and citron-wood (Mart. XIV.3.5), but generally of a wood of a more common tree, as the beech, fir, &c. The outer sides of the tablets consisted merely of the wood; it was only the inner sides that were covered over with wax. They were fastened together at the back by means of wires, which answered the purpose of hinges, so p1092that they opened and shut like our books; and to prevent the wax of one tablet rubbing against the wax of the other, as is clearly seen in the woodcut under Stilus. There were sometimes two, three, four, five, or even more, tablets fastened together in the above-mentioned manner. Two such tablets were called Diptycha (δίπτυχα), which merely means "twice-folded" (from πτύσσω "to fold"), whence we have πτυκτίον, or with the τ omitted, πυκτίον. The Latin word pugillares, which is the name frequently given to tablets covered with wax (Mart. XIV.3; Gell. XVII.9; Plin. Ep. I.6), may perhaps be connected with the same root, though it is usually derived from pugillus, because they were small enough to be held in the hand. Such tablets are mentioned as early as the time of Homer, who speaks of a πίναξ πτυκτός (Il. VI.169). Three tablets fastened together were called Triptycha (τρίπτυχα), which Martial (XIV.6) translates by triplices (cerae); in the same way we also read of Pentaptycha (πεντάπτυχα) called by Martial (XIV.4) Quintuplices (cerae), and of Polyptycha (πολύπτυχα) or Multiplices (cerae). The pages of these tablets were frequently called by the name of cerae alone; thus we read of prima cera, altera cera, "first page," "second page" (compare Suet. Ner. 17). In tables containing important legal documents, especially wills, the outer edges were pierced through with holes (foramina), through which a triple thread (linum) was passed, and upon which a seal was then placed. This was intended to guard against forgery, and if it was not done such documents were null and void (Suet. Ner. 17; Paulus, Sent. Rec. V.25 §6; Testamentum).

Waxen tablets were used among the Romans for almost every species of writing, where great length was not required. Thus letters were frequently written upon them, which were secured by being fastened together with packthread and sealed with wax. Accordingly we read in Plautus (Bacchid. IV.4.64) when a letter is to be written,

"Effer cito stilum, ceram, et tabellas, et linum."

The sealing is mentioned afterwards (l. 96) (compare Cic. in Catil. III.5). Tabulae and tabellae are therefore used in the sense of letters (Ovid. Met. IX.522). Love-letters were written on very small tablets called Vitelliani (Mart. XIV.8, 9), of which word however we do not know the origin. Tablets of this kind are presented by Amor to Polyphemus on an ancient painting (Mus. Borbon. vol. I tav. 2).

Legal documents, and especially wills, were almost always written on waxen tablets, as mentioned above. Such tablets were also used for accounts, in which a person entered what he received and expended (Tabulae or Codex accepti et expensi, Cic. pro Rosc. Com. 2), whence Novae Tabulae mean an abolition of debts either wholly or in part (Suet. Jul. 42; Cic. de Off. II.23). The above are merely instances of the extensive use of waxen tablets; it is unnecessary to pursue the subject further.

Two ancient waxen tablets have been discovered in a perfect state of preservation, one in a gold mine four or five miles from the village of Abrudbànyá in Transylvania, and the other in a gold mine in the village itself. Of this interesting discovery an account has been published by Massmann in a work intitled "Libellus Aurarius, sive Tabulae Ceratae, et antiquissimae et unice Romanae in Fodina Auraria apud Abrudbanyam, oppidulum Transsylvanum, nuper repertae," Lipsiae (1841). An account of these tablets, taken from Massman's description, will serve as a commentary on what has been said above. Both the tabulae are triptycha, that is, consisting of three tablets each. One is made of fir-wood, the other of beech-wood, and each is about the size of what we call a small octavo. The outer part of the two outside tablets of each exhibits the plain surface of the wood, the inner part is covered with wax, which is now almost of a black colour, and is surrounded with a raised margin. The middle tablet has wax on both sides with a margin around each; so that each of the two tabulae contains four sides or four pages covered with wax. The edges are pierced through, that they might be fastened together by means of a thread passed through them. The wax is not thick in either; it is thinner on the beechen tabulae, in which the stilus of the writer has sometimes cut through the wax into the wood. There are letters on both of them, but on the beechen tabulae they are few and indistinct; the beginning of the first tablet contains some Greek letters, but they are succeeded by a long set of letters in unknown characters. The writing on the tabulae made of fir-wood is both greater in quantity and in a much better state of preservation. It is written in Latin, and is a copy of a document relating to some business connected with a collegium. The name of the consuls is given, which determines the date to be A.D. 169. One of the most extraordinary things connected with it is, that it is written from right to left. The writing begins on what we should call the last or fourth page, and ends at the bottom of the third; and by some strange good fortune it has happened that the same document is written over again, beginning on the second page and ending at the bottom of the first; so that where the writing is effaced or doubtful in the one it is usually supplied or explained by the other.

Waxen tablets continued to be used in Europe for the purposes of writing in the middle ages; but the oldest of these with which we are acquainted belongs to the year 1301 A.D., and is preserved in the Florentine Museum.

The tablets used in voting in the comitia and the courts of justice were also called tabulae as well as tabellae. [Tabellae.]


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