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[image ALT: The word 'Atramentum' spattered with a few ink spots.]

Article by Alexander Allen, Ph.D.,
on pp170‑171 of

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

ATRAMENTUM, a term applicable to any black colouring substance, for whatever purpose it may be used (Plaut. Mostell. I.3.102; Cic. de Nat. Deor. II.50), like the μέλαν of the Greeks (Dem. de Cor. p313). There were, however, three principal kinds of atramentum, one called librarium, or scriptorium (in Greek, γραφικὸν μέλαν), another called sutorium, the third tectorium. Atramentum librarium was what we call writing-ink (Hor. Ep. II.1.236; Petron. 102; Cic. ad Qu. Fr. II.14). Atramentum sutorium was used by shoemakers for dyeing leather (Plin. H. N. XXXIV.12 s32). This atramentum sutorium contained some poisonous ingredient, such as oil of vitriol;​a whence a person is said to die of atramentum sutorium, that, of poison, as in Cicero (ad Fam. IX.21). Atramentum tectorium, or pictorium, was used by painters for some purposes, apparently as a sort of varnish (Plin. H. N. XXXV.5 s25, &c.).º The Scholiast on Aristophanes (Plut. 277) says that the courts of justice, or δικαστήρια, in Athens were called each after some letter of the alphabet: one alpha, another beta, a third gamma, and, so on, and that against the doors of each δικαστήριον, the letter which belonged to it was written πυῤῥῳ βάμματι, in "red ink." This "red ink," or "red dye," could not of course be called atramentum. Of the ink of the Greeks, however, nothing certain is known, except what may be gathered from the passage of Demosthenes above referred to, which will be noticed again below. The ink of the Egyptians was evidently of a very superior kind, since its colour and brightness remain to this day in some specimens of papyri. The initial characters of the pages are often written in red ink. Ink among the Romans is first found mentioned in the passages of Cicero and Plautus above referred to. Pliny informs us how it was made. He says, "It was made of soot in various ways, with burnt resin or pitch: and for this purpose," he adds, "they have built furnaces, which do not allow the smoke to escape. The kind most commended is made in this way from pine-wood:— It is mixed with soot from the furnaces or baths (that is, the hypocausts of the baths), and this they use ad volumina scribenda. Some also make a kind of ink by boiling and straining the lees of wine," &c. (Plin. H. N. XXXV.5 s25).º With this account the statements of Vitruvius (VII.10 p197, ed. Schneider) in the main agree. The black matter emitted by the cuttle-fish (sepia), and hence itself called sepia, was also used for atramentum (Cic. de Nat. Deor. II.50; Persius, Sat. III.12, 13; Ausonius, IV.76). Aristotle, however, in treating of the cuttle-fish, does not refer to the use of the matter (θολὸς) which it emits, as ink (Aelian, H.A. I.34). Pliny observes (XXVII.7 s28) that an infusion of wormwood with ink preserves a manuscript from mice. On the whole,  p171 perhaps, it may be said that the inks of the ancients were more durable than our own; that they were thicker and more unctuous, in substance and durability more resembling the ink now used by printers. An inkstand was discovered at Herculaneum, containing ink as thick as oil, and still usable for writing.

It would appear also that this gummy character of the ink, preventing it from running to the point of the pen, was as much complained of by the ancient Romans as it is by ourselves. Persius (Sat. III.12) represents a foppish writer sitting down to compose, but, as the ideas do not run freely, —

"Tunc queritur, crassus calamo quod pendeat humor;

Nigra quod infusa vanescat sepia lympha."

They also used water, as we do sometimes, to thin it.

From a phrase used by Demosthenes, it would appear as if the colouring ingredient was obtained by rubbing from some solid substance (τὸ μέλαν τρίβειν, Dem. de Cor. p313), perhaps much as we rub Indian ink. It is probable that there were many ways of colouring ink, especially of different colours. Red ink (made of minium, vermilion) was used for writing the titles and beginnings of books (Ovid, Trist. I.1.7), so also was ink made of rubrica, "red ochre" (Sidon. VII.12); and because the headings of laws were written with rubrica, the word rubric came to be used for the civil law (Quintil. XII.3). So album, a white or whited table, on which the praetors' edicts were written, was used in a similar way. A person devoting himself to album and rubrica, was a person devoting himself to the law [Album.] There was also a very expensive red-coloured ink with which the emperor used to write his signature, but which any one else was by an edict (Cod. 1 tit. 23 s6) forbidden to use, excepting the sons or near relations of the emperor, to whom the privilege was expressly granted. But if the emperor was under age, his guardian used a green ink for writing his signature (Montfaucon, Palaeog. p3). On the banners of Crassus there were purple letters — φοινικὰ γράμματα (Dion Cass. XL.18). On pillars and monuments letters of gold and silver, or letters covered with gilt and silver, were sometimes used (Cic. Verr. IV.27; Suet. Aug. 7). In writing also this was done at a later period. Suetonius (Ner. 10) says, that of the poems which Nero recited at Rome one part was written in gold (or gilt) letters (aureis litteris), and consecrated to Jupiter Capitolinus. This kind of illuminated writing was more practised afterwards in religious compositions, which were considered as worthy to be written in letters of gold (as we say even now), and therefore were actually written so. Sometimes like what we call sympathetic ink, which is invisible till heat, or some preparation be applied, appears to have been not uncommon. So Ovid (Art. Am. III.627, &c.) advises writing love-letters with fresh milk, which would be unreadable, until the letters were sprinkled with coal-dust. Ausonius (Epist. XXIII.21) gives the same direction. Pliny (XXVI.8) suggests that the milky sap contained in some plants might be used in the same way.

An inkstand (πύξιον, μελανδόχον, Pollux, IV.18, X.60) was either single or double. The double inkstands were probably intended to contain both black and red ink, much in the modern fashion. They were also of various shapes, as for example, round or hexagonal. They had covers to keep the dust from the ink. The annexed cuts represent inkstands found at Pompeii. [Calamus.] (Caneparius, De Atramentis cujusque Generis, Lond. 1660; Beckmann, History of Inventions, vol. I p106, vol. II p266, London, 1846; Becker, Charikles, vol. II p222, &c.,º Gallus, vol. I p166, &c.).

[image ALT: A woodcut showing a small hexagonal prism standing on end, and two pairs of slightly taller cylindrical containers, each of these with its own hinged cap. All are accompanied by reed pens; they are illustrations of ancient Roman inkstands found at Pompeii.]

Thayer's Note:

a More generally, for the medicinal uses of atramentum scriptorium, atramentum sutorium, and atramentum sepiarium (cuttlefish ink), see Celsus, various passages.

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