Did the Romans Have Paper?


Because stories of the ancient Greek and Roman gods still exist today and literary works like Metamorphoses, The Iliad, and The Odyssey were written in that period, the Romans obviously had some way of writing things down. But did they write on paper? 

The Romans didn’t have paper, but they did have materials on which they wrote things down. The most common of these was papyrus, but they also used skin-based parchments and tablets made of wood and wax.

This article will discuss these items in more detail. It’ll also outline what the Romans used to write with and whether or not anyone used paper in the ancient world. For those wanting to learn more about ancient Roman culture, it’s pretty interesting information.

Also see Did the Romans Have Tattoos? to learn more.

Roman Empire paper
Who used paper in the ancient world? See below

Who Used Paper in the Ancient World?

The Chinese were the first people to use something similar to modern-day paper. The official “date” of paper’s invention is the 2nd century BC, but scholars know they were using it even earlier, as paper money in China dates back to the 12th century BC. Hemp was one of the most widely used sources.

Before using hemp, the Chinese people tried other materials, including silk and wooden strips. These were relatively effective, but they were expensive. On the other hand, hemp worked well and wasn’t nearly as expensive. They could mass produce it and have all the paper they needed for books, letters, and other practical purposes. 

However, hemp wasn’t the only material the Chinese used to make paper. Other substances included the following: 

  • Seaweed
  • Rice
  • Hibiscus stalks
  • Wheat straw
  • Sandalwood bark
  • Vegetable matter
  • Grass stems
  • Rags
  • Tree bark

Eventually, hemp paper died off in favor of the cheaper rattan. Rattan was later replaced by bamboo, and mulberry tree bark eventually became the primary source of paper production.

Chinese paper was hugely popular throughout the world, and they traded it on the Silk Road for decades. However, they would not share their secrets of papermaking, and for the longest time, the Chinese were the only people in the ancient world that could make it.

Also see Did the Romans Know About Japan? to learn more.

Romans paper
What did the Romans write on? See below

What Did the Romans Write On?

The Romans primarily wrote on papyrus, a plant whose stalks and stems were cut, dried, and pressed together to make a paper-like document. They also wrote on parchment made from stretched, smoothed, and flattened animal skins. 

The papyrus plant, also called the paper plant, was the most-used material for writing, especially books. [1] The process for harvesting papyrus and turning it into usable material looked something like this: 

  1. Harvesters cut the plant and laid the stems and stalks out flat side by side on a board. Because the plants were damp from growing near the Nile, they were sticky and held together.
  2. The Romans would place a second board on top of them to press and weigh them down. This process made the papyrus flatter and joined the individual stalks more closely together.
  3. After some time, they would remove the boards. They left the papyrus in the sun to dry thoroughly before writing on it. 

Roman authors would write on the dried sheets, pasting them together sheet by sheet as they filled up page after page. According to A.P. Montague’s Writing Materials and Books Among the Ancient Romans, these pasted-together books could eventually get so large that they’d reach up to 50 yards (45.72 meters) long or longer. [2]

The Romans also sometimes used skin-based parchments to write books, but that wasn’t as popular as papyrus. They also used wooden, wax-covered tablets to write, but they didn’t use these for books or legal documents.

Also see Did the Romans Have Corn? to learn more.

What Did the Romans Use for “Ink”?

The Romans most often used soot and burned resin for ink, though other ingredients did exist. Some of the Roman elite wrote in red ink made from red lead (minium) and hematite. Other inks came from the dregs of wine, wormwood, and cuttlefish emissions. 

In the same book by Montague mentioned above, the author even claims that some Romans may have used something called “sympathetic ink,” which is similar to the “invisible ink” in modern-day toys and “spy kits.”

The ink, usually made from milk or milky sap from plants, was invisible to the naked eye. However, someone who knew where to look could sprinkle coal dust over the area, and the coal would combine with the milk or sap to reveal the writing.

Did Romans have paper
When did paper come to Europe? See below

What Did the Romans Use to Write Letters?

Although wealthy Romans may have used papyrus or parchment for letters, that practice wasn’t common, as they reserved those materials for books and essential legal documents. 

Most Romans used wooden tablets covered in wax for sending letters. These weren’t as elegant or effective as papyrus or parchment, but they were inexpensive. Hinges held two wooden boards together. Romans would write in the wax covering the insides of the boards.

Once a letter or message was ready, the sender would tie the boards together and stamp them in wax with his signet ring. This stamp let the reader know immediately who the letter was from; it also ensured that no one tampered with the correspondence on route to delivery. 

Also see Did the Romans Have Iron? to learn more.

When Did Paper Come to Europe?

Paper in its modern form didn’t come to Europe until the 11th century AD. The oldest document in Europe is the Mozarab Missal of Silos, and it dates to before 1080 AD. It contains 157 folios, but only the first 37 are on paper; the rest are written on parchment. 

The art of papermaking also reached Europe around this time. In 1085, the first paper mill was established in Toledo. [3] It would be the 13th century, though, before paper became a widespread enterprise, with mills popping up in Italy, then in France, Holland, and Germany in the 14th century.

Although it’s hard for many people to believe, paper hasn’t been around in the Western world for nearly as long as they think – only for about ten centuries – and it’s been popular and widely used for an even shorter period. 

Conclusion

Like most of the Western world, the Romans didn’t have paper until long after “the Roman empire” fell. Instead, they used papyrus and parchment.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

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