From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, The Vindolanda Writing Tablets
(Tabulae Vindolandenses II), London: British Museum Press,
1994. pp. 56-61
It is well known that the Romans punctuated
their writing under the early Empire by the use of a medial point
between words (interpunct); it is also well known that they came
to abandon this practice.38
In inscriptions it is still found in use, though rarely, into the
third century, but in Latin papyri it ceased to be used early in
the second century.39
In first-century papyri, both literary and documentary, it is often
found, sometimes used regularly but more often only used here and
With respect to the Vindolanda tablets it must be stressed that a great many apparent dots occur on the photographs many of which are certainly not ink. In other cases we cannot be sure which are and which are not ink (and recourse to the originals does not always help). In consequence we are often unsure whether or not an apparent dot after a word is to be treated as interpunct or not. That said, the impression we gain from our tablets is that they fit very well into the known picture. Only a minority of writers use interpunct, and there may well be none at all in the military documents;40 possible exceptions are 135.1 (but this may have a different purpose(Vol. II, Ch. 4) and 160.41 It is rare to find interpunct used consistently; more commonly it occurs only here and there within a text. This confirms the received opinion that interpunct was on the way to dying out altogether by c. AD 100.42 Interpunct occurs in the following texts:43 120, 164, 175, 196, 208, 211, 216, 238, 242, 266, 297, 311, 315, 323, 326, 330, 339, 345 and 351. Of these, however, only 164, 175, 196, 238, 266, 297, 323, 330 and 345 use interpunct frequently. In addition there are some ten or eleven texts in which interpuncts may or may not occur.
The other way to indicate word division is by leaving spaces between words. This is not a normal feature of Latin papyri and it is perhaps surprising that it does occur here and there in the tablets. Good examples are 152, 225, 311, 314, 322 and 335. In medieval manuscripts, after word division became the norm, it was usual to leave no space between a monosyllable and the word following. This practice does not seem to be observed in our tablets, not even when the monosyllable is a preposition.
A further feature which needs mentioning is the occurrence of a diagonal mark, exactly like an apex mark (see the following section), after salutem. If this occurred only once we should simply dismiss it as having no significance. But the fact that it probably occurs no less than four times must give us pause: see 234, 243, 248 and (the clearest example) 265. In the position where it occurs it cannot be intended as an apex over a vowel and should perhaps be understood as marking the end of a section of a letter (in fact the opening section).44 In this connection we should also draw attention to the medial point after the date in 135.1; this seems unlikely to be interpunct (it is not normal at line ends and is not used elsewhere in the text) and may be intended to mark off the date from the text following. There may well be a similar indication of the end of a section of a text in 146.1, see the note ad loc.45
A lectional sign which occurs fairly frequently in the tablets is the apex mark, made as a more or less oblique stroke. It must be stressed, however, that some, perhaps many, uses of apices may not show up on our photographs - this is especially true of addresses on the backs of letters - and in other places we cannot be sure whether a mark is or is not an apex.46 With that proviso, the list of certain and possible examples is as follows:
Apices over long vowels
sácrifició (the o
is long but the a short)
amá ? (the final a
could be short)
Marciá (the final a
could be short)
Apices over short vowels
175 Córis ?
265 sácrifició (the a is short)
291 facturá 48
292 acturá ?
391 ád ?
It is worth noting that there is no instance of the use of an apex in a military document.49
The use of apices in Latin inscriptions and papyri has been the subject of two recent articles by Kramer and Flobert.50 Kramer discusses the shape the apex mark takes (in papyri it is always straight and looks much like an acute accent), the period of time over which apices are attested (from the 1st century BC to the 2nd century AD in inscriptions, but as late as the third century in papyri), and the reasons for their use: he seems to believe that the use of apices depended more or less on the whim of the individual writer (his word is "fakultativ").51
Kramer, however, does not go into details, in contrast to Flobert, who gives a statistical analysis of a selection of inscriptions, indicating the nature of the syllable on which the apex is placed (open/closed, stressed/unstressed) and its position in the word (initial/medial/final).52
Of the 75 examples of apices in the Vindolanda texts 61 are on vowels in final syllables or on monosyllables, about 80%. Flobert too, in the material he examined, noted a significant proportion of examples on final vowels (up to 49%), but not such a striking proportion as in the Vindolanda material.53 Of the 14 falsely placed apices (i.e. those on short vowels), 9 are on vowels in final syllables, about 65%, a somewhat smaller proportion than in the case of the correctly placed apices. The figures suggest almost a mechanical habit of placing apices (if they were used at all) on final vowels, regardless of whether those vowels were long or short. But apices are not placed willy-nilly on final vowels. It is striking that certain words or word-forms repeatedly have an apex on their final vowel, a fact which further demonstrates the importance of conventions of writing which one can no longer understand: suó 6 times (cf. tuó once, meó once), first-person singular present verb-forms (rogó, exoró, cupió, putó, scribó, rogó), dative and ablative forms of second-declension nouns (Brocchó, Verecundó, Cassió, Flauió, Vettió, Seueró, uiaticó (?)). A high proportion of apices on short vowels are on a final a (8 out of 14). 32 of the 61 correctly placed apices are over final o, and another 12 are over final a. a and o have a similar capacity, it seems, to attract an apex, particularly if they are in final position. It is not simply the length of the vowel which is influential. The letter (regardless of the length of the phoneme which it represents) and its position in the word have to be taken into account.
As for apices which are not on final vowels, we find that in most cases the apex is on the vowel which bears the stress accent. Long vowels: compendiárium, Fláuio, Octóbres, Fláuius, numerátioni, fráter (twice), nómina; 7 examples, i.e. all but one of the apices on long vowels which are not on final syllables. Short vowels: rógo, Córis (?). Flobert too has noted a marked tendency for the apex to be used on stressed vowels. There is evidence that short vowels under the accent tended to be lengthened,54 and that tendency may help to explain a form such as rógo. Does sácrifició offer evidence that there was a secondary stress on the a?
It is also worth noting that it is particularly common
to find final o marked with an apex
when it is being used in the address in the prescript of a letter
or in an address on the back of a letter. This is only what we would
expect. The use of an apex in this position continues in papyrus
letters into the third century, well after the use of the apex elsewhere
had been abandoned.55
As has been indicated, Flobert's analysis naturally takes account
of the use of apices over short vowels in inscriptions.56
We know of no such analysis for Latin papyri,57
but have noted two probable examples of its occurrence, both in
letters: P.Köln III 160.758
and P.Qasr Ibrîm 30.59
This is clearly a subject which will repay further study and one
for which the evidence of the tablets will be of great value.60