Spaces and Scripts: The Dynamic of Reading in Ancient Texts


image and transcription of graffiti from vergil 1.1

Source: Vergil at Pompeii.”[1]

In the ancient city of Pompeii, the ruins are adorned with various lines from Vergil’s Aeneid, revealing an anomaly: a misspelling and the absence of word separation. While modern readers may find this puzzling, ancient Latin readers, depending on their education and social class, would have immediately noticed the misspelling and intuitively separated the words in their pronunciation of the famous line “Arma virumque cano.” This graffiti in Pompeii, summarized by classical scholar James Franklin in his article “Vergil at Pompeii: A Teacher’s Aid,” offers valuable insights into the connection between writing and reading practices. It highlights the ways in which different scripts and writing techniques shaped the technologies of reading.

The Pompeii graffiti are among the most famous examples of everyday ancient Latin script.[2] However, they vary in readability and may have been created for different reasons, including the scribbling of bored schoolboys or as commentary on social situations and advertisements for local plays or productions. Interestingly, similar to the texts of that time, the Pompeii graffiti lacked spaces between words, indicating a more significant trend in spacing and lettering in ancient Latin and other languages.image of graffiti from vergil

Source: Vergil at Pompeii.”

Another more ambiguous example would be this inscription, where the words are separated. The original author of this engraving knew that if the words were not distinct, then the average Roman might have confused the phrase. Even in the caption down at the bottom, the editor had to place in commas and other markers to help the English readers decipher what was written. If read without the word breaks, this small piece of poetry would have a lot more ambiguity surrounding it. “Age” and “Nate” are combined in the second line, this combination could be misconstrued as the Latin word for “advocate,” which is a different word and not what it is supposed to mean.

The absence of spaces in ancient script is a characteristic not exclusive to Latin but also found in other ancient languages, including Greek. Among the various intriguing patterns of Greek script, one that stands out is known as “boustrophedon.” The term “boustrophedon” originates from the Greek words “bous,” meaning “ox,” and “strephein,” meaning “to turn.” Thus, it translates to “turning as an ox in plowing,” a fitting name for the complex and multi-directional nature of this script.

Boustrophedon was employed during certain time periods in ancient Greece, adding a unique and fascinating dimension to the reading experience. In the early periods of Greek history, precisely during the Geometric Period (circa 9th to 8th century BCE) and the Archaic Period (circa 7th to 6th century BCE), boustrophedon script was commonly used for inscriptions on various materials, such as stone stelae and pottery.

When encountering a boustrophedon text, readers would follow a pattern reminiscent of an ox plowing a field. They began reading from the left, progressing from left to right until the end of the line. At that point, instead of continuing from left to right on the next line as one would do in modern scripts, they turned around, just like an ox at the end of a row, and read from right to left on the next line. This alternating back-and-forth directionality provided a unique challenge to readers, requiring them to adapt to a different mode of reading.

screen shot from Wachter's Non Attic Vase inscriptions with Boeotian text

Source: Non-Attic Greek Vase Inscriptions”[3]

Early on, Greek and Latin scripts lacked spaces or any indication to separate words, placing the burden on the reader to determine word boundaries. Beginning in the 600-700 CE, monks in northern Europe introduced spaces into the Latin texts they were studying, mirroring the spaces we see in modern books, to enhance reading speed.

Similarly, in the written form of Akkadian, distinct glyphs separated words, resembling the hieroglyphics of ancient Egyptian. Outlined boxes provided further spacing by delineated separate sentences. However, these different methods of separation present a challenge for modern researchers trying to translate these ancient texts. Without cultural context or other indications, researchers had to resort to trial and error to determine the reading direction. Eventually, it was established that Akkadian written in cuneiform should be read from left to right.

Paul Saenger, in his monograph Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, explores the writing and reading practices of ancient languages, with a focus on Latin. He traces the gradual separation of words and their connection to evolving reading practices. Saenger describes how ancient Roman scholars such as Livy (d. 17 CE)[4] used “Scriptura Continua,” a form of writing without punctuation marks, diacritics, or distinguished letter cases. Scriptura Continua created a more dramatic and theatrical reading experience but also slowed down the reading process and made comprehension difficult. Over time, Scriptura Continua gave way to the current reading system, which allows for silent reading at a faster pace. Saenger emphasizes that the absence of spaces between words in ancient texts required readers to exert more effort and engage in more eye movements to ensure accurate word separation.

In modern curriculum, Latin is taught with spaces between words, as this is what contemporary readers are accustomed to. However, it is worth noting that aristocratic students who read Latin in ancient times would have encountered texts without word spacing. They were expected to decipher the different words as part of their curriculum.

While the addition of spaces in ancient scripts has undoubtedly made reading easier, it raises the question: What might be lost when spaces are inserted? The breaking up of Scriptura Continua potentially obscures certain nuances in the text. For instance, certain lines in the Aeneid, consisting entirely of diphthongs and long syllables, were meant to be read slowly and dramatically, evoking strong and intense emotions for the reader or speaker.

When reading texts with spaces or in translation, there is always a degree of nuance lost from the original language. Much like a perfect translation does not exist, developments in script and how one reads marks a departure from the original text, making its essence nearly impossible to capture.

In conclusion, the graffiti in Pompeii and the study of ancient scripts shed light on the interplay between writing and reading practices. The absence of spaces between words in ancient Latin and other languages, such as Greek and Akkadian, required readers to possess a deep understanding of the language and context to decipher and interpret the text accurately. The gradual introduction of word spacing in Latin and the current reading system has undoubtedly made reading more efficient and accessible. However, the insertion of spaces may also obscure certain nuances and the original dramatic impact intended by the ancient authors.

Understanding the historical development of script and reading practices enhances our appreciation of ancient texts and the challenges faced by ancient readers. It reminds us that language is a dynamic and evolving system shaped by cultural and societal factors and that the conventions and norms of our time influence the way we read and interpret texts.


 Hunter MacArthur is a junior at St. Sebastian’s in Needham. He can be reached at


[1] James L. Franklin Jr., “Vergil at Pompeii: A Teacher’s Aid,” The Classical Journal 92(2): 1996-7, pp. 175-184. See also Kristina Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] Kristina Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[3] Wachter, Rudolf. Non-Attic Greek Vase Inscriptions. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[4] Paul Saenger, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 5.

Procopius’ Secret History

Skimming through the Wall Street Journal at school the other day, an article about the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine caught my eye.  It did not talk about military progress or strategic victories, but rather, it raised alarmist concerns about the education system in occupied Ukraine. Russian forces were coercing Ukrainian teachers to teach a new curriculum in Russian that laundered the reputation of Russia and its leading figures. In other words, revisionist history.

After the immediate feeling of shock subsided, I remembered that revising history has been the tried-and-true method to building an empire.[1]

Throughout history, there are several examples of exalted historians manipulating the tales they are telling in service of an empire. One such case would be the famed Byzantine historian Procopius (d. 565 ce). Procopius chronicled the reign of Justinian I (d. 565 ce) and his wife Theodora (d. 548 ce).  His official histories of Justinian I’s rule have been extolled for millennia as the peak of historical recording since the Roman Empire.[2]

Several centuries later, a dusty tome was found hidden behind a fake wall in the Vatican Library. Procopius’ Anecdota, informally referred to as the Secret Histories, tells a tale not of the good emperor that he extols in his official histories, but rather of a demon disguised as a man, seeking the total destruction of his empire: “That Justinian was not a man, but a demon, as I have said, in human form, one might prove by considering the enormity of the evils he brought upon mankind.”[3]

In contrast to the vitriolic tone of Procopius’ Anecdota, the official histories are more formally penned and glorify Justinian I.[4] For example, at the conclusion of Procopius’s historical text Buildings he ends with connecting the emperor to a demi-god; “They swell with pride and smile upon the Emperor, offering him honours as though to a demi-god, after his magnificent achievements.”[5] During the time of the official histories’ writing, the Byzantine Empire was waging several wars on the periphery of their borders. Two of these wars were the subjects for Procopius’ histories, aptly titled Histories of the Wars. In them, Procopius talks at length about the campaigns underway in continental Italy and the posturing happening at the Persian border. The important conflict for us to look at is the war between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines in Sicily and southern Italy. This campaign was meant to be Justinian’s crowning achievement, reuniting the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire. In this campaign, the famed Byzantine general Belisarius was constantly winning battle after battle for Justinian, and making tremendous gains in terms of territory in Italy. As such, the Histories of the Wars rightly lauds both Belisarius for his military prowess and Justinian for his statesmanship.

The official histories are just that, official histories. As Procopious’ later works evinced, Justinian was not only losing his military campaigns but was also unfit to rule. “As for seizing property and murdering men, he never got his fill of them, but after plundering numerous homes of affluent men he kept seeking new ones, straightway pouring out the proceeds of his earlier robbery in making presents to sundry barbarians or in erecting senseless buildings.”[6]

“Official histories” like Procopius’ serve to launder the reputation of whatever empire that employs them. They have been endorsed by the state and are propped up as the government-approved history of the empire. This is quite similar to what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine, albeit not in the same manner. Instead of trying to moderate the histories that get written into a book, Russia is trying to instead manipulate the history that will be taught in schools. Russia is not the only country who has attempted to massage the details of their history. An example of this in very recent U.S. history would be the 1776 project begun by former President Donald Trump. The 1776 project was aimed to provide American children with a “patriotic education,” ostensibly defending the link between America’s founding and the legacy of slavery, while also likening modern-day progressivism to fascism.[7]

It is interesting to note that official histories are often written when things go wrong. Empires tend to fixate on knowledge production and legacy the most when the seams are unraveling beneath them. The change in curriculum comes at a time when Putin is losing his grip in Ukraine; he is trying to force Russian identity into Ukraine, in an effort to try and justify its continued presence in Ukraine. This is an echo of what occurred in the Byzantine Empire under Justinian’s reign. Justinian urged Procopius to write about all the battles he was winning in Italy when, in reality, his armies were being annihilated in the fields and his captured territories being reconquered.

Procopius’ writings help to better understand the present in the sense that they offer a word of warning about the ways in which empires will go about revising history. The state-sponsored history in Russian-occupied Ukraine, the official histories written by Procopius, and the 1776 project in the United States (among many other examples) are echoes of one another, with each shedding light on the ways in which nations alter their history to better suit their needs.


[1] “A piece of Propaganda” The eighth campaign of Sargon II. A historiographical approach. Last modified 2016.

[2] J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (Dover: Dover Publications, 2011).

[3] Procopius, The Secret History of Procopius, trans. by Richard Atwater (New York: Kessinger Publishing, [1927] 2003), 178.

[4] Philip Rousseau, “Procopius’s ‘Buildings’ and Justinian’s Pride,” Byzantion 68, no. 1 (1998): 121-30

[5] Procopius, Of the Buildings of Justinian,” trans. by Aubrey Stewart (Adegi Graphics 1999).

[6]  Procopius, The Secret History, 118

[7] Michael Crowley and Jennifer Schuessler, “Trump’s 1776 Commission Critiques Liberalism in a Report Denied by Historians,” The New York Times, Jan 18, 2021.


 Hunter MacArthur is a junior at St. Sebastian’s in Needham. He can be reached at