History and Literature

Stilum Vertere: How to Erase Something Like a True Roman

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

How many times a day do you hit back­space? Or are you per­haps old school and use a real pen­cil? In that case: how many times a day do you use your rub­ber (or eras­er, if you live across the pond)? Quite a few, right?!

But how many times a day do you erase some­thing Roman style?

Wax And Writing

In ancient Rome, you would use wax tablets to write on. If you need­ed to make a list, a note, a draft, or just prac­tice your hand­writ­ing at school, wast­ing papyrus or parch­ment and ink was out of the ques­tion. (Bischoff 1990, pp. 7–14) It was too expensive.

Instead, you would use some­thing that could be re-used over and over again. Just like in mod­ern times, the old­er gen­er­a­tions used slate, the ancient Roman gen­er­a­tions used wax tablets.

Roman Rubber

In order to write on a wax tablet, the Romans used a spe­cial kind of pen called a style or a stilus/stylus. The stilus was sharp and pointy at one end and flat at the oth­er. You wrote with the sharp end in the wax and erased with the flat side, either to make alter­ations or to write some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent on the tablet.

There­fore the expres­sion “to turn the pen” or rather Stilum vert­ere means to erase some­thing or to change or cor­rect something.

WAX TABLET WITH STYLUS/STILUS. HERE YOU CLEARLY SEE THE FLAT END OF THE STILUS USED TO RUBB OUT WHATEVER WAS WRITTEN IN THE WAX. NOT THAT WE WOULD EVER ERASE THAT MOST BEAUTIFUL NAME CURRENTLY WRITTEN IN THE WAX. PHOTO BY LATINITIUM.COM.

Turn Turn Turn

Horace was no stranger to the wax tablet or the stilus and we learn from him, in Satires lib. X.72, that a good writer, a good author, a good poet is nev­er a stranger to turn­ing the pen, or in Horace’s case – the stilus:

“Saepe stilum ver­tas, iterum quae digna legi sint

scrip­turus,”

i.e. ”Often must you turn your pen­cil to erase, if you hope to write some­thing worth a sec­ond read­ing,” (transl. Rush­ton Fair­clough, 1926)

Hieronymus On A Change Of Heart

The expres­sion can also be used in a derived mean­ing, where the turn­ing of the pen rep­re­sents a per­son­’s change of opin­ion. (Boeft & Dri­jvers, 2013)

The great human­ist Eras­mus (1466–1536) dis­cuss­es the expres­sion in his Ada­gia and men­tions Jerome who wrote:

“ver­tis stilum et omnia lau­da­ta prius vituperas”

i.e “you turn your pen and crit­i­cize every­thing you had pre­vi­ous­ly praised”

Sim­ply, you change your mind, your opinion.

This use of the expres­sion seems to be less com­mon, but it is a good metaphor for a change of heart.

WAX TABLET WITH STYLUS, PHOTO PETER VAN DER SLUIJS

Erroneous Erasmus?

In his Ada­gia, Eras­mus goes on to state that Cicero too used the expres­sion stilum vert­ere in the same sense that Jerome.

This how­ev­er can be debat­ed as Cicero, in his speech against Ver­res, wrote:

“Cum haec ad istum affer­ren­tur, per­timuit ali­quan­do et com­mo­tus est; ver­tit stilum in tab­u­lis suis, quo fac­to causam omnem ever­tit suam; nihil enim sibi reliqui fecit quod defen­di ali­qua ratione posset.”

— Cicero, In Ver­rem, 2.2.101

“When this news reached Ver­res, he was at last thor­ough­ly fright­ened and upset; and then he applied the blunt end of his style to his records, there­by mak­ing an end of all his chances of acquit­tal, for he has left him­self no loop-hole for any sort of defence.” (transl. Green­wood, 1928)

Ver­res does not seem to have had a change of opin­ion, but it seems to have been a rather lit­er­al eras­ing of his records. You can read the entire piece from Eras­mus down below.


Bonus Latin: Erasmus’ Text

Eras­mus of Rot­ter­dam, the trust­wor­thy human­ist, nev­er failed to com­ment on good Latin expres­sions and wrote a fair amount about stilum vert­ere in his Ada­gia.

Down­load a bonus recording Get the bonus audio for this arti­cle, Eras­mus’ “stilum vert­ere” from his Ada­gia. Click here.

So, if you are up for some extra read­ing in Latin, here’s what he has to say about it:

“Stilum vert­ere est mutare quod scripseris. Hor­atius in Ser­monibus: ‘Saepe stilum ver­tas.’ Antiq­ui­tus in tabel­lis cer­atis scrip­tita­bant sti­lo graphiario, cuius altera parte nimirum acu­ta per aequor cereum duc­ta lit­teras exara­bant, altera latiore rur­sum oblit­ter­a­bant, quod exarassent. 

Hierony­mus Aduer­sus Rufinum: ‘Quamdiu non renue­bam lau­da­tionem tuam, seque­baris ut mag­istrum, fratrem et col­legam vocabas et catholicum in omnibus fate­baris. Postquam vero non agnoui laudes tuas et me indignum tan­ti viri prae­co­nio iudi­caui, ver­tis stilum et omnia lau­da­ta prius vitu­peras de eodem ore et dulce pro­fer­ens et amarum.’

Hierony­mus imi­ta­tus est Ciceronem, qui Ver­ri­narum action­um iiii. scrib­it in hunc mod­um: ‘Timuit ali­quan­do et com­mo­tus est, ver­tit stilum in tab­u­lis suis, quo fac­to causam omnem euer­tit suam.’ Inu­en­i­tur et stilum infigere’ et ‘sti­lo appetere’ pro eo quod est: ‘scrip­tis insec­tari atque inuehi’ ”. 

MODERN VERSION OF THE WAX TABLET AND STYLUS.

References

Bern­hard Bischoff, Latin Palaeog­ra­phy: Antiq­ui­ty & the Mid­dle Ages, transl. Dáib­hí Ó Cróinín & David Ganz. Cam­bridge, 1990.

Horace. Satires. Epis­tles. The Art of Poet­ry. Trans­lat­ed by H. Rush­ton Fair­clough. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 194. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1926.

Jan den Boeft & Jan Willem Dri­jvers, Philo­log­i­cal and His­tor­i­cal Com­men­tary on Ammi­anus Mar­celli­nus XXIX [Elec­tron­ic resource], BRILL, 2013, p.118

Cicero. The Ver­rine Ora­tions, Vol­ume I: Against Cae­cil­ius. Against Ver­res, Part 1; Part 2, Books 1–2. Trans­lat­ed by L. H. G. Green­wood. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 221. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1928.

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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