Roman square capitals

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A drawing and photographed carving by Eric Gill of the "Trajan" capitals on the Column of Trajan.

Roman square capitals, also called capitalis monumentalis, inscriptional capitals, elegant capitals and capitalis quadrata, are an ancient Roman form of writing, and the basis for modern capital letters.

Square capitals were used to write inscriptions, and less often to supplement everyday handwriting. When written in documents this style is known as Latin book hand. For everyday writing the Romans used a current cursive hand known as Latin cursive. Notable examples of square capitals used for inscriptions are found on the Pantheon, Trajan's Column, and the Arch of Titus, all in Rome. Square capitals are characterized by sharp, straight lines, supple curves, thick and thin strokes, angled stressing and incised serifs. These Roman capitals are also called majuscules, as a counterpart to minuscule letters such as Merovingian and Carolingian.

Before the 4th century, square capitals were used to write de luxe copies of the works of authors categorized as "pagan" by Christians, especially those of Virgil; the only three surviving manuscripts using this letter, among them the Vergilius Augusteus, contain works by Virgil. After the 5th century the square capitals fell out of use, except as a display lettering for titles and chapter headings in conjunction with various script hands for body text: for example, uncials.

Square capitals were greatly respected by artisans of the Renaissance such as Geoffroy Tory and Felice Feliciano.[1][2] A few centuries later, they were also a major inspiration for artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement such as Edward Johnston and Eric Gill, and so many signs and engravings created with an intentionally artistic design in the twentieth century are based on them.[3][4][5][6] They were also the inspiration for many fonts, such as Trajan from Adobe.[7]

The inscriptional capitals on the Arch of Titus, c. 81 AD, are an example of inscriptional lettering which would have been infilled with bronze. Note the holes for the "tangs" of the cast bronze letters.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Warde, Beatrice (1926). "The 'Garamond' Types". The Fleuron: 131–179. 
  2. ^ Ivans, William M. "Geoffroy Tory". Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 15: 79–86. Retrieved 17 September 2017. 
  3. ^ Nash, John. "In Defence of the Roman Letter" (PDF). Journal of the Edward Johnston Foundation. Retrieved 13 October 2016. 
  4. ^ Johnston, Edward (1906). Writing & Illuminating & Lettering. Macmillan. pp. 268–269, 384, 391. The Roman capitals have held the supreme place among letters for readableness and beauty. They are the best forms for the grandest and most important inscriptions. 
  5. ^ Zhukov, Maxim. "The Trajan Letter in Russia and America". Retrieved 4 March 2017. 
  6. ^ Mosley, James (1964). "Trajan Revived". Motif: 17–48. 
  7. ^ Riggs, Tamye (12 June 2014). "The Adobe Originals Silver Anniversary Story: Stone, Slimbach, and Twombly launch the first Originals".