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TABULAE or PUGILLARES (πίνακες, δέλτοι, πυξίον, πινάκιον, γραμματεῖον), writing tablets. Although Livy, 1.24, seems to make a formal distinction between tabulae, i.e. bronze tablets, and cera, yetin general the plural of tabula is used to signify thin slips of wood or other material, usually of an oblong shape, covered over with wax, whence cera and cerae are used for the tablets themselves. The wax, which was written upon by the stilus or γραφίς [STILUS], was coloured (red in Ov. Am. 1.12, 11, but generally black), so that the letters marked by the stilus were white. The layer of wax was sometimes so thin that the writing was marked on the wood itself below, as may be seen in some tablets that have been preserved. As to renewing the tablets by scraping off the old and pouring fresh melted wax over them, “cera . . . rasis infusa tabellis” (Ov. Art. Am. 1.437), see Hdt. 7.239. Ordinary Greek writing tablets were covered with μάλθη, a composite and softer wax, which in Dem. c. Steph. ii. p. 1132.11, is contrasted with the tablets covered with gypsum (γραμματεῖον λελευκωμένον: cf. λεύκωμα, lex ap. Dem. Timocr. p. 707), intended for more permanent documents. This composite wax was, however, termed indifferently μάλθη or κηρός (compare Aristoph. Wasps 108 and Fr. 206). The schoolboy's writing tablet was sometimes a single tabula which he carried suspended by a ring (Hor. Sat. 1.6, 74, Orelli ad loc.; Plaut. Bacch. 3.3, 37): tablets thus hung on the wall of the school-room are shown in the cut from the Duris vase under LUDUS LITTERARIUS (p. 96).

More expensive tablets were made of citronwood or ivory (Mart. 14.3, 5), but the commoner woods were generally used, such as beech, fir, and box (whence the name πυξίον). The outer sides consisted of wood; the inner sides only were covered with wax. They were fastened together at the back by means of wires, which answered the purpose of hinges, so that they opened and shut like our books; and to prevent the wax of one tablet rubbing against the wax of the other, there was a raised margin around each, as is clearly seen in the woodcut under STILUS There were sometimes two, three, four, five, or even more tablets fastened together in the above-mentioned manner. Tablets so folded and bound together were called codex or codicilli (compare Catull. 42, 5 and 11); where a very large number were combined, they had a handle, by which to carry or to hang them up, and were called codices ansati (C. I. L. 10.7852). [CODEX] Two such tablets were called diptycha (δίπτυχα), which merely means “twice-folded” (cf. δίπτυχον δελτίον, Hdt. 7.239) [DIPTYCHA]. The Latin word pugillares, which is the name frequently given to tablets covered with wax (Mart. 14.3; Gel. 17.9; Plin. Ep. 1.6), is derived from pugnus, pugillus, because they were small enough to be held in the hand. Such tablets are mentioned as early as the Homeric poems, which speak: of a πίναξ πτυκτός (Il. 6.169; Munro ad loc.; Jebb, Homer, p. 112). Three tablets fastened together were called Triptycha (τρίπτυχα), which Martial (14.6) translates by triplices (cerae); in the same way we also read of pentaptycha (πεντάπτυχα), called by Martial (14.4) quintuplices (cerae), and of polyptycha (πολύπτυχα) or multiplices (cerae). The above are called also γραμματεῖον or γραμματείδιον δίθυρον, τρίπτυχον πλειόνων πτυχῶν (Poll. 10.51). [See woodcuts under LIBER p. 58.] The pages of these tablets were frequently called by the name of cerae alone; thus we read of prima cera, altera cera, “first page,” “second page” (Suet. Nero 17; Hor. Sat. 2.5, 53; Mart. 4.72). In tablets containing important legal documents, especially wills, the outer edges were pierced through with holes (foramina), through which a triple thread (linum) was passed, and upon which a seal was then placed. This was intended to guard against forgery, and if it was not done such documents were null and void (Suet. Nero 17; Paulus, Sent. Rec. 5.25.6; TESTAMENTUM).

Waxen tablets were used among the Romans for almost every species of writing, where great length was not required. Thus letters were frequently written upon them, which were secured by being fastened together with packthread and sealed. Accordingly we read in [p. 2.754]Plautus (Bacch. 4.4, 64) when a letter is to be written:

Effer cite stilum, ceram, et tabellas, et linum.

The sealing is mentioned afterwards (1. 96). The impression of the seal was made either upon wax (as in Plaut. l.c.; Ov. Am. 2.15, 16; Plin. Nat. 2.137), or upon a specially prepared clay, called cretula (Cic. Ver. 4.26, 58), creta Asiatica (Cic. pro Place. 16, 3, where cera also is mentioned as the alternative), γῆ σημαντρίς (Herod. ii 38), σφραγὶς Λημνία (Aret. de Carat. 2, 2): see also Cic. Cat. 3.5, 10. For the seals themselves, see SCALPTURA p. 604. (Compare Cic. in Catil. 3.5) Tabulae and tabellae are therefore used in the sense of letters (Ovid, Ov. Met. 9.522). Love-letters were written on very small tablets, called Vitelliani (Mart. 14.8, 9), of which word, however, we do not know the origin. Tablets of this kind are presented by Amor to Polyphemus on an ancient painting (Mus. Borbon. vol. i. tav. 2).

Legal documents, and especially wills, were almost always written on waxen tablets, as mentioned above; but even when written on parchment or papyrus they were still technically called tabulae (Ulp. Dig. 37, 11, 1; cf. δέλτοι, Luc. Tim. 22). Such tablets were also used for accounts, in which a person entered what he received and expended (tabulae or codex accepti et expensi, Cic. pro Rose. Com. 2), whence novae tabulae mean an abolition of debts either wholly or in part (Suet. Jul. 42; Cic. de Off. 2.2. 3). The above are merely some instances of the extensive use of waxen tablets; others are given in Marquardt, Privatleben, pp. 804, 805.

Two ancient waxen tablets have been discovered in a perfect state of preservation, one in a gold mine four or five miles from the village of Abrudbànyá in Transylvania, and the other in a gold mine in the village itself. Of this interesting discovery an account has been published by Massmann in a work entitled “Libellus Aurarius, sive Tabulae Ceratae, et antiquissimae et unice Romanae in Fodina Auraria apud Abrudbanyam, oppidulum Transsylvanum, nuper repertae,” Lipsiae (1841). An account of these tablets, taken from Massmann's description, will serve as a commentary on what has been said above. Both the tabulae are triptycha; that is, consisting of three tablets each. One is made of fir-wood, the other of beech-wood, and each is about the size of what we call a small octavo. The outer part of the two outside tablets of each exhibits the plain surface of the wood; the inner part is covered with wax, which is of a black colour, and is surrounded with a raised margin. The middle tablet has wax on both sides with a margin around each; so that each of the two tabulae contains four sides or four pages covered with wax. The edges are pierced through, that they might be fastened together by means of a thread passed through them. The wax is not thick in either; it is thinner on the beechen tabulae, in which the stilus of the writer has sometimes cut through the wax into the wood. There are letters on both of them, but on the beechen tabulae they are few and indistinct; the beginning of the first tablet contains some Greek letters, but they are suceeeded by a long set of letters in unknown characters. The writing on the tabulae made of fir-wood is both greater in quantity and in a much better state of preservation. It is written in Latin, and is a copy of a document relating to some business connected with a collegium. The name of the consuls is given, which determines its date to be A.D. 169. For the great collection of 127 diptychs and triptychs found at Pompeii in 1875, see Hermes, 12.88; Overbeck, Pomp.4 489. Wooden tablets written upon with ink, which have been found in Egypt, are noticed by Marquardt (Privatleben, p. 802).

Waxen tablets continued to be used in Europe for the purposes of writing in the Middle Ages; but the oldest of these with which we are acquainted belongs to the year 1301 A.D., and is preserved in the Florentine Museum.

The tablets used in voting in the comitia and the courts of justice were also called tabulae as well as tabellae. [TABELLA]

[W.S] [G.E.M]

hide References (23 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (23):
    • Aristophanes, Wasps, 108
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.239
    • Homer, Iliad, 6.169
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.4.58
    • Cicero, Against Catiline, 3.5
    • Ovid, Metamorphoses, 9.522
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 42
    • Suetonius, Nero, 17
    • Ovid, Amores, 1.11
    • Ovid, Amores, 1.12
    • Ovid, Amores, 2.15
    • Ovid, Amores, 2.16
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 1.6
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 24
    • Cicero, De Officiis, 2.2
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 17.9
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.3
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.4
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.5
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.6
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.8
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.9
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 4.72
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