ROMAN SQUARE CAPITALS: The Trajan's Column Inscription



Indicate a lacuna in the text (here because a piece of stone has been knocked off) by placing square brackets round a number of dots equal in number to the letters which you think are missing.

This transcription only shows what is there. See below for a version expanding the abbreviations.

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Here is the photograph of the whole inscription.

Trajan's Column Inscription

What are the implications of a script for carving?

Straight lines are easier to chisel than curved ones. That said, this sculptor is superb at curves.
More subtly, there are certain optical illusions.

Roman Square Capitals A and V
Notice how the diagonal letters V and A overlap. The starting point of V is directly above the finishing point of A.
Roman Square Capitals A and V
Because the diagonals are parallel to each other, there is still space between the letters. A good modern typeface will also do this: see the same letters in the transcription.
Roman Square Capitals R A E B
The cross-strokes on E and B are about halfway up;
cross-strokes on A and R are lower down. Can you see why this is?

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Proportions and Aspect

Roman Square Capitals N,O
'Square': the aspect ratio of N and O is virtually 1:1.
Well-spaced (measure width between letters).
Roman Square Capitals A and E
Upright: minims are vertical, head-, cross- and base-strokes are horizontal.

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Why are there serifs?
They are carved to make a neat horizontal beginning and end to the upright and diagonal strokes. This is pleasing to the eye and gives a sense of control.
When writing with pen and ink, the serif not only tidies up the line of script, it provides a useful on- and off- stroke to get the flow of ink running, or to bring it to an end.

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Is the script upper-case or lower-case?
'Upper-case': our 'capital letters'. But in fact, this distinction is only meaningful to us. Since there are no 'lower-case' forms, the terms do not really apply. It is just 'writing'.

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Is there any punctuation?
Not in our sense, but there are dots to separate words from each other. You will see why next week.

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Why are there lines over some groups of letters?


These indicate that the letters in question are to be read as numbers.
The Romans used the letters
I for 1, V for 5, X for 10, L for 50, C for 100, D for 500, and M for 1000
as numerals. It is marginally possible that someone might try to read these letters as words.

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Are there any 'modern' letters missing?

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Are there any abbreviations?
This is a very formulaic inscription, so though there are quite a number of abbreviations, they are not indicated in any special way. The reader was expected to know what the shortened forms stood for: they are mostly titles which were commonly used of the Emperor (as we would write 'H.M. the Queen' for 'Her Majesty).

Transcription including abbreviations, and translation:

The Roman Senate and People
to the Emperor, son of the deified Nerva, Nerva


Trajan Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, High Priest,
in the 17th year of his office as Tribune, his 6th as Emperor,
his 6th as Consul, Father of his Homeland,


in order to make clear of how much height,
the hill and place [.......] should be excavated.

Notice that expanded abbreviations are indicated by underlining. Gaps in the text are shown in square brackets. The letters you estimate are missing are shown by dots.

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