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The Alphabet, the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans

An alphabet is a standard set of letters (basic written symbols or graphemes) that is used to write one or more languages based on the general principle that the letters represent phonemes (basic significant sounds) of the spoken language.

Alphabets are usually associated with a standard ordering of letters. This makes them useful for purposes of collation, specifically by allowing words to be sorted in alphabetical order. It also means that their letters can be used as an alternative method of "numbering" ordered items, in such contexts as numbered lists and number placements.


A type specimen by William Caslon published in 'Cyclopedia' in 1728.

School primers, showing the ordered letters of the Latin alphabet, from the Victorian era and the early to mid 20th century.


The Abjad

The basic ordering of the Latin alphabet (A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z), which is derived from the Semitic Abjad order, is well established, although languages using this alphabet have different conventions for their treatment of modified letters (such as the French é, à, and ô) and of certain combinations of letters (multigraphs).

An abjad is a type of writing system where each symbol stands for a consonant, leaving the reader to supply the appropriate vowel. The Hebrew and Arabic alphabets are examples that survive onto today.

The Proto-Canaanite script, later known as the Phoenician alphabet, is the first fully phonemic script. Thus the Phoenician alphabet is considered to be the first alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet is the ancestor of most modern alphabets, including Arabic, Greek, Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew. According to linguist Peter T. Daniels, an "alphabet" is a script that represents both vowels and consonants as letters equally. In this narrow sense of the word the first "true" alphabet was the Greek alphabet, which was developed on the basis of the earlier Phoenician alphabet. In other alphabetic scripts such as the original Phoenician, Hebrew or Arabic, letters predominantly or exclusively represent consonants; such a script is also called an abjad. A third type, called abugida or alphasyllabary, is one where vowels are shown by diacritics or modifications of consonantal base letters, as in Devanagari and other South Asian scripts.


The Phoenicians

Phoenicia, meaning the colour purple; was an ancient Semitic civilization of unknown origin situated on the coastal part of the Fertile Crescent, on the coastline of what is now Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Syria, though some colonies reached the Western Mediterranean and even the Atlantic Ocean. The enterprising, sea-based Phoenician civilization spread across the Mediterranean between 1500 BC and 300 BC.

Each city-state was a politically independent unit, and it is uncertain to what extent the Phoenicians viewed themselves as a single ethnicity and nationality. In terms of archaeology, language, lifestyle, and religion there was little to set the Phoenicians apart as markedly different from other Semitic cultures of Canaan.

The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean, the most strategically important being Carthage in North Africa, directly across the narrow straits. Their civilization was organized in city-states, similar to those of Ancient Greece. Each city-state was a politically independent unit, and it is uncertain to what extent the Phoenicians viewed themselves as a single ethnicity and nationality. In terms of archaeology, language, lifestyle, and religion there was little to set the Phoenicians apart as markedly different from other Semitic cultures of Canaan.

The Greeks had two names for Phoenician ships: hippoi and galloi. Galloi means tubs and hippoi means horses. These names are rexplained by depictions of Phoenician ships in the palaces of Assyrian kings from the 7th and 8th centuries, as the ships in these images are tub shaped (galloi) and have horse heads on the ends of them (hippoi).

Not much in the way of art works remains from the Phoenicians. But, what there is, is exquisite - such as these sculptures, figurines, and reliefs.

Phoenician metal-work: Coins, jewellery and metal bowls.

One of the crafts that Phoenicians excelled at was glass blowing, and glass ware constituted a good bit of their trade as well.

The Phoenicians were among the greatest traders of their time and owed much of their prosperity to trade. At first, they traded mainly with the Greeks, trading wood, slaves, glass and powdered Tyrian purple. Brilliant textiles were a part of Phoenician wealth, and Phoenician glass was another export ware. To Egypt, where grapevines would not grow, the Phoenicians sold wine, and from Egypt, they bought Nubian gold.

The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to make extensive use of alphabets: the Phoenician one is in fact generally held to be one of the major ancestors of all modern alphabets. By their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to Anatolia, North Africa, and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks, who in turn transmitted it to the Romans.

The Greeks

Ancient Greece was a civilization that was in existence from the Greek Dark Ages (9th century BC) to to the end of antiquity (c. 600 AD). Included in ancient Greece is the period of Classical Greece, which flourished during the 5th to 4th centuries BC.

In the 8th century BC, Greece began to emerge from the Dark Ages which followed the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. Literacy had been lost and Mycenaean script forgotten, but the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, modifying it to create the Greek alphabet. From about the 9th century BC written records begin to appear.

Greece was divided into many small self-governing communities and city states called "polis", a pattern largely dictated by Greek geography: every island, valley and plain is cut off from its neighbors by the sea or mountain ranges. This was a situation different from most other contemporary societies, which were either tribal or centralized kingdoms ruling over large territories.  Undoubtedly the geography of Greece, divided by hills, mountains, and rivers, contributed to the fragmentary nature of ancient Greece. On the one hand, the ancient Greeks had no doubt that they were "one people" - they had the same religion, same basic culture, and same language.

Linear A (left), Linear B (right)

The period between the times of the two writing systems - Linear B and the Greek alphabet - from which no Greek texts remain, is called the Greek Dark Ages.

As said before, the Greeks adopted their alphabet from the earlier Phoenician alphabet. When the Phoenician alphabet was adopted for writing Greek, certain Phoenician consonant letters were adopted to write vowels. This feature makes Greek the first alphabet in the narrow sense, as distinguished from the abjads used for the Semitic languages, which only have letters for consonants.


The Mycenaean civilization was the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece and the cultural foundation upon which the Classical Greek civilization developed, representing the first advanced Greek civilization with its palatial states, urban organization, works of art and its own writing system, called Linear B which is a descendant of an even earlier writing system called Linear A.

British sculptor and draughtsman John Flaxman (1755–1826) made these drawings of the Iliad, which were based upon Greek friezes and the figures found on ancient Greek Red Crater pottery.

Samples of the Greek alphabet on inscriptions and pottery.

Unsurprisingly, as one of the greatest civilizations that this planet has ever seen, ancient Greeks excelled in visual arts and crafts. What is surprising, however, is that they did not consider these on a par with other creative output, such as theater, poetry and music. Even the deities under whose patronage they were placed were different: While poetry, dance, performance and music were under the auspices of Apollo and the Muses, the visual arts were under the jurisdiction of Hephaestus and Athene Ergane.

Greek sculpture: While some of these date back to Classical Greece, others are copies made by the Romans who were great admirers of the Greeks and often showed their admiration by making copies of Greek artifacts.

Red-figure craters are the outputs of one of the most important styles of figurative Greek vase painting. It developed in Athens around 520 BC and remained in use until the late 3rd century BC. One of the charms of these paintings is that while depicting scenes from Greek mythology, they also give us a very good sense of ancient Greek life, customs and attire.

Ancient Greek architecture is distinguished by its highly formalized characteristics, both of structure and decoration. This is particularly so in the case of temples where each building appears to have been conceived as a sculptural entity within the landscape, most often raised on high ground so that the elegance of its proportions and the effects of light on its surfaces might be viewed from all angles.

Greek architects provided some of the finest and most distinctive buildings in the entire Ancient World and some of their structures, such as temples, theaters, and stadiums, would become staple features of towns and cities from antiquity onward. In addition, the Greek concern with simplicity, proportion, perspective, and harmony in their buildings would go on to greatly influence architects in the Roman world and provide the foundation for the classical architectural orders which would dominate the western world from the Renaissance to the present day.

The Romans


Serifs originated in the Latin alphabet with inscriptional lettering - words carved into stone in Roman antiquity. Letter outlines were first painted onto stone, and the stone carvers followed the brush marks, which flared at stroke ends and corners, thus creating serifs; although a more prevalent theory is that serifs were devised to neaten the ends of lines as they were chiseled into stone. The stone-engraved letters were painted on stone with a square-cut tool and then incised; from such means resulted the thick and thin variations of the strokes and the serifs.

Ancient Rome came into being on the Italian Peninsula in the 8th century BC as a small city state. Rome came into its own as a world power in the 6th century BC when the kingdom became a republic. Rome expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world with an estimated 50 to 90 million inhabitants (roughly 20% of the world's population then) and covering 6.5 million square kilometers at its height during the 1st century AD.

In its 12 centuries of existence, Rome shifted from a monarchy to a republic and then to an autocratic empire. Through conquest and assimilation, it came to dominate Southern and Western Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa, and parts of Northern and Eastern Europe, becoming one of the most powerful entities of the ancient world. It is often grouped into classical antiquity together with ancient Greece, and their similar cultures and societies are known as the Greco-Roman world.

Probably the most revered example of Roman capitals appear in an inscription at the base of a war monument in Rome -  Trajan's Column, C. E. 117. Many considered this particular work to embody the ultimate resolution of Latin letterform evolution. however, it is not just the column - beautiful serif inscriptions were found on most stately buildings.

Ancient Roman society has contributed to modern government, law, politics, engineering, art, literature, architecture, technology, warfare, religion, language and society. A highly developed civilization, Rome professionalized and expanded its military and created a system of government called res publica, the inspiration for modern republics. It achieved impressive technological and architectural feats, such as the construction of an extensive system of aqueducts and roads, as well as the construction of large monuments, palaces, and public facilities.

Rome was a cosmopolitan city with Greeks, Syrians, Jews, North Africans, Spaniards, Gauls, and Britons. Despite the sometimes shameful deeds of the imperial office, the empire was built on the backs of its citizens - the unsung people who lived a relatively quiet existence, and who are often ignored by history.

Against this human background, both the urban and rural setting, one of history's most influential civilizations took shape, leaving behind a cultural legacy that survives in part today.

The Roman civilization is extremely important for our purposes since they made crucial additions to the writing system they took over from the Greeks. The alphabet changed from Latin to Greek, however they also made visual additions that greatly enhanced the beauty of their inscriptions. These are the serifs which they added to the tips of the strokes of the glyphs as well as the observance of the typographic baseline.

Roman Architecture

Roman architecture adopted the external language of classical Greek architecture for the purposes of the ancient Romans, but grew so different from Greek buildings as to become a new architectural style. The two styles are often considered one body of classical architecture.

Factors such as wealth and high population densities in cities forced the ancient Romans to discover new architectural solutions of their own. The use of vaults and arches, together with a sound knowledge of building materials, enabled them to achieve unprecedented successes in the construction of imposing infrastructure for public use.

The Romans produced massive public buildings and works of civil engineering, and were responsible for significant developments in housing and public hygiene, for example their public and private baths and latrines, under-floor heating, mica glazing, and piped hot and cold water.


The Colosseum is an oval amphitheater in the center of the city of Rome, Italy. Built of concrete and sand, it is the largest amphitheater ever built. Construction began under the emperor Vespasian in AD 72,and was completed in AD 80 under his successor and heir Titus.

The Romans were the first builders in the history of architecture to realize the potential of domes for the creation of large interior spaces. Domes were used in a number of Roman building types such as temples, thermals, and palaces, and later also churches. The construction of domes was greatly facilitated by the invention of concrete, a process which has been termed the Roman Architectural Revolution.

We know from frescoes and also from the well preserved ruins of Pompeii that Roman houses were decorated very simply and yet with great elegance. Sofas and daybeds were the furniture of choice, including for dining purposes since wealthy Romans preferred to recline even while eating. These elegant homes sometimes had closed baths and sometimes open pools, and almost all of them possessed in-door plumbing.

The Roman house of the wealthy elite, or domus, was a pleasant affair with rooms placed around a central courtyard called the atrium. The vestibulum (entrance hall) led into the atrium, which was the focal point of the house and contained a statue of an altar to the household gods. Thus, these beautiful homes were inward facing, mostly with no windows to the outside at all, initially coming out of a necessity in that glass production was not yet wide-spread during the early centuries of Roman culture.

Daily life in a Roman city was completely dependent on one’s economic status. The city was a mixture of wealth and poverty, often existing side by side. The wealthy had the benefit of slave labor whether it was heating the water at the baths, serving them their evening meal, or educating their children. The poor, on the other hand, had no access to education, lived in run-down tenements, and sometimes lived off the charity of the city.

Roman mosaics were a common feature of private homes and public buildings across the empire from Africa to Antioch. Not only are mosaics beautiful works of art in themselves but they are also an invaluable record of such everyday items as clothes, food, tools, weapons, flora and fauna.

Roman Art

Starting in the middle of the 2nd century BC, Greek culture was increasingly in ascendancy, in spite of tirades against the "softening" effects of Hellenized culture from the conservative moralists. By the time of Augustus, cultured Greek household slaves taught the Roman young; chefs, decorators, secretaries, doctors, and hairdressers all came from the Greek East. Greek sculptures adorned Hellenistic landscape gardening on the Palatine or in the villas, or were imitated in Roman sculpture yards by Greek slaves. The Roman cuisine preserved in the cookery books ascribed to Apicius is essentially Greek. Roman writers disdained Latin for a cultured Greek style. Only in law and governance was the Italic nature of Rome's accretive culture supreme.

Roman Sculpture, with artists from across a huge empire and changing public tastes over centuries, is above all else, remarkable for its sheer variety and eclectic mix. The art form blended the idealized perfection of earlier Classical Greek sculpture with greater realism, absorbing artistic styles from the East to create works that rank among the finest works from antiquity.

The interiors of Roman buildings of all description were very frequently decorated with wall paintings. Designs could range from realistic detail to impressionistic renderings which frequently covered all of the available wall space including the ceiling. Subjects could include portraits, scenes from mythology, architectural trompe-l’oeil, flora, fauna and even entire gardens, landscapes and townscapes to create spectacular 360° panoramas which transported the viewer from the confines of a small room to the limitless world of the painter’s imagination.

Roman art includes architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work. Luxury objects in metal-work, gem engraving, ivory carvings are also considered to be minor forms of Roman art. Sculpture was perhaps considered as the highest form of art by Romans, but figure painting was also very highly regarded.

While the traditional view of the ancient Roman artists is that they often borrowed from, and copied Greek precedents (much of the Greek sculptures known today are in the form of Roman marble copies), more recent analysis has indicated that Roman art is a highly creative pastiche relying heavily on Greek models but also encompassing Etruscan, native Italic, and even Egyptian visual culture. Stylistic eclecticism and practical application are the hallmarks of much Roman art.

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