Did the ancient wax writing tablet of the Romans possess the power to terrorize enemies? Two ancient texts suggest that under some circumstances, carrying these humble wax tablets could cost someone their life.
I love history. I love writing. When you combine the two, I’m in a literary paradise. I just read a journal article that took me there. I recently joined a fascinating online organization called Academia.edu, where international scholars freely share their research.
It’s like stumbling into a free four-star buffet for the mind.
I do not only love words themselves. I’ve long been interested in the physical or mechanical aspects of writing, as well. Along this line, I’ve written here in the past about typewriters and the printing press.
I do not recall, however, writing about one of the most fascinating literary devices used by both common and gifted writers for century upon century. I am referring to the wax tablets of Rome, and the often elaborate styluses used to write on them.
I read a captivating article today that related a pair of historical incidents—one ancient, the other medieval—in which modest tablets such as these were mistaken for weapons. Deadly consequences followed.
In a Welsh journal entitled Studia Celtica, there appears “Tírechán on St. Patrick’s Writing Tablets,” by David Woods of University College, Cork. Cork is, of course, in Ireland, that enchanted isle from which the sainted C.S. Lewis also sprang. In fact, in a letter written to a child, Lewis once wrote: “I was born in Holy Ireland where there are no snakes because, as you know, St. Patrick sent them all away.
The purpose of the article was to explain how writing tablets being carried by Saint Patrick and his party could be mistaken (from a distance) as swords. The author is persuasive in revealing the historic scene and the potential for misunderstanding. In doing so, he appeals to an ancient incident in which Octavius (who would become Caesar Augustus) unjustly executed a political enemy he suspected had posed a threat.
When Quintus Gallius, a praetor, held some folded tablets under his robe as he was paying his respects, Augustus, suspecting that he had a sword concealed there, did not dare to make a search on the spot for fear it should turn out to be something else; but a little later he had Gallius hustled from the tribunal by some centurions and soldiers, tortured him as if he were a slave, and though he made no confession, ordered his execution, first tearing out the man’s eyes with his own hand.
The incident with Saint Patrick was not quite so gruesome, although it may have easily turned bloody, if the pagan’s hoping to instigate a bloodbath had succeeded.
Patrick came from Mag Arthicc to Drummut Cérrigi . . . and people saw him with eight or nine men, holding written tablets in their hands like Moses. The pagans shouted as they saw them, demanding that one should kill the holy men, and said: “They have swords in their hands for killing people. In their hands they look wooden by day, but we believe they are swords of iron for shedding blood.”
The big crowd was on the point of doing harm to the holy men; but there was a man among them who felt pity, Hercaith by name, of the race of Nothe, the father of Feradach. He believed in Patrick’s God, and Patrick baptized him and his son Feradach.
Fortunately, reason prevailed, and Patrick continued to spread the gospel in the land to which he had originally been carried as a slave.
The article also references occasions where the stylus, rather than the innocuous tablet, was used as a weapon. “For example, when his assassins confronted Julius Caesar in the senate in 44 BC, he sought to defend himself with his stylus, and stabbed one of them, Casca, in the arm with it.”
The pen, (the original) Caesar’s weapon of last resort.
This delightful article offered a wealth of knowledge. It alerted me to the fact that it is not only wax tablets that are threatening. Those who are wise will exercise extreme caution, whenever they are confronted by any and all writing tools.