The origins of marking written work in red ink – Cicero and Atticus

While reading Tiziano Dorandi’s fascinating work, Le stylet et la tablette, on how ancient authors composed their works, I find on p.113 a little snippet.

Cicero sent his works to Atticus for correction and publication.  It seems that Atticus would ‘mark’ the work in red ink, just like a modern school-teacher.

We learn from Cicero’s letter to Atticus (book 16, 11, 1) that the former pretended to have just the same feelings, as a modern pupil would:

Nostrum opus tibi probari laetur … cerulas enim tuas miniatulas illas extimescebam!

I am glad that my work pleases you … for I was afraid of your little red crayon!

How little some things change down the centuries.  Red and black have been the standard colours for inks for centuries, probably because they were easiest to prepare.  I wonder whether Roman schoolboys did homework?  There are certainly schoolboy exercises among the papyri from Egypt.

8 Responses to “The origins of marking written work in red ink – Cicero and Atticus”


  1. Larry Martin

    I think the Latin text, ironically enough as you are discussing the corrective red pen, should read “probari laetor.”

  2. Roger Pearse

    Correct – fixed!

  3. Juan Acevedo

    In a curious pre-Hispanic Mexican parallelism, here is a description of the Aztec sages, the Tlamatinime: “His are the black and red ink, his are the illuminated manuscripts, he studies the illuminated manuscripts.
    He himself is writing and wisdom…”

  4. Roger Pearse

    Interesting: what is the source for this?

  5. Juan Acevedo

    Miguel León-Portilla, quite an authority on Nahuatl studies, translates from some Aztec codex regarding the Tlamatinime: “los señores de la tinta roja y negra”… I think his book on this topic is called in English “Aztec Thought and Culture” (La sabiduría náhuatl).

  6. Roger Pearse

    You don’t have a page number, by any chance?

  7. Juan Acevedo

    With thanks to Google Books: Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, p. 21, also 22 and 102.

  8. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much! (It is always sound practice to tie down the reference for an interesting quote when you find it; finding the reference later can be impossible).