Thursday, July 9, 2020

Quintilian on Writing Well and Quickly

Ivory relief from the cover of a sacramentary, 10th century, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

While reading through Raffaella Cribiore's excellent work "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt" I came across an interesting reference by Quintilian (ca. 35-100 CE) on the necessity of writing legibly. In his magnum opus, "The Institutes of Oratory" Quintilian was writing on the the art of educating and transforming a young boy into a rhetorician worthy of the Roman courts. In book one Quintilian writes about the necessity of teaching to write legibly.
"The art of writing well and quickly is not unimportant for our purpose, though it is generally disregarded by persons of quality. Writing is of the utmost importance in the study which we have under consideration and by its means alone can true and deeply rooted proficiency be obtained. But a sluggish pen delays our thoughts, while an unformed and illiterate hand cannot be deciphered, a circumstance which necessitates another wearisome task, namely the dictation of what we have written to a copyist. We shall therefore at all times and in all places, and above all when we are writing private letters to our friends, find a gratification in the thought that we have not neglected even this accomplishment." (Inst. Or. 1.1.28-29; )
There are a few elements of Quintilian's comments that relate to New Testament letter writing, in particular, Paul's use of a secretary to write his letters (see discussion here). It is fascinating that Quintilian makes the point that "writing well and quickly" is actually "disregarded by persons of quality"! Thus, the ability to write well was not a marker of high social status.
Despite this, Quintilian emphasizes the importance of clear writing, especially in personal letters, but not at the expense of an inordinate amount of time to write out one's thoughts. He notes especially that one may write out a letter in a less-than-legible hand, but then this eligibility requires the extra step of dictating this out to a copyist for better clarity in writing. Perhaps this is the case with Paul, for example, with regard to his letter to the Romans. He might have written it out himself and then, due to poor handwriting, dictated it out to Tertius (Rom. 16:22) for a more clear and practice hand. Of course this is pure speculation, but this possibility may be added to the list of reasons as to why the authors of the New Testament writings used secretaries and copyists. Also, their inability to write legibly would not have been a marker of low social status. 

Cribiore, Raffaella "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt" (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1996).

Quintilian, "Institutes of Oratory," (Harold Edgeworth Butler, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922).


  1. Timothy,
    Thanks again for your willingness to share these insights!


    1. Your welcome Tim. I am almost entirely dependent on the work of scholars such as Cribiore. I thank God for these scholars!