I am just rekindling my interest in Ancient Rome, and reading Rome:Its people, life and customs by Ugo Enrico Paoli. He goes into considerable detail about tables, but only dining tables. There is a whole chapter on writing implements, tablets, parchment, papyrus, stylii, pens,ink etc, but nothing about writing tables or desks.

It's perfectly possible to write on a tablet or slate either sitting or standing, but not on parchment or papyrus, needing a flat surface and somewhere for pens, ink etc. And - the Romans wrote a lot - letters, books, laws, poetry, treatises, orders etc. They even had teams of literate slaves writing popular books to dictation. And, not just writing - accounting - one needed a surface of some kind for an abacus or scales.

My admittedly small Latin dictionary is no help, it translates "desk" as "scrinium" which then translates as "book box"!

So - did the Romans have desks/writing tables? They were a practical people, they must have solved the problem somehow!


4 Answers 4


Some writing surfaces existed, more like an easel than a table though.


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Even as far back as ancient Egypt.


Not in the way you would think. The Romans did not use furniture unless they were very rich. Even items like the curule chair which magistrates used were very simple with only a small amount of wood. Of course, desks did exist for secretaries to the emperor and people like that, but a modern desk would have been very expensive in Roman times.

Ordinary students would just use a tablet to write.

A professional scribe might use a small table and be seated on the ground or a short stool as follows:

enter image description here

Lecterns did exist, but would have been used only by the elite.

Things like drawers were extremely rare and would have been unknown to the average person. The reason for this is that the kinds of modern blades and wood working tools we have today, power table saws and so forth, did not exist. Their tools were much more primitive, so to make something that required a lot of joining like a drawer or dovetail would have been fantastically expensive.

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    Sorry but even the poorest peasants in 17th century already had furniture. You actually do not need complicates tools for it.
    – Anixx
    Oct 13, 2015 at 15:26
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    He is not asking about the 17th century. Also, as far as 17th century peasants go, the "poorest" peasants did not have houses, much less furniture. Oct 13, 2015 at 16:13
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    Thanks @TylerDurden. No I didn't imagine they had the sort of desks we have now, though I do wonder whether their woodworking tools were so much more primitive than those used to produce the sumptuous furniture of 17thC onwards - with the possible exception of the lathe. Wood is easier to work than metal, and the Romans produced magnificent metal objects. A simple trestle table would not be beyond them, surely? Oh and I'm "she" (grin)
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 13, 2015 at 19:19
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    And what of the late period? Say, AD 300-400?
    – Duncan
    Oct 13, 2015 at 22:53
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    I had upvoted in the past but now am not so sure - references would be very helpful . Still, the picture is very edifying. Oct 31, 2017 at 6:58

The person who answered this question might want to learn some basic woodworking. The Romans invented the workbench, planes and other tools for woodworking. Not being electric did not make them primitive. In fact, a woodworker will tell you that the 'primitive' style tools and techniques like those used in the Roman era are better for most projects because you have a feel for the wood and how the grain runs which will make or break what you are creating. That is why modern furniture, which ignores this ancient and 'primitive' knowledge falls apart.To make any type of dovetail is simple and quick. The actual answer is need. Most people did not need a writing table, they didn't need a drawer. And also, much of the wooden furniture has not survived. Saving for posterity, while not at all new, is recently widespread. Just like abandoned Roman villas in England were used for animals and salvage yards, so was the furniture. If you were cold and it burned, that old table went on the fire. These 'primative' woodworking techniques were mostly lost during the Middle Ages and popularized again later to be used to make either the fine or sturdy furniture that people had for the past 500 years.

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    One of the issues we used to have with "Tyler Durden" was his complete unwillingness to provide sources for most of his assertions. If possible, could you please add some to yours? Otherwise, it's not an answer, it is your opinion.
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 30, 2017 at 15:03
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    @KarriWatsonOakes I suspected the same, tbh. I did not imagine the Romans had the sort of elaborate escritoires of the 18C but merely a flat stable surface upon which to rest tablets/parchment etc. And considering the artifacts they did make, I would not have thought a simple writing tablr/desk beyond them!
    – TheHonRose
    Oct 30, 2017 at 20:51
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    Let's not insult the OP by calling them unaware of "basic woodworking". Oct 16, 2019 at 20:42
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    One liknk that cabinetry existed before the industrial revolution. A second linl Oct 16, 2019 at 20:44

I think the answer to if Romans used desks or tables for writing depends on what they were writing and what materials they were using. The best evidence I can find of a writing table is this picture (picture source is Scala - there is a bigger image here but it has text on it):

enter image description here

It shows "Relief depicting an orator dictating to a scribe. From the Temple of Hercules at Ostia Antica" and is 4th century AD. I can't find any evidence that the Romans had writing desks or tables in their houses, and the site Facts and Details says they didn't.

Many of the most common and useful articles of modern furniture were entirely unknown to the Romans. No mirrors hung on their walls. They had no desks or writing tables, no dressers or chiffoniers, no glass-doored cabinets for the display of bric-a-brac, tableware, or books, no mantels, no hat-racks even.

I don't know how authoritative this is, and the bit about no hat-racks is strange - I don't think Romans commonly wore hats so why would they have hat-racks? There's reddit post which says the opposite on desks.

you would have seen a supply of wax tablets and styli in a given Roman office next to a writing desk for the scribe and the usual writing utensils

This looks like guesswork and there are no sources. Also not very conclusive is this next picture.

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There's a table but maybe it's just for stacking tablets. This next picture (Roman census taking) clearly shows the writer just using his knees.

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And this next one shows a scribe standing writing on a wax tablet.

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Romans also wrote on papyrus. According to the article Writing Materials and Books among the ancient Romans, papyrus rolls could be 50 yards long but individual sheets were "from 8 to 14 inches high and from 3 to 12 inches wide" so you wouldn't necessarily need a desk to write on those (a small table like the one in the 1st picture would be enough). The article then goes on to say that by Pliny's time these sheets were pasted together before they were written on so you had a long roll - some kind of flat surface would have made the job of writing much easier with such a long roll but I can't find any surviving evidence to prove this.

It's also possible they used an easel. There is one shown in the 5th century AD Vergilius Romanus.

enter image description here

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    thank you, that's very helpful. It does appear to be the concensus that Romans did not have writing desks, or at least in a very limited way. Seems strange for such a practical people, but I suppose you didn't need to worry that your slave scribe was comfortable. I have seen an illustration, can't source it atm, of a reclining master dictating to his scribe, who is standing, holding a very large tablet.
    – TheHonRose
    Aug 14, 2020 at 20:46

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