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!

  • 1
    Or more accurately, Rome: Its people... – chasly from UK Oct 12 '15 at 19:18
  • 4
    More important, were they like ravens? – Carl Witthoft Oct 12 '15 at 19:33
  • Thanks, @chaslyfromuk, my tablet's predictive text has its own rules of grammar! – TheHonRose Oct 12 '15 at 20:22
  • @CarlWitthoft - ravens? – TheHonRose Oct 12 '15 at 20:25
  • 1
    It's a famous riddle from Alice in Wonderland. io9.com/5872014/… – chasly from UK Oct 12 '15 at 20:41

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 5
    Sorry but even the poorest peasants in 17th century already had furniture. You actually do not need complicates tools for it. – Anixx Oct 13 '15 at 15:26
  • 4
    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. – Tyler Durden Oct 13 '15 at 16:13
  • 3
    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 '15 at 19:19
  • @TheHonRose With enough time and skill you can produce practically anything. It's just a question of cost. If you showed a Roman carpenter an 18th century secretariat, he certainly could have reproduced it, but the time to do so would have been enormous, so anything like that would have been fantastically expensive. Imagine paying $500,000 for a desk, that's what it would be like. Something Warren Buffet could afford, but not ordinary people. – Tyler Durden Oct 13 '15 at 19:28
  • 4
    I had upvoted in the past but now am not so sure - references would be very helpful . Still, the picture is very edifying. – Felix Goldberg Oct 31 '17 at 6:58

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


enter image description here


enter image description here

Even as far back as ancient Egypt.

| improve this answer | |

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • 9
    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 '17 at 15:03
  • 2
    @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 '17 at 20:51
  • Let's not insult the OP by calling them unaware of "basic woodworking". – Aaron Brick Oct 16 '19 at 20:42
  • 1
    One liknk that cabinetry existed before the industrial revolution. A second linl – Pieter Geerkens Oct 16 '19 at 20:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.