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A Glimpse Back at the Titulus

Our word, title, has extraordinarily exalted as well as very banal connotations. The word itself derives from the Latin titulus, meaning inscription. The most famous Roman titulus, once known to all, not just Catholics, is the abbreviation INRI shown affixed at the top of the crucifix. We are told that this abbreviation stood for IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM, or “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” We note that the search for this particular titulus is still on-going and claims that it has been found keep erupting. It is nice to know that continuity with the ancient past … continues, as it were, beneath the cyber-world’s surface. In any case, the Romans carved inscriptions in stone to mark boundaries and, like all ancient peoples, also celebrated the feats of the greats and, in the graveyards, the memories of those whose descendants could afford the labor of a stone carver.

At the other extreme, we have evidence from obscure sources that tituli were used in ordinary commerce to label goods—thus an ancient one dated back to 26 A.D. announces “Alban wine bottled by Gamus, the freedman.” If you have the patience, consult this source. This sort of title, always severely abbreviated, was affixed to pottery—as shown in the image we reproduce here from Wikipedia. These very brief marks, which don’t communicate to the uninitiated, remind us of ISBNs. They were intended for internal record keeping, obviously, not to attract the trade. Titling always has had, obviously, multiple purposes.

Not surprisingly, therefore, functionally titles were labels—not least on books. An interesting early example of short titles—short of necessity—is illustrated in an engraving produced from a bas-relief. The picture is in the personal collection of Alberto Manguel and reproduced in his book A History of Reading, which we here reproduce in a shaky photograph.  It shows name tags hanging from Roman scrolls stored on a shelf—and suggesting that, once upon a time, short titles were removable. You had to open the scroll to learn a little more. In the days of scrolls, of course—not a mass-produced item—the commercial role of the title as an attractor had not yet surfaced. That came with the rise of movable type.

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