Is the letter J used in ancient Roman inscriptions of (roughly) the classical era? If yes, in what kinds of contexts?

I am under the impression that using I for vowels and J for consonants is a distinction that came about in the medieval times. But this does not rule out the Romans sometimes carving their I with a notable hook so that it looks more like J. My impression is that using J (or something closer to it than I to the modern eye) is rare and unsystematic, but I think I have seen it a couple of times, both in text and and numbers. Unfortunately I have no references or photos to back me up, so I worry I might misremember.

Perhaps a more careful formulation: What is the closest thing to the modern letter J found in Latin inscriptions of the antiquity? (In this case I think a photo or a drawing would be nice, especially if it contains visually dissimilar examples of I and J.) The letter can be used for any sound; I am not looking for a distinction between vocalic and consonantal use but for a letter that looks like J. I want to focus exclusively on text written by an ancient hand to rule out any later editorial effects. I assume that if there are any examples, they are to be found in CIL, but I am not sure whether I can search for a single letter and whether CIL would make a distinction between I and J if one I looked a little like a J.

  • I'm assuming the i longa doesn't count as "closer to [J] than I to the modern eye"?
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 18:16
  • 1
    @Draconis I think the best solution is to post it as an answer and let people decide. If it's more common than a "proper J" (if one exists) and still somewhat J-ish, it's an excellent example.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 18:21
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    @JoonasIlmavirta do you have access to Glossarium till Finlands och Sveriges latinska medeltidsurkunder jämte språklig inledning by Hammarström (1925) - page 22. Peter Stotz (v.3) mentions this as a source of some information about how J was used in medieval Latin.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 22:52
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    @AlexB. It seems that my local library has a physical copy but I found nothing electronic. With the corona situation and my being on leave (for a post in another university) access is a little complicated. I will give that a look and scan the relevant pages if I get a good opportunity.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 7:52
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    @JoonasIlmavirta I see - I totally understand. I'll try to get a pdf then (via ILL).
    – Alex B.
    Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 17:56

2 Answers 2


Old and Classical Latin: I haven't seen anything similar to J.

cf. a quote from Markus Hartmann (2005), Die Frühlateinischen Inschriften und ihre Datierung:

"Ein < I > ist eine einfache mehr oder weniger gerade und senkrechte Haste" (p. 289); see pp. 286-288 for visual examples of almost uniform letter shapes of I found until 240 BCE.

We'll need to also check out Wachter 1987, Altlateinische Inschriften: Sprachliche und epigraphische Untersuchungen zu den Dokumenten bis etwa 150 v. Chr. (alas, I don't have it at home).

I've been also browsing an extremely interesting book, Vvdenie v rimskuju paleografiju (An introduction to Roman Paleography) by E.V. Antonets (2009) - it's in Russian but it has tons of photographs and all the texts are transcribed. You can see how different Latin letters were written in different scripts and at different times. On several occasions Professor Antonets says,

"Буква I не изменяла формы на протяжении всей античности"

"Letter I did not change its shape throughout antiquity" (English translation mine - Alex B.).

The closest form of I to modern J I've been able to find so far is the IU-ligature in New Roman Cursive (écriture commune nouvelle, jüngere römische Kursivschrift, minuscola corsiva), which shows up only in the 3rd century AD.

Antonets has the following examples from "a letter of commendation for Theophanes on his journey from Hermopolis to Antioch" - , dated 317-324 AD, in lines 13 and 15 below (cf. Steffens, Taf. 13):


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Derolez 2003, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century, provides a more detailed account:

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Summary: So, it seems safe to say that the letter J emerged as a form of the letter I ("long I with a descender") when it was used in some ligatures (in Roman cursive), starting in late antiquity.

Post-Classical times:

Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550), De le lettere nuovamente aggiunte ne la lingua Italiana (1524):

enter image description here

(the image is from https://archive.org/details/image230corrMiscellaneaOpal/page/n7/mode/2up)

cf. the following passage from his bio in Treccani:

"Tra le altre cose, propose d'introdurre nell'ortografia italiana anche lettere greche (ε, ω), e di utilizzare in senso funzionale certe varianti tipografiche di lettere latine (j, ʃ, v) e certe lettere altrimenti inutili (ç, k), in modo da rappresentare adeguatamente tutti i fonemi."

=I'll add more info later=


In 1689, Edward Bernard published a comparative table of alphabets known up to that time. I cropped it to show only the Latin alphabets.

Although it's hard to read the dates, this table shows characters that look like the J to have emerged sometime between 306 and 400 A.D. (column XX):

enter image description here

The following is an excerpt from the gospel of Matthew. The document itself is known as the Codex Palatinus and is dated from the the fifth century:

enter image description here

The text shown is a portion of Matthew 14:15. It's hard to make it all out, but it starts with:

dicentes desertus est locus hic et hora iam praeterit[?]...

The letter i, as it appears in dicentes, hic and iam, looks a lot like the j-looking character in the column labelled XX of Bernard's table.

Here's an even older example of the letter i written as a j. This is a portion of the Codex Bobiensis from the fourth century:

enter image description here


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