Sunday, 24 July 2005

Books in Ancient Rome

A bucket of scrolls

Printing did not exist in the ancient world so books were all hadwritten. There was no such thing as paper made of wood pulp either, so papyrus was used, a sheet made of processed papyrus reeds which grew in the Nile region of Egypt. Papyrus was indeed one of Egypt's most important exports.
Papyrus was expensive and it came in several gradings according to quality. A encyclopaedia from around 70 A.D. lists these as:

Grade 1: the Emperor Augustus's own, the finest of all, favoured above all for letter-writing (these were 13-inch sheets)

Grade 2: His wife Livia's own (also 13 inches)

Grade 3: priestly, reserved for Egyptian sacred texts (10-inch sheets)

Grade 4: amphitheatre papyrus, amde at Rome in Fannius' workshop under the amphitheatre and extremely thin (9-inch sheets)

Grade 5: Saite, named after an Egyptian town with low quality papyrus beds (less than 9 inches)

Grade 6: Taeneotic, named after another Egyptian town, sold by weight, not quality

Grade 7: traders', no good for writing on, used for wrapping bundles of finer papyrus or other merchandise (less than 6-inch sheets)

As a nobleman, if you wished to borrow a particular literary work from someone, you would obtain the said scrolls and have your slaves copy them all.
The shape of the book we would recognise today was called a codex and was mainly used to bind documents and was not widely in use.
As for the scrolls, each individual one could not hold a large amount of text so a book would be conprised of a bucket of several scrolls, depending on the size of the work of course.


James O said...

In Graves' 'I Claudius', an important plot point hinges on a character refusing to burn used paper because, compared to papyris, it's so expensive. Am I right in assuming this was made-up?

Alterior said...

There was no paper in ancient Rome as we know it. Paper from wood pulp was invented by the Chinese around 105 A.D. which was long after Claudius or any of the people starring in 'I Claudius' lived. However, recent archaeological evidence shows that paper may have been known in China as early as 120 B.C. However, these findings are recent and would not have been known during Robert Graves' lifetime.

Jeff Z said...

What about parchment, the lambskin that the Torah was (and is) written on? Was that often used?

James O said...

Thanks; I generally don't expect 20th-century fictional versions of the past to be accurate, but in Graves' case the fact that he's relied upon accounts from the Roman era - Suetonius, Tacitus - I was more willing to suspend my disbelief .

Tomalak said...

Keep that disbelief suspended. :) I first became interested in Ancient Rome through Graves' I, Claudius, and when later reading histories of the period I was myself astonished at times by how historically accurate the novel was. For example, I had no idea that the letters Augustus and Livia exchanged in the book, regarding the former's eavesdropping on the young Claudius declaiming on a subject of his interest, were real, but I was delighted to find them (as far as I remember) word for word in the histories of the period.

Alterior said...

Yes, Robert Graves relied heavily on Suetonius and other ancient texts in order to limit as much as possible the fictional side of things, which is one of the reasons why his novel is so wonderful to read. The majority of things he describes in the book really happened. The idea that Livia was a cold-blooded poisoner has never been established and is pure speculation though...It is however true that Livia exercised a great deal of influence over Augustus, in matters of state as well as in personal ones. She was an extremely clever woman. Augustus adored her but of course he had his mistresses, which she knew about and even encouraged.