In a world without printing, how did the Romans obtain books? How did authors get paid? What exactly did the average Roman read? Whilst there have been countless studies of Latin literature and its most famous authors, what did people actually do to obtain and dispose of books?
Bookshops certainly existed in Rome in the centuries after empire, so we might assume that they had already existed. The Anglo-Saxon book Lives of the Abbots of Jarrow and Wearmouth, anonymous but written by a fellow-monk to Bede, tells of a visit to Rome by Benedict Biscop in the 650s AD. He bought books and brought them back to Jarrow. An analysis of Bede’s sources suggest he had a book of poems by Virgil, possibly only a school primer for children to learn good Latin by emulating Virgil’s style and a copy of Priscian’s Institutes of Grammar. Most of what Biscop brought back would have been works of Christian exegesis and saints’ Vitae.
The bookshop quarter of Rome seems to have been on the Vicus Tuscus, once the area in which Etruscans lived. It is tempting to think of London’s Charing Cross Road before it was taken over by coffee shops and other tat. Books were sold from a shop (horreum) and a number of horrea librorum congregated in that area. According to Horace, some books were sold in front of a statue of Vertumnus and one of Janus Geminus as well as in the Roman Forum. Perhaps we should think of stalls selling books on market days, something like the Sunday bouquinistes along the Seine in Paris today. At a guess, they sold second-hand volumines. Horace says they sacrificed to Vertumnus, suggesting that the sellers were Etruscans. The same street was also the centre for male prostitution, indicating that book selling was a marginal trade too. (Interestingly, Charing Cross Road leads up to both intellectual Bloomsbury and to the site of St Giles Rookery, once deemed the worst slum in Europe; Dickens went there with four policemen to guard him.)
|Horrea Epagathiana et Epaphroditiana, Ostia|
What did the bookshops of Rome sell? What, physically, was a book? Scores of Hollywood movies have portrayed emperors and others reading scrolls. These certainly existed, but weren’t read as they are shown in films. There, they are opened up from top to bottom and read left to right, starting at the top of the scroll, which is then unravelled downwards to reveal more text.
|Esther Scroll in Hebrew|
However, surviving Roman pictures show the scroll (volumen) was not held with hands positioned at ’12 and 6’, but at ‘9 and 3’. That is, the scroll was opened from the left, the handwritten block of text was read, and then the left side was rescrolled and the right side opened. When the scroll was returned to its wound position, it was placed in a wooden tube or in a pigeonhole (columbarium) with a tag on it to say what it was. The volumen was often positioned on a desk with side rollers.
The Roman use of a bound book (codex) seems to date from about the time of Augustus and may have been brought back from Egypt. In basic form, it’s a block of text from a volumen, cut up and held at one side. The incipit, the nearest thing Roman books had to a title, would be written on the spine, and books were kept spin-inward on shelves and probably lying down, not upright.
If the stalls which Horace refers to sold second-hand books, they would have been volumines, not codices, as those were the latest thing. This presupposes a book trade, at least for older works, and therefore individuals who knew enough about books to know what buyers wanted and who had the means to source such works. Authors then as now went in and out of fashion, so over time the sort of books sold would change. We can imagine Benedict Biscop paying out for books in such a setting. Although, since England had no coins at that time, the payment must have been gifted locally.
If I can divert for a second, I have always been surprised that the Romans with their extensive empire and thousands of schools teaching a standardised curriculum did not feel impelled to invent printing. The principle of reverse type was well understood, since it underpins the signet ring, known for millennia, the pottery stamp, seen on billions of fragments at sites such as Monte Testaccio, and the woodcut, used for illustrations such as those which accompany the Notitia Dignitatum. We know from recent published research at Herculaneum that metal-based permanent inks existed before AD79. An extensive book trade would have been fuelled by such simple technology, but the only labour it saved would have been that of slaves, so the scriptorium endured.
How did booksellers acquire their stock? Authors, if paid at all, were sponsored, so it’s feasible that sponsors might have copies made of works, which is why so many had dedications to nobles; Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia is dedicated to the emperor Titus, who probably had some copies run off after Pliny died at Pompeii! The large amount of manuscripts of the Aeneid suggests knock-off copies were made.
The proscriptions of the second Triumvirate probably led to the seizure of the offenders’ libraries, which would then be auctioned off to booksellers at so much per pound of scrolls. When rich men left half their estate to the emperor, he probably didn’t want their books, so the heirs might need to sell books in order to maintain some lifestyle. One wonders if Ovid’s books slipped back into the stockroom when (and if) he was exiled, or if they sold better for it, just as the disappearance of Agatha Christie did not harm to her sales a jot.
Other than knock-off copies, would booksellers have any new stock to sell? According to Robert Knapp in his excellent Invisible Romans, there was a vast literature of popular subjects including proverbs, such as the Sayings of Publius Syrus, interpretation of dreams (Artemiodorus Interpretation of Dreams, the Oracles of Astrampsychus), books of fables, astrology, joke books (such as Philogelos, recently discussed by Mary Beard); the only book by Ovid mentioned in the lifetime of people who might have known him is a work on fishing, suggesting he needed to supplement fame with cash; we can imagine Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana, dedicated to empress Julia Domna, was a bestseller (it’s about a wonder working conjuror of the first century AD).
Take Marius Maximus, a popular author, author of Caesares, the story of the twelve Caesars from Nerva to Elagabalus, clearly a potboiler sequel to Suetonius.. Ammianus comments of the Roman nobility of his day that ‘Some of them hate learning as they do poison, and read with attentive care only Juvenal and Marius Maximus, in their boundless idleness handling no other books than these, for what reason it is not for my humble mind to judge.’ (28.3.14). His work survived to be criticised by St Jerome, but not a word survives. We can imagine that Suetonius’ Lives of the Famous Prostitutes was a bestseller too, and that hasn’t survived, probably due to wholesale burning of books in the late 300s AD by Christian zealots.
As every new technology seems immediately to lead to a new means to produce pornography, there may well have been a trade in that too (‘Were you looking for something a little stronger, splendissimus? I might have just what you’re after.’). It might well be in Greek, so that the average Roman bigot couldn’t read it anyway. Works like Petronius Satyricon, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (the Golden Ass), novels like Heliodorus’ An Ethiopian Tale, Xenophon’s An Ephesian Tale and Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon. The Myriobiblos of Photius (in ninth century Byzantium) references 279 books, most of them lost, but they would have been those worthy of a Patriarch, so thousands of works have been lost and never noted.