Book, the Ancient

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Books may be discussed with regard to their composition and dissemination. Their composition involves writing materials, book forms, the art of copying, and format of the book; the knowledge of dissemination of books includes their publication, authentication, literary information, and preservation.


The composition of the book in antiquity entailed the solution of difficulties no longer met today because of basic techniques developed then.

Writing Materials. The oldest material used for literary purposes and classifiable as a book was the clay tablet, in use in ancient Babylonia and Sumeria. Originally square (but later elongated), smooth on top and concave below, they could be kept in series. The lettering was done while the clay was still soft in one or three columns with a stylus similar to a pencil (Jer 17.1). When baked, the tablet retained its contents indelibly. For cataloguing the tablets the series, number, initial words of the text, and a summary were indicated in captions. These tablets constituted the first attempt to preserve important writings in libraries. More practical were the waxed boards on which characters were engraved with the sharp point of a stylus. The flattened end of the stylus was used to smooth the wax again. Wax tablets were difficult to handle and store but convenient for outlines, bills, letters, and school work, in which they could be corrected and used again (Tibullus 4.7.7; Propertius 3.23; Jerome, Epist. 8.1; Augustine, Epist. 15.1). In Greece Homer (Iliad 6.168) was the first to mention the "folded slate," a wooden tablet covered with a white substance (Euripides, Alc. 968), which was used also in ancient Palestine (Ez 37.1522) and ltaly (Gaius, Inst. 2.104). In Italy public registers of wood, iron, or ivory were engraved with a heated stylus (Tacitus, Ann. 13.28; Jerome, In ler. 3.17; PL 24.786). Authors quoting such documents called them books (Cicero, Verr. 1.36).

Papyrus, called βύβλος in Greek, after the Syrian city of Byblos, was made from the pith of the papyrus plant. Extant papyri show that upon a vertical layer of narrow strips was placed a horizontal layer. When these were pressed, the fibers were united by the glue in the plant, or glue added thereto, and formed a smooth writing surface. Different qualities were produced, from packaging material to the fine white paper called Augustea Regia (Pliny, Nat. 13.7476, 82; Isidore, Orig. 6.10.2). Despite its high cost, four drachmas per roll in the 2d century a.d., many sheets of papyrus had defective strips, bad joinings, or layers that did not stick together firmly. If papyrus was scarce, the writing could be erased with a sponge and the papyrus used again (Martial 4.10). Outlines, notes, letters, records, and literary works of leisure were written on papyrus. Used in Egypt in earliest times, it was exported from there as early as the 11th century b.c., and was

sold in Alexandria until the end of antiquity (Jerome, Epist. 72.2). From the 7th century b.c., Ionia imported it into the Greek world. Solon's decree that Homer's entire epic be declaimed during the Panathenian feasts led to a more general use, for written copies were made. At the end of the 5th century Aristophanes could affirm that every person of culture possessed books (Frogs 1114). The tombs and the dry sands of Egypt have preserved most of the known papyri, some of which are of great value, e.g., the P 66 (Bodmer 2) of the 2d century, which contains a good part of the Gospel of St. John.

Parchment derives its name, according to an ancient tradition that lasted until the 6th century a.d., from Pergamum, a city in Asia Minor that first flourished c. 300b.c. The material was used for writing in 2000b.c., however. Although less common than papyrus, parchment was known to the Greek world in the 6th century b.c. (Herodotus 5.58.3), the Dorians being the first Greeks to write on the skins of goats and sheep. Proof for the early use of parchment in Rome is seen in the legend that during the period of the kings, treaties of peace were permanently recorded on the skins of sacrificed animals (Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiq. Rom. 4.58.4). But as late as the 3d century a.d. it was necessary for Ulpian to determine for jurists that animal skins were as valid for testaments as was papyrus (Dig. 37.11.1). Little is known about the preparation of parchment. The hair was scraped off and the hides were dressed and smoothed for long strips, both sides of which could be written upon. Smaller pieces prepared for private and public archives, when stacked on top of one another and fastened together, would later form the "codex," the forerunner of the modern book. Parchment was not prized for literary compositions, because it was crude in comparison with light and elegant papyri, but by the 5th century it had replaced papyrus. It appealed to the circles of Christian ascetics, and Bibles written on it would last longer (Jerome, Vir. ill. 113). It was used for correspondence, however, only when papyrus

became scarce. As a result, the letters published in antiquity, more than any other genre, have perished. Valuable pagan and Christian works have been preserved thanks to Christian writers of the 4th century and after who wrote on parchment.

Book Forms. The scroll (Latin volumen, from volvere, "to roll") suggests the unrolling of a long MS. The scroll was the usual form for books in Babylonia and Assyria in the 9th century. From there it may have passed to the Phoenicians and Aramaeans. Reference to it in the 7th century b.c. (Jer 36.2) suggests that it was then in common use. Strips of papyrus or parchment already inscribed were overlapped and glued or sewn together. The seams were visible, although great care was taken with them. In Athens the pioneer in the trade of gluing merited a statue, and in Rome an epitaph has immortalized a gluer [Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed.F. Cabrol, H. Leclercq, and H. I. Marrou (Paris 190753) 9.1760]. Isidore observes that the length of the scroll depended upon the type of composition (Orig. 6.12), a small scroll for the lyric, a longer one for epic and history. Very long rolls were rare. Pliny says that "A good book is all the better, the longer it is" (Epist 1.20.4), but for him one of Cicero's discourses was a large book. For Martial 300 epigrams was a volume of insufferable length (Epigr. 2.1). The four Gospels, even Mark or Luke alone, would constitute a "scroll" (Jerome, Epist. 121.6). Even when codices had replaced rolls, Sacred Scripture was often copied on rolls. Copies of the "Exsultet" on great rolls that were annotated and illuminated solemnized the Easter Vigil liturgy until the Middle Ages. The scroll was held in the right hand and unrolled with the left, the text being in perpendicular columns. If, as happened infrequently, the text ran continuously down the scroll, it could be held under the chin and unrolled with both hands (Martial, Epigr. 1.66). The Logia Jesu, found at Oxyrhynchos (P. Oxy 4.454), and the scriptural texts found at Qumran near the Dead Sea are examples of books preserved in scrolls.

The codex or loose-leaf manuscript, although based on the old Oriental device of attaching tablets to one another, seems to have been of Roman origin. It was made of parchment and papyrus, or alternating folia of each, and revolutionized bookmaking. In the 3d century a.d. it was disputed whether codices constituted books according to Roman law. Profane authors would not use them. Of the 3d-century MS fragments extant, there is only one codex for every 15 scrolls. Among Christian writers of the same period there are four codices for each scroll. Christians copied profane works as well as their own works in codices (Rufinus, Apol. adv. Hier. 2.8; Jerome, Epist. 22.30). Christian calligraphers continued the tradition of artistic ornamentation in gold, purple, and precious gems, particularly in Bibles, in competition with secular and heretical books. Manes, founder of the Manichees, asserted, "The Apostles did not portray wisdom through paintings as I painted her" (Kephalaia 154). Augustine speaks of the costly books of the Manichees, "so many and such large and such sumptuous codexes" (C. Faust. 13.6). Arians and other adversaries of the Church followed suit. MS P. Oxy 30 dates probably from a.d.100. A few Greek codices date from the 2d century. The 13 codices discovered in Nag' Hammâdi, Egypt, in 194647, comprising about 1,000 leaves of papyrus, date from the 3d century to c. 400. Of these leaves, 749 are well preserved. Codex X, measuring 21 by 27 centimeters with 37 lines per page, is the largest and most beautiful of the 13. From the 4th and 5th centuries the codex was the usual book form.

Art of Copying. Black ink (atramentum ) made of charcoal and gum was used. Red ink (rubrum ) served for titles. Costly MSS were written in gold letters. The copyist held his parchment or papyrus over a narrow board or inclined table and wrote with a stylus across the column. For the sake of elegance, lines ran continuously down the roll. Each line contained, at most, 18 syllables, a hexameter. To judge from the MSS extant, the number of syllables in a line was not rigidly determined. The columns were narrow enough for the eye to pass from one line to the next without losing the thread of thought. Division into columns (Latin paginae, Greek σελίδες) made it possible for Origen to attempt the first critical edition of the Bible, the hexapla, six texts in parallel columns. Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, both of the 4th century, are in three and four columns, respectively. Normally only one side of the page was written on. Pliny, to prove that his uncle Pliny the Elder wrote prodigiously, asserts that he wrote opisthographs, i.e., he filled both sides of the scroll (Epist. 3.5.17). Ironical allusions of the poets indicate that the reverse side served only for outlines and school work (Martial, Epigr. 4.86). The Revelation, however, refers to the sealed scroll, written within and without (Rv 5.1).

Dictation of their works by authors, classical as well as Christian, and especially public officials, was the rule. The stenographers used three devices: suspension [Anc(ient)], contraction [B(oo)k], and the substitution of conventional signs [&]. In Rome a shorthand system, notae tironianae, using 13,000 elements was employed. A professor of stenography in a.d. 301 received a salary 50 percent larger than that of a teacher on the primary level or a professor of penmanship. In the 5th century a slave skilled in shorthand cost two and a half times more than an unskilled slave (Cod. lust.; The stenographic copy was transcribed upon papyrus or upon vellum. No one succeeded, even in the classical period and in the periods of greatest literary production, in establishing an organization for the purely technical task of copying books. But there was training, and schools existed for perfecting the skill of copyists, an art that the Christians preserved. Although the First Rule of the cenobitic monks, that of St. Pachomius of the 4th century, does not mention copyists, they were represented before long in the monasteries. Jerome recognized the job of copyist as a means of livelihood and as a stimulus for reading (Epist. 125.11). The only evidence that groups of copyists wrote in a workshop while someone dictated to them is a single Egyptian drawing. To say nothing of inevitable errors in dictation, the technical part of copying lent itself very little to team work. A group can hardly trace lines, begin new columns, maintain elegant penmanship, paint, and illumine at the same rate of speed. The copy used as a model, like modern plates, remained with the author, the bookseller, or in the library for further copies.

Format of the Book. "Book," Latin liber, originally designated bark on which uncivilized men wrote (Pliny, Hist. nat. 13.21.69; Jerome, Epist. 8.1). Later it signified a complete literary work or a part thereof. In the first leaf or column appeared the title, index, division, and author's name. These data, indispensable for identification or consultation, sometimes appeared in more complete form at the end of the work where they were better protected. The title could be repeated elsewhere in the work, and the table of contents might appear separately. Many ancient books are known and classified by their initial words, the incipit, even in 19th-century editions, just as encyclicals and papal bulls today are identified. Dedications, frequent in pagan and Christian antiquity, might be directed to some divinity, an important person, or a pupil. They included the homage, the first few notes about the book, the author's method, an exposition of difficult points, and at times invectives. Prefaces, ever the same, appear in all periods. To receive a dedication among the ancients was to be immortalized, for they still believed in the immortality of the book. The modern form of chapters and paragraphs were unknown to the ancients although the terms were used. The reader oriented himself by means of brief summaries or captions in the margin of the scroll or page. To cite a passage one referred to these summaries with an indication of its position in the book. Because it might be difficult for the reader to find the passage, or even the work cited, important passages were preferably transcribed or, more often, cited from memory. Critical signs to indicate lacunae, corrections, doubts, and interpolations existed from the days of early Alexandria until the end of antiquity (Isidore, Orig. 1.21). Those used by Origen in the Hexapla are well known. To these Jerome added the colon to signify the end of a quotation.

At the end of a book the Hebrews wrote Amen, Sela, or Salom, "So be it! Pause! Peace!" to confirm the assertions of the book, while promising it survival and expressing joy on the completion of copying (Jerome, Epist. 28.4). The Latins, besides Amen, used the more functional term Explicuit (The End), Explicuit feliciter (Thank goodness it's finished!), or other phrases expressing the copyist's relief. In the classical period one finds formulas, inherited from the ancient Orient, that guarantee the fidelity of the copy. Jerome has transmitted the formula of St. Irenaeus (d. 202): "You who will transcribe this book, I charge you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His glorious Second Coming, in which He will come to judge the living and dead, compare what you have copied against the original and correct it carefully. Furthermore, transcribe this adjuration and place it in the copy" (Vir. ill. 35). To prevent papyrus copies from tearing, the ancients reinforced them at both ends of the roll for a width of five centimeters. This part was called significantly cornu, "horn." At the end of the reading when the scroll was completely unrolled, it was held by the horns.


The dissemination of the book was laborious and expensive. Forgeries and inaccuracies were difficult to control.

Publication. The terms for publication were in Greek, κδίδωμι, διαδίδωμι; Latin, librum edere, publicare, divulgare, and others; editio signifies both the process and the result of publication. Unless the author himself provides it, the date of publication can hardly be determined from the various hand-copied MSS. During the classical period publication in large centers normally began with a public reading before friends and distinguished persons. After the session and applause, the book was handed over for distribution. Further advertising, even in handbills and posters, was not neglected (Suetonius, Ep. 5.11.3). Authors under the protection of sovereigns or patrons advertised through official channels. This was the procedure with works destined to celebrate great feats or to solemnize religious and civil assemblies or even festive reunions, e.g., the declamations of Homer, Pindar, Herodotus, the Greek tragedies, and until the end of the Roman Empire, the imperial panegyrics. The protection of the poets Vergil, Horace, and Propertius by Augustus and his minister Maecenas was proverbial. Genuine workshops for the dissemination of MSS arose with the libraries of the 5th century b.c. and municipal and court archives, especially with the library at Alexandria c. 300b.c. which later held 700,000 scrolls. In Pergamum, in the libraries of Augustus and Trajan in Rome, and in the more important cities of the empire originals were sought for reproduction. Ten copies a year of Tacitus's works were made for the archives by order of the Emperor Tacitus (d. 276). Booksellers, bibliopolae, reproduced and sold books of interest to the public. The authors, who received the fame but not the money, frequently made allusions to this exploitation. The copies were expensive, and ordinarily each copy was made as the demand arose, although a few might be kept on hand. The 1,000 copies of M. Regulus's panegyric (Pliny, Epist. 4.2.7) were singular.

Influential men maintained their own copyists to meet their needs. St. Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) indicated Anaxagoras (5th century b.c.) as the first such publisher. Atticus in Cicero's time was another (Att. 2.1.2). Among the Christians Origen, Jerome (Vir. ill. 61, Hom. Orig. in ler. prologue), and Augustine (Epist. 44.2) maintained up to seven copyists for their own works and those of others. Paulinus of Nola, himself an author, disseminated the books of Ambrose (Augustine, Epist. 31.8); requested the books of Augustine not only for his personal instruction "but for the good of many churches" (Paulinus, Epist. 25.1); and created publicity for Sulpicius Severus (Sulpicius Severus, Dial. 3.17 A), Jerome, Rufinus, and others. Generations of monks would later undertake the reproduction of these authors. In the monastery of Martin of Tours this was the only skill allowed (Sulpicius Severus, Mart. 10.6). Clerics carried works from India to Alexandria (Jerome, Vir. ill. 36), and within their lifetimes Christian authors might be read from one end of the known world to the other (Sulpicius Severus, Dial. 1.8).

The author, or others, sometimes published improved, revised, or abbreviated texts, e.g., the longer original text of the Rule of St. Pachomius (c. 318) and the shorter text composed after the 5th century. A new edition might offer only the slightest modifications or a complete revision. When an author died his work became public property, and changes were made freely and with impunity. From the 4th to the 6th century the distribution of books without the author's consent became more and more audacious, as did the corruption of texts, the falsification of signatures, and the theft of MSS.

Authentication. Introduced from Syria, authentication by signature appeared in Greece by the 5th century b.c. Signatures to the copy could be forged, however (Jerome, Epist. 105.3). Another means of identification was the signet ring possessed by persons of distinction and used on official documents and to authenticate messages, letters, and even entire works. If an authentic copy of a text could be found in an archive or a library, it was easy to authenticate a text in hand. Otherwise authentication had to be accomplished by an internal criticism or by a comparison of data in copies.

Literary Information. In antiquity data about literary works were transmitted with little method. Children in school came to know famous authors through copies of their verses, extant in many papyrus fragments. In the schools of great masters, as in Athens and Rhodes, privileged youths broadened their knowledge of names and books. Once in public life, they kept themselves informed through conversations, meetings, correspondence, and public readings. There were attempts at systematic instruction, similar to modern manuals of the history of literature, such as Plutarch's Lives in Greek, Cicero's Brutus for Roman eloquence, and especially Suetonius's De viris illustribus, which introduced readers to poets, grammarians, rhetoricians, and philosophers. In Christian times Jerome compiled the first manual of literary information in his De viris illustribus, a work continued by Gennadius of Marseilles at the end of the 5th century, by Isidore of Seville at the beginning of the 7th, and by Ildefonsus of Toledo (d. 667). The uncertainty of literary information can be seen in expressions like "As someone said recently," "As I myself inquired," and "They say that he produced" (Jerome, Vir. ill. 126, 128).

Preservation. When stored, books were bound with leather thongs, constrictus liber, and at times inserted into a stronger parchment or papyrus cover, sittybos. Scrolls gathered together, especially in a collection, were newly bound and placed in a cylinder or box, Greek κιβωτός or χαρτοφυλάκιον Latin scrinium, chartarium, arca, armarium, cista, capsa. The titles were hung outside the container on strips of leather, pittac ia (Cicero, Att. 4.4b.1; Ovid, Trist. 1.1.109). Humidity and insects were a real danger. Cedar oil was used against worms and decomposition (Ovid, Trist. 1.1.7; Martial 5.6.14). Catalogs antedate the library at Alexandria, but the systematic collecting of books began there. Smaller libraries also assembled books for particular subjects, especially for the divine services (Acta purgationis Felicis ep. Autumnitani, CSEL 26).

Precious scrolls were rolled on wooden rods or bones, which were sometimes decorated or gilded. The elaborateness of the internal ornamentation and the external appearance of books were points of pride for amateur book collectors and the newly rich. Wooden chests, boxes of iron or a more precious metal, and even ivory containers, protected literary works for later generations.

Bibliography: j. de ghellinck, Patristique et moyen âage, v.13 (Gembloux 1946). f.g. kenyon, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome (2d ed. Oxford 1951). e. arns, La Technique du livre d'aprèes saint Jérôme (Paris 1953), bibliography. a. bataille, Les Papyrus (Paris 1955). w. neuss, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 2:746748. w. matthias, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (Tübingen 195765) 1:145961. Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950)] 2:664772. c. h. roberts and t.c. skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London 1985). a. blanchard, ed., Les Débuts du Codex (Turnhout 1989). h-j martin and r. chartier, eds., Histoire de l'édition française (Paris 1983).

[e. arns]