The Roman Book

For Roman authors from Ennius up to those of the Silver Age, such as Tacitus and Juvenal, the ordinary form of books and their manner of production were completely different from what we have today. Books throughout the Mediterranean region were the same as they had been four centuries earlier in the heyday of Greek civilization. The Greeks themselves had taken over techniques from Egypt, where both writing and papyrus, the ancient equivalent of paper, had been invented.

No technique even vaguely similar to printing was known. Every copy of a book had to be individually written out by hand. This did not increase the cost of books, since the scribes who produced them were usually slaves. However, apart from the time and labor required to transcribe each and every copy of a book, the method had a serious flaw: Unlike the results of printing, no two copies could ever be guaranteed to be exactly alike. Inevitably, each copy of a book had its own peculiar variations, and as the process was repeated over centuries, more variations crept into the text. With the passage of time, it became progressively more difficult to know exactly what the author had originally written.

The traditional form of a Roman book would be equally surprising to a modern reader. From the time of its invention by the Egyptians about 3000 b.c., a book consisted of a roll of papyrus, a material resembling paper, with a length of 20 to 26 feet and a width of ten inches, though sizes varied considerably. The text was written on this in narrow columns at right angles to the roll's length. A roll consisted of up to 20 papyrus sheets, which were slightly overlapped to allow for gluing. To make up the sheets themselves, the stalks of the papyrus, a large reedlike plant that grew in profusion along the Nile River, were shredded into thin strips. A number of these were placed side by side to make up the dimensions of the sheet required, and these were completely covered with another layer of strips placed at right angles to the first. Since this was done with the strips still moist, the sap acted as a glue when the sheet was placed in a press. After removal, the sheet was smoothed with pumice, or some similar abrasive, and trimmed. Many examples of papyrus rolls have survived and show that as a material for writing, it is comparable to paper, although it differs in being less flexible.

After a roll had been made up, a turned wooden rod resembling a small rolling pin was attached to each end, and the rods' projecting handles allowed the long papyrus strip to be rolled up from either direction. A text could then be transcribed onto one side of the roll—the back was left blank—and the roll was then ready for use. The lower handle of the rod on the outer end was held in the left hand, and the corresponding handle of the other rod in the right. As the beginning of the roll was unwound, the first columns were read. Hie reader's right and left hands kept unrolling and rolling up respectively until the end was reached, at which point the roll, like a modern videocassette, had to be rewound for the next user. The whole procedure was best performed if the roll was on the knees of the reader when seated (much the same as when we read a book by the fire), and it is in this position that ancient sculptures depict a person reading. Papyrus rolls were not suited to desks as we know them.

The reader's problems were not confined to manipulating the roll, however, as conventions of presenting a text were different from those today. Scribes wrote in capitals, because an equivalent of our lowercase had yet to develop. This in itself would not have created difficulty, but a line of capitals normally gave no indication of where one word ended and the next began; words were not always separated by word spaces.* In addition, punctuation was rarely used. Hie unfortunate reader was faced with a string of letters and was obliged to split these up, first into words, then into clauses, and then into sentences. As an example, we may take the beginning of the Aeneid, which could have appeared on a papyrus roll in the rustic scribal hand of the day as follows,


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