Sunday, January 12, 2014

Publication and Circulation of Literary Works in Antiquity

Fresco from Herculaneum depicting a bookroll
The publication of a written text or literary work in antiquity has very little similarity with 21st century publication. There was no such thing as "copyright" in antiquity and once an author relinquished control over a literary work for copying he lost all "rights" over that document. It could then be copied in whole or in part and even changed or altered by anyone who acquired a copy of the work. Two notable figures of antiquity will help us gain insight into the "publishing" practices of the Roman world.

Pliny and Cicero On Editing and Publication

It was normal for authors to have an "early release" of their work by enlisting the support of colleagues and other literary elites in a reading-out of the text. Pliny the Younger describes for us his editorial practice in a 1st century letter to his friend Caecilius;

“First of all, I go through my work myself; next, I read it to two or three friends and send it to others for comment. If I have any doubts about their criticisms, I go over them again with one or two people, and finally read the work to a larger audience; and that is the moment, believe me, when I make the severest corrections, for my anxiety makes me concentrate all the more carefully.” (Ep. 7.17)
Here we can see that even though Pliny has already begun to circulate his work amongst his closest friends, he has not yet relinquished control over the work for the editing and correcting process is still under way.
Next, Cicero illustrates a similar practice to his friend Atticus in the 1st century BCE. He wrote;
"There is no collection of my letters in existence: but Tiro has something like seventy. Moreover, there are some to be got from you. I ought to look through and correct them. They shall not be published till I have done so.” Ad Att. 16.5 (44 BCE)
Cicero declares that though his slave/secretary Tiro has copies of his letters, Cicero has not released control of them until the editing process is complete.
Once the literary work was released for official "publication," the quality of the copies produced was at the mercy of the scribes who copied-out the text. Cicero illustrates this fact in a letter to his brother Quintus describing the copies of his literary works sold by a bookseller in Rome;

“As to the Latin books, I don’t know which way to turn—they are copied and exposed for sale with such a quantity of errors!” Ad. Quint. 3.6 (54 BCE)
Because his Latin works had been released for copying, to be produced and sold by a bookseller in Rome, Cicero had no longer any control over the quality of text that was being produced and sold.

Cicero on Borrowing/Lending Books

There were very few booksellers in the Roman world. If someone wished to acquire a copy of a book they would usually ask colleagues and acquaintances to lend them a copy of the work in order to copy it out. The many letters of Cicero also provide insight into the practice of borrowing and lending books for copying. In a letter to his friend Atticus Cicero writes;

“I have received the books from [by] Vibius: he is a miserable poet, but yet he is not without some knowledge nor wholly useless. I am going to copy the book out and send it back” Ad. Att. 2.20 (59 BCE)
And in another letter to Atticus he writes;
“Alexander’s books—a careless writer and a poorer poet, and yet not without some useful information—I have sent back to you.” Ad. Att. 2.22 (59 BCE)
These quotations illustrate the normal practice of acquiring literary works by borrowing the book from a friend and then making a copy after which the work was then sent back.

P. Oxy. 2192 with its two postscripts
Oxyrhynchus Papyri on Borrowing/Lending Books

The thousands of papyri found in the Roman city of Oxyrhynchus provide us with a few examples of this book-borrowing practice. A fragment of a letter dating to the 2nd century CE illustrates this
borrowing practice in striking detail. P. Oxy. XVIII 2192 is a fragmentary papyrus letter in which the main body of the letter is missing. All that is left are the remains of two postscripts written in a different hand than the text of the letter. The first postscript is written by the sender of the letter. It is in a different hand than the main body of the letter due to the fact that the sender most likely used a professional scribe to compose the letter. The first postscript reads;
“Have a copy made of books six and seven of Hypsicrates’ Men Who Appear in Commedies and send it to me. Harpocration says that Pollio has them among his books, and probably others may have them too. And he also has prose epitomes of Thersagorus’s Myths of Tragedy.”
It is obvious that the sender of the letter wishes to acquire sections of a literary work that his library was lacking. He does know where to obtain them and the recipient of the letter has access to them and is able to make copies of them and send them back to the sender of the letter.
The other postscript is in a different hand than the first post script. This hand was made by the recipient of the letter. Once he recieved the letter, he wrote his response and then had the letter sent on. The second post script reads;
“Demetrius the bookseller has them, according to Harpocration. I have ordered Apollonides to send to me some of my books—which ones you’ll find out from him. And if you find any volumes of Seleucus’s work on Tenses/Metrics/Rhythms that I don’t own, have copies made and send them to me. Diodorus’s circle also has some that I don’t own."
The second postscript gives further instructions and makes further requests for literary works. A bookseller is mentioned, but it appears that it was normal to acquire books by borrowing them from a friend than purchase them from a bookseller.

The quotations from Pliny and Cicero and the evidence from P. Oxy. 2192 give us a picture of the publishing activity in antiquity. In the next post we will see how these practices carried over into the early Christian world.


Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Johnson, William A. Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire A Study of Elite Communities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. London, England: Penguin Books, 1969.