Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Virginius Rufus Killed by a Large Bookroll

My Dad pointed me to a reference in a letter of Pliny the Younger to a Virginius Rufus who had been killed by a large bookroll. It was too interesting not to pass it on.
Pliny wrote to his friend Voconius Romanus informing him about a cultured Roman dignitary, Virginius Rufus, who had lived a long and fruitful life to the age of 84 years. Virginius was such a revered man that Cornelius Tacitus gave the funeral oration. Pliny praised the virtues of Virginius's disciplined life to such a degree that even the circumstances surrounding his death were an occasion for admiration.
Pliny wrote:
"As he was rehearsing his speech of thanks to the Emperor, who had raised him to the consulship, a volume, which chanced to be inconveniently large for him to hold, escaped by its sheer weight the grasp that age and his upright posture doubly enfeebled. In hastily endeavoring to recover it, he missed his footing on the smooth slippery pavement; fell down, and broke his hip-bone; which fracture, as it was unskillfuly set at first, and having besides the infirmities of age to contend with, could never be brought to unite again. (Ep. 2.1)"
Apparently, the complications from this nasty fall contributed to Virginius's death. What is striking about Pliny's account is that some bookrolls were so large and cumbersome that they could not be easily handled by an aged man. This contrasts Martial's references to the codex made just a few decades before:

"You, who wish my poems should be everywhere with you, and look to have them as companions on a long journey, buy these which the parchment [codex] confines in small pages. Assign your book boxes to the great; this copy of me one hand can grasp. (Martial Epigr. 1.2)"
Of course, not all bookrolls were this large and later codices became quite large and bulky (i.e. Codex Sinaiticus), but this account illustrates the impracticality of the bookroll when compared to the codex (see previous discussion on the practicality of the codex, here and here).


Martial Epigrams, translated by C. A. Ker, (2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1919), 1:30-31.

Pliny the Younger, Letters, Books 1-10, translated by William Melmoth, and W. M. L. Hutchinson (2 vols. Loeb Classical Library; London: W. Heinemann, 1915), 1:91-93.


  1. I knew scholarship must be a dangerous occupation. I just did not think it could kill you.

  2. Yes, it can be very hazardous. If you are not banging your shins on book box, you are getting nasty papyrus-cuts on your fingers. On top of it all you may dribble some ink all over your Toga! Imagine the laundry bill!