Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cicero and the Elder Pliny on the Papyrus Bookroll

The Papyrus Plant along the Nile River
As I was reading a paper on the oldest fragment of a Cicero manuscript, I came across a rare reference by Cicero to a type of high quality papyrus used in book-making (Austin, pg. 14-15).
Pliny the Elder (ca. 77 CE) gave a fascinating account of the ancient manufacturing processes for papyrus paper which was used in making bookrolls.
"Paper of all kinds is ' woven ' on a board moistened with water from the Nile, muddy liquid supplying the effect of glue. First an upright layer is smeared on to the table, using the full length of papyrus available after the trimmings have been cut off at both ends, and afterwards cross strips complete the lattice-work. The next step is to press it in presses, and the sheets are dried in the sun and then joined together, the next strip used always diminishing in quality down to the worst of all. There are never more than twenty sheets to a roll.” (Nat. 13.80)
Pliny continued and described the various sizes and qualities of papyrus sheets in use;
“There were also eighteen-inch sheets called 'macrocola,' (macrocolis) but examination detected a defect in them, as tearing off a single strip damaged several pages. On this account Claudius paper has come to be preferred to all other kinds, although the Augustus kind still holds the field for correspondence; but Livia paper, having no quality of a first-class kind, but being entirely second class, has retained its position.” (Nat. 13.80) 
Although Pliny indicated that the "macrocola" paper had fallen out of use in his day (ca. 77 CE) Cicero (ca. 44 BCE) made explicit reference to this size of papyrus in a letter to his friend Atticus.
Menander reading a Bookroll, Pompeii
". . . I am sending you the same composition [On Old Age] more carefully revised, indeed the original copy, with plenty of additions between the lines and corrections. Have it copied on large paper (macrocollum) and read it privately to your guests; but, if you love me, do it when they are in a good temper and have had a good dinner, for I don't want them to vent on me the anger they feel towards you." (Att. XVI.3)
It appears that Cicero was referring to the same type of papyrus paper described by the Elder Pliny more than one hundred years later. This paper must have been expensive, so it is surprising that Cicero instructed Atticus to copy his work while the work was still being revised and edited. About a year earlier (ca. 45 BCE) Cicero had written Atticus about some of his books that were to be sent on to Varro (the dedicatee of the work).
"But what on earth is the reason why you are so frightened at my bidding you send the books to Varro on your own responsibility? Even now, if you have any doubts, let me know. Nothing could be more finished than they are. . . . However, I don't despair of winning Varro's approval; and, as I have gone to the expense of a large paper copy (macrocolla), I should like to stick to my plan."
(Att. XIII.25)
Once again Cicero made referrence to these deluxe sized bookrolls, the "macrocolla," and he seems to have mentioned that this format was a big expense compared to other paper sizes and book formats (see Austin, pg. 14-15).
Cicero's comments help us understand the drastically divergent approach that Christians had in regards to their sacred writings. Most early Christian (papyrus) fragments of the writings that later formed the New Testament contrast drastically from the expensive and ornate rolls that Cicero described (for more on these differences, see From Scroll to Codex: Early Christian Book Technology).

Austin, Jacqueline. Cicero's Books and the "Giessener Verres." Unpublished paper, 2008.

Cicero. Letters to Atticus. Translated by E. O. Winstedt. Vol. 3. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Pliny. Natural History. Translated by H. Rackham. Vol. 4. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lucian on Education: Illiteracy in the Roman World

A boy recites a lession to a tutor, 2nd cen. AD
A previous post brought attention to the low literacy levels of the Roman world and the effect this had on the reading practices of the early Christians. William Harris argued that literacy levels in the Roman world were somewhere around 15 to as high as 20% in some regions like Pompeii (p. 264). Overall, the literacy level in Rome likely would have never been above 15% (p. 267) and for any region to reach the levels of 20 to 30% literacy among males would have been remarkable (p. 141). When discussing precise percentages of literacy, it is important to remember William Harris's own caution,
"We shall obviously never know in a clear-cut numerical way how many people were literate, semi-literate, or illiterate in the Graeco-Roman world in general, or even in any particular milieu within it." (p. 7)
I thought about the levels of literacy in the Roman world and the education that may or may not have been available to the early Christians. A dialogue of Lucian of Samosata (125-180 CE) came to mind that illustrates well the path to education available in his day. In his satire Hermotimus, one character, Hermotimus, a philosopher steeped in study for the past 20 years, is engaged in dialogue (in the Socratic method) by Lycinus, an interlocutor who values the simple and average life. At one point Hermotimus described the path of education as climbing a steep mountain slope;
"Many would climb it, if it could. As it is, a fair number make a very strong beginning and travel part of the way, some very little, some more; but when they get half-way and meet plenty of difficulties and snags, they lose heart and turn back, gasping for breath and dripping with sweat; the hardships are too much for them. But all who endure to the end arrive at the top, from then on are happy having wonderful time for the rest of their life, from their heights seeing the rest of mankind as ants." (Hermot. 5)
Hermotimus described that there were many who began the path of education in philosophy, that is, education, but few completed the journey. This gives and excellent picture of education during the Roman empire. There was probably a large number of the population who began the journey of education and literacy, many who could scrawl their names on a document, scratch some crude graffiti onto an alley wall, or read signs and laundry lists. The reality was that few attained any reasonable level of education. Listen to Lycinus as he responded to Hermotimus's description of his path to educated enlightenment,
"Goodness, Hermotimus! How small you shall make us, not as big as pygmies! Utter groundlings crawling over the earth's surface. It's not surprising--your mind is already away up above; and we, the whole trashy lot of us ground-crawlers, will pray to you along with the gods, when you get above the clouds and reach the heights to which you have been hastening for so long." (Hermot. 5)
 Lycinus identified himself with the "whole trashy lot of us ground-crawlers," namely, the uneducated masses. When a person reached a high level of education, it was as if that person reached divine status.


Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Lucian,  Translated by K. Kilburn et al. 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913-1961.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Pliny the Younger on the Roman Bookroll

When reading through The Letters of the Younger Pliny, I came across some comments regarding the bookroll. In one of his letters to Cornelius Tacitus (who wrote the Annals and Agricola, among other writings), Pliny was discussing his argument with another orator on the over-use of brevity when giving a speech. Pliny believed that there was no substitute for a well crafted lengthy speech. Though brevity was "desirable if the case permits," he thought that "most points [in a speech] gain weight and emphasis by a fuller treatment, and make their mark on the mind by alternate thrust and pause, as a fencer uses his foil" (Ep. 1.20).
After describing several Greek and Roman orators who gave well crafted lengthy speeches, Pliny buttressed his argument by writing;
"Like all good things, a good book is all the better if it is a long one; and statues, busts, pictures and drawings of human beings, many animals and also trees can be seen to gain by being on a large scale as long as they are well-proportioned. The same applies to speeches; and when published they look better and more impressive in a good sized volume." (Ep. 1.20).
The context of Pliny's arguments are what make his comments on the bookroll so telling. In the same paragraph Pliny describes well proportioned statues, paintings, and lengthy bookrolls of speeches. In Pliny's mind, the format that the speech would take when published, that is, the bookroll, was just as visually important as a painting or a statue. The Greco-Roman bookroll carried with it a cultural symbolism of everything that was refined and educated. Even a speech gained when it was published in the form of a bookroll.
Hundreds of papyrus bookrolls have been discovered in Egypt that date to around the time Pliny was writing his letter to Tacitus. After studying these  Roman era papyrus bookrolls perserved in the sands of Oxyrhynchus, William A. Johnson noted that,
"The bookroll, here and elsewhere, shows distinct signs of deliberate design and attention to what is stylish, as well as exactness in execution involving both measurement and expert estimation. All of this is consistent--as a general picture--with the conclusion that bookrolls were generally the product of scribes trained for the task, that is, to an artisan apprentice trade. The trade clearly also involves a strong sense of cultural demands on the product. The bookroll signaled culture and learning, but for the bookroll to qualify as such required a particular look and feel with well-defined traditions of detail." ("The Ancient Book," 261)
 In other words, the material remains of the ancient papyrus books, and these comments by Pliny, reveal the cultural and aesthetic demands placed upon the bookroll.
This is in stark contrast to the book form used by the earliest Christians for the writings that later formed the New Testament (see previous posts, here, and here.)


Johnson, William A. “The Ancient Book,” The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (ed. Roger S. Bagnall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 256-277.

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

A Roman Mosaic Depicting Virgil with a Bookroll