Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sillybos: Getting the Title Right

The primary format of books in the Roman imperial age was that of the bookroll (see previous post), or more popularly the scroll. The text was laid out in a series of columns with a continuously running script. The title of the work was often written at the end of the last column (subscriptiones) and at the top of the first column (inscriptiones). Sometimes, due to wear or damage, no title could be found in the roll at all. When the book was rolled up, neither the beginning or end titles were visible without considerable trouble of unrolling the book and looking inside.

P.Oxy 3.412 with subscription
ιουλιου αφρικανου

In order to provide a convenient means of identification, scribes would often attach a small piece of papyrus or parchment that would extend out the top end of a closed bookroll. This "sillybos" or title tag on which would be written the author and title would aid in quickly identifying the contents of a closed bookroll. There are several examples of these preserved from the first and second centuries.

P. Oxy 2.301(ca. 2nd CE)

P.Oxy 24.2396 (ca. 2nd CE)
του Αμμωνιο(υ)
περι διαλεκτου
Λακων ων
των ειc β̅

P.Oxy 25.2433 (ca. 2nd CE)
P.Oxy 47.3318 (ca. 1st-2nd CE)

There are a few wall paintings from the Roman city of Pompeii that depict bookrolls with the title tags extending out the end of the rolled book (note the image below).

Notice the "sillybos" extending from the roll
Within the literate communities of the high Roman empire there was frequent interchange of books and the copying of texts (see previous post). Because of this close community corruption of texts and plagiarizing was often exposed and thus could potentially be corrected (see post). This happened on occasion with regard to falsely titled books. Galen ca. 190s CE) shared an interesting account where this occurred.
"The validity of your advice regarding the cataloguing of my extant books, Bassus, has been proved by events. I was recently in the Sandalarium, the area of Rome with the largest concentration of booksellers, where I witnessed a dispute as to whether a certain book for sale was by me or someone else. The book bore the title Galen the doctor. Someone had bought the book under the impression that it was one of mine; someone else—a man of letters—struck by the odd form of the title, desired to know the books subject. On reading the first two lines he immediately tore up the inscription (εὐθέως ἀπέρριψε τὸ γρὰμμα), saying simply: “This is not Galen’s language—the title is false ('ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ λέξις αὕτη Γαληνοῦ και ψευδῶς ἐπιγέγραπται τουτὶ τὸ βιβλίον').” (De libr. propr. 19.8-9)
Though Galen does not identify this "man of letters" one thing is clear, he was able to detect that this work for sale was falsely attributed to Galen. This educated man responded by tearing away the inscription. This inscription (γρὰμμα) was the "sillybos," the title tag of the bookroll (Johnson, 85).


Johnson, William A. Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities. Edited by Joseph Farrell and Robin Osborne. Classic Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

White, Peter, “Book Shops in the Literary Culture of Rome,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (W. A. Johnson and H. N. Parker eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 268-287. see especially 283-284.

Turner, E. G. Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World. 2nd edition. Edited by P. J. Parsons. London: University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1987.

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