The different grades of papyrus in use in antiquity, according to Pliny and Isidore

Pliny, Natural History, book 13, ch, 23:

23. Paper is made from the papyrus, by splitting it with a needle into very thin leaves, due care being taken that they should be as broad as possible.

That of the first quality is taken from the centre of the plant, and so in regular succession, according to the order of division. “Hieratica”1 was the name that was anciently given to it, from the circumstance that it was entirely reserved for the religious books. In later times, through a spirit of adulation, it received the name of “Augusta,” just as that of second quality was called “Liviana,” from his wife, Livia; the consequence of which was, that the name “hieratica” came to designate that of only third-rate quality.

The paper of the next quality was called “amphitheatrica,” from the locality2 of its manufacture. The skilful manufactory that was established by Fannius3 at Rome, was in the habit of receiving this last kind, and there, by a very careful process of insertion, it was rendered much finer; so much so, that from being a common sort, he made it a paper of first-rate quality, and gave his own4 name to it: while that which was not subjected to this additional process retained its original name of “amphitheatrica.”

Next to this is the Saitic paper, so called from the city of that name,5 where it is manufactured in very large quantities, though of cuttings of inferior6 quality.

The Taeniotic paper, so called from a place in the vicinity,7 is manufactured from the materials that lie nearer to the outside skin; it is sold, not according to its quality, but by weight only.

As to the paper that is known as “emporetica,”8 it is quite useless for writing upon, and is only employed for wrapping up other paper, and as a covering for various articles of merchandize, whence its name, as being used by dealers.

After this comes the bark of the papyrus, the outer skin of which bears a strong resemblance to the bulrush, and is solely used for making ropes, and then only for those which have to go into the water.9

All these various kinds of paper are made upon a table, moistened with Nile water; a liquid which, when in a muddy state, has the peculiar qualities of glue.10 This table being first inclined,11 the leaves of papyrus are laid upon it lengthwise, as long, indeed, as the papyrus will admit of, the jagged edges being cut off at either end; after which a cross layer is placed over it, the same way, in fact, that hurdles are made. When this is done, the leaves are pressed close together, and then dried in the sun; after which they are united to one another, the best sheets being always taken first, and the inferior ones added afterwards. There are never more than twenty of these sheets to a roll.12

1 Or “holy” paper. The priests would not allow it to be sold, lest it might be used for profane writing; but after it was once written upon, it was easily procurable. The Romans were in the habit of purchasing it largely in the latter state, and then washing off the writing, and using it as paper of the finest quality. Hence it received the name of “Augustus,” as representing in Latin its Greek name “hieraticus,” or “sacred.” In length of time it became the common impression, as here mentioned, that this name was given to it in honour of Augusus Caesar.
2 Near the amphitheatre, probably, of Alexandria.
3 He alludes to Q. Remmius Fannius Palaemon, a famous grammarian of Rome, though originally a slave. Being mantumitted, he opened a school at Rome, which was resorted to by great numbers of pupils, notwithstanding his notoriously bad character he appears to have established, also, a manufactory for paper at Rome. Suetonius, in his treatise on Illustrious Grammarians, gives a long account of him. He is supposed to have been the preceptor of Quintilian.
4 Fanniana.
5 In Lower Egypt.
6 Ex vilioribus ramentis.
7 Of Alexandria, probably.
8 “Shop-paper,” or “paper of commerce.”
9 Otherwise, probably, the rope would not long hold together.
10 Fée remarks, that this is by no means the fact. With M. Poiret, he questions the accuracy of Pliny’s account of preparing the papyrus, and is of opinion that it refers more probably to the treatment of some other vegetable substance from which paper was made.
11 Primo supinâ tabule schedâ.
12 “Scapus.” This was, properly, the cylinder on which the paper was rolled.

24. There is a great difference in the breadth of the various kinds of paper. That of best quality1 is thirteen fingers wide, while the hieratica is two fingers less. The Fanniana is ten fingers wide, and that known as “amphitheatrica,” one less. The Saitic is of still smaller breadth, indeed it is not so wide as the mallet with which the paper is beaten; and the emporetica is particularly narrow, being not more than six fingers in breadth.

In addition to the above particulars, paper is esteemed according to its fineness, its stoutness, its whiteness, and its smoothness. Claudius Caesar effected a change in that which till then had been looked upon as being of the first quality: for the Augustan paper had been found to be so remarkably fine, as to offer no resistance to the pressure of the pen; in addition to which, as it allowed the writing upon it to run through, it was continually causing apprehensions of its being blotted and blurred by the writing on the other side; the remarkable transparency, too, of the paper was very unsightly to the eye. To obviate these inconveniences, a groundwork of paper was made with leaves of the second quality, over which was laid a woof, as it were, formed of leaves of the first. He increased the width also of paper; the width [of the common sort] being made a foot, and that of the size known as “macrocollum,”2 a cubit; though one inconvenience was soon detected in it, for, upon a single leaf3 being torn in the press, more pages were apt to be spoilt than before.4 In consequence of the advantages above-mentioned, the Claudian has come to be preferred to all other kinds of paper, though the Augustan is still used for the purposes of epistolary correspondence. The Livian, which had nothing in common with that of first quality, but was entirely of a secondary rank, still holds its former place.

1 Augustan.
2 Or “long glued” paper: the breadth probably consisted of that of two or more sheets glued or pasted at the edges, the seam running down the roll.
3 Scheda. One of the leaves of the papyrus, of which the roll of twenty, joined side by side, was formed.
4 This passage is difficult to be understood, and various attempts have been made to explain it. It is not unlikely that his meaning is that the breadth being doubled, the tearing of one leaf or half breadth entailed of necessity the spoiling of another, making the corresponding half breadth.

I include the notes as useful to us all.

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies book 6, ch. 10, writes as follows[1]:

x. Papyrus sheets (De cartis)

1. Egypt first provided the use of papyrus sheets, initially in the city of Memphis. Memphis is the Egyptian city where the use of papyrus sheets was first discovered, as Lucan says (Civil War 4.136):

“The sheet of Memphis is made from the bibulous papyrus. “

He called papyrus bibulous (bibulus) because it drinks (bibere) liquid. 2. A ‘papyrus sheet’ (carta) is so called because the stripped rind of papyrus is glued together ‘piece by piece’ (carptim).

There are several kinds of such sheets. First and foremost is the Royal Augustan, of rather large size, named in honor of Octavian Augustus. 3. Second, the Libyan, in honor of the province of Libya. Third the Hieratic, so called because it was selected for sacred books (cf. hieros, “sacred”) – like the Augustan, but tinted. 4. Fourth the Taeneotic, named for the place in Alexandria where it was made, which is so called. Fifth the Saitic, fromthe town of Sais. 5. Sixth the Cornelian, first produced by Cornelius Gallus, prefect of Egypt.  Seventh the commercial, because merchandise is wrapped in this type, since it is less suitable for writing.

Isidore then goes on to discuss parchment.

Isidore’s account is similar, but not quite the same as that of Pliny, which means that it is not simply copied from it but involves some other source.

Again this material is often mentioned in passing in articles about ancient book manufacture, so it is interesting to go to the source.

  1. [1] Stephen A. Barney, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, CUP 2006, p.141
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