P. Petaus 30: A letter describing a travelling book dealer

A tweet today from Sarah Bond drew my attention to an interesting papyrus:

2nd c letter of touring bookseller hawking small membranae (parchment codices)

P.Petaus 30, recto. 2nd c. AD.
P.Petaus 30, recto. 2nd c. AD.
Verso (Click on the image for full size)

Details of the papyrus may be found here, with full-size photographs of recto and verso.  It was first published in 1969.

The papyrus was written around 150 AD by a scribe named Petaus, who lived in the village of Ptolemais Hormou, modern El-Lahun.  It is currently held in Cologne, where the inventory number is P.376.

The author who dictated the letter to the scribe was named Julius Placidus.  The letter was addressed to his father, Herclanus.  It concerned the purchase of books from a dealer who came to him.

The text is transcribed here (and rather better than I can manage in WordPress):


Ἰούλιος Πλάκ[ι]δος Ἡρκλανῶι τῶι
πατρὶ χαίρειν.
Δεῖος γενόμενος παρʼ ἡμε[ῖ]ν ἐπέδει-
ξεν μὲν ἡμεῖν(*) τὰς μεμβρά-
νας ἕ̣ξ̣ .  ἐκεῖθεν μὲν οὐδὲν ἐξελε-
ξάμεθα, ἄλλα δὲ ὀ̣κτὼ ἀντεβά-
λ[ο]μεν, εἰς ἃ ἔδωκα ἐπὶ λόγου (δραχμὰς) ρ.
προνοήσεις μέντοι ̣ ̣ω[ ̣]τα.
τα̣[ ̣] ̣ ̣[ ̣] ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣α ἡμεῖν γενέσθαι.
[ἐρ]ρῶσθ[αί] σε εὔχ̣ο̣μαι.


…̣ ̣[ ̣] ̣[ -ca.?- ] π̣α̣ρ̣[ὰ]

Ἰουλ(ίου) Πλακί[δ](ου) ̣ ̣ ̣ο̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ν̣ο̣ς̣


“Julius Placidus to his father Herclanus, greeting. Dius came to us and showed us six parchment codices (tas membranas hex). We selected none of those, but we collated (antebalomen) eight, for which I paid on account 100 drachmas. You will be on the lookout in any case. . . I hope you are well. . .by Julius Placidus.”[1]

The papyrus is interesting as demonstrating the activities of a bookseller, travelling to his customer.  He had six “parchments”, but Julius Placidus didn’t buy them.  The other eight items, which they “collated”, or “compared” (with copies they already had?) were presumably books on papyrus, the normal material.

The “parchments” are translated above as “parchment codices”, which they probably were.  The first codices were made of wood, in the form of tablets inset with wax, and they were used for exercises or notes.  The wax could be erased easily.  Folded leaves of parchment were the next alternative to these wax tablets, as parchment can also be erased by scraping with a knife.  These notebooks may have been used for the autograph of at least some of the gospels, since early copies of these works are usually in codex form.  But they were mainly used by tradesmen, and literary works were usually on the traditional roll.  The poet Martial extols the value of the parchment codex, ca. 100 AD, in his early work, but as he grew more famous, those encomiums vanish and his books are for sale in roll format.  The eight books of unspecified material were perhaps papyrus rolls.

It is very nice to see the book trade in operation.  It is even nicer that we can get good quality images of the papyrus on the web, with transcription and translation.  We are fortunate people!

  1. [1]From Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 1995, p.53.

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