Publishing in the ancient world

A correspondent has written to me, asking an interesting question:

Let’s suppose I’m living down the street from Philo in Alexandria and I’ve just written my book.  How do I get published?  I.e., I’ve written for other people to read so I want other people to get hold of my book–by having a scribe copy it or whatever.

Do I go to the Library of Alexandria and give them a copy and then tell all my friends about it.  Does the library of Alexandria keep a catalogue of some kind?  Do I give a copy to a bookseller in Alexandria?  Are there booksellers in Alexandria at this time?

The question of course has to do with this:  We know that the Alexandrian Christians were the ones who esteemed and preserved Philo’s works.  How would they have found out about them?  We know that there was the Museon that functioned like a university.  Would the normal thing be for me to give lectures from my work at the Museon?  We surmise that Philo gave talks on the Sabbath concerning the Law at the Jewish religious schools.  Would word have gone out from there after he said, ‘O by the way, I’ve just finished my work on the Therapeutae?’

We have quite a bit of information about the Roman book trade in this period, thanks to statements in Cicero in the 1st century BC, in his letters; and also to Martial in his Epigrams.  But first a few ways in which books differed from today.

The first point to make is that an author did not make money from copies of his works.  There was no copyright.  An author made money by becoming famous, and attracting a patron who would give him money.  Consequently authors gave public readings of their works, with this in mind.  The readings could sometimes be grim affairs, if the accounts in the letters of Pliny the Younger are to be believed.  One bore, droning away, “You bid me, Priscus, …” had the misfortune to have a man named Priscus in the audience, who, bored, promptly remarked “Indeed I don’t!”  But if you had a patron, he might hire men to come along; and the number of people at your reading, and their status, tended to boost your reputation.  A poet with a high reputation could expect gifts.  The poet Martial flatters the emperor Domitian to an incredible extent; but how else could he live?  Martial, accosted by a stranger in the forum, and asked “Why do you have a bad cloak?”, replied, “Because I am a bad poet.”  He meant, of course, that he wasn’t a good enough poet to have the money to buy a better one.

Once you had a reputation, people might want your works.  They might want to read them – or rather, have them read – during dinner parties.  Martial is careful to direct his readers to the location of the shop in Rome where his books may be purchased; for then the bookseller might tell other customers about Martial, thereby increasing his value; customers who might be men of influence.  Galen tells us of scholarly customers sitting in the bookshop, examining books – a copy of Vergil from the poet’s own family… a copy of Fabius Pictor which was brown with age.  No doubt refreshments were served to the literary gentlemen after novelties or rarities.

In this period, a book was a scroll of papyrus; or, indeed, it might be more than one, if it was a long work.  The modern book form, or codex, does not take off until the 4th century AD.  But notebooks in codex form which consisted of a few sheets of papyrus or parchment folded over, start to appear in the 1st century AD, replacing wax tablets.  These are the ancestor of the modern book format.

Books were not read silently – Augustine records his astonishment at seeing Ambrose of Milan reading silently – but were read aloud, often by a trained slave.  Pliny the Younger, in his account in his Letters of his learned uncle, Pliny the Elder, recounts how the latter had a slave reading to him constantly, and made notes of what he heard.

Cicero’s works were “published” by his friend Atticus, who had teams of slaves who could make copies.  But Cicero was a public man.  He published by allowing copies to be made.  But he complains about the poor quality of the text  in many copies offered for sale in his time.  This seems to have improved into the first century AD.  No doubt the booksellers were sensitive to customer complaints.

In principle any literate man – and many slaves were literate – could produce a copy.  But the professional scriptorium, staffed again by slaves, or by monks in later periods, differed in that there was scope for correction and review.  At Oxyrhynchus, the papyri in the waste dump show that the copies were mostly amateur, and the text quality is low.  But the ancestors of our modern copies belong to the book trade, and feature corrections and commentary sometimes.  Libraries and museums no doubt featured in this process of correction.

We have spoken so far mainly about literary works; speeches, histories, collections of letters and so forth.  For publication of these, the steps are as follows:

  • Acquire reputation, such that people wish to hear what you have said
  • Conduct public readings
  • Get copies made by someone, such as a bookdealer
  • Get a patron, and so get a farm – as Martial did in the end
  • Repeat as necessary

If you belonged to literary circles, you could tell your aristocratic friends that you were going to write a history of the last war, of Sulla, or whatever – always avoiding contemporary events where payback might be rather vicious – and then conduct readings – depending on your friends! – and so on.

A poor man probably had limited hope of getting onto the escalator for literary fame.  Many obscure poets and authors were starving.  Martial mentions many friends who advised him not to bother with poetry, however good he might be, and instead to practice in the lawcourts as a way to earn a living and gain reputation.  Patronage was all.

The obvious exception to this was technical works, books of medicine, surveying, farm management, and so forth.  Even here the aristocrat had the advantage.  The physician Galen was concerned with the circulation of his works, and which were authentic, precisely because his income depended on his reputation, and fake works or bad copies might damage this.  He therefore gives a list On my own works.

But such works had a practical use, and also were often rather lower status than the high literary oration or history.  The transmission of these texts reflects both of these points.  The text is frequently amended in transmission, to add extra detail or omit misleading or outdated information.  Astrological texts undergo enormous modification.

Some works were important in a community.  The Christians formed their own society, and works that were of interest to them naturally circulated among them.  Whether a work could be read in church was therefore important.  We read in Eusebius about a 2nd century bishop, Serapion, who was asked to intervene in the congregation at Rhossus, where some wanted to read a forged “Gospel of Peter”.  His first reaction was to allow it to be read; but on further investigation, he found that it was in fact heretical.  The author in this case sought to promote his views to Christians, rather than make money.  Similarly gnostic and manichaean groups had their own books.  No doubt these were recommended by their clergy.  Obscure men might gain reputation via the congregation.

Once a man had a reputation, once there was a market for his works, then forgeries and fakes might be composed and sold by the booksellers.  This is still true today.  The “Archko Volume”, a fake collection of letters concerning the events of the time of Jesus, composed by a presbyterian pastor in the 19th century, is still sold by unscrupulous bookdealers and aimed at rural Christians, even today.  The pastor was defrocked; but the fake is still with us.  Galen complains of forged works in his name.  Martial complains of people inserting their own work in the middle of copies of his epigrams; and indeed, worse, seditious material put out under his name.  The latter was very dangerous to Martial himself, living as he did under the paranoid Domitian.  Tertullian complains that the second draft of his Adversus Marcionem was stolen by his scribe, who apostasised and circulated copies before Tertullian had had the chance to revise it.  This suggests that there was money in selling copies of Tertullian’s works in Carthage in the early 3rd century.

Stalls selling books in the market in Athens are recorded in the 5th century BC.  I have already mentioned the Roman booksellers, in the Sandalarius behind the forum.  Augustine tells us of bookstalls at the docks in Hippo, in his own times, where sometimes apocryphal gospels might be found offered for sale.  In the 5th century AD, the Apollinarists found that they could circulate their own banned works under the name of Cyprian and other approved authors.

I don’t know whether we have literary testimony about the book trade in Alexandria, but surely the seat of the famed Museon must have had sellers of scrolls?  The library certainly had its pinax, or catalogue of authors and works.  Whether it continued to collect omnivorously in Roman times, as it had when funded by the Ptolemies, I do not know.

Of course any author who has been rejected by a modern publisher will be familiar with the idea that the obscure man has limited chances of publication.  In some ways, this is still true!

Anyone interested in how the ancient book trade worked is advised first to consult Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars, now in its 4th edition (although I have only seen the third; Clarendon Press having declined to send me a review copy).  It is very readable, and everyone with any interest in how books got from their authors to ourselves should read it.


8 thoughts on “Publishing in the ancient world

  1. A very good post! You’ll remember that St. Augustine and St. Jerome were always having to deal with people circulating their work early, too, though in their case they seem to have sent rough drafts to friends living elsewhere, and the problem was the friends who couldn’t resist reading the new stuff to other friends and letting them have copies.

    To be fair, if you had a new rough draft by one of them, it would seem pretty hardhearted to hold the stuff back from other fans!

  2. You’re very kind. I think the circulation of drafts problem must have been endemic. After all, why not copy them? We’re not in the modern world. Copy as you like. It’s more like copying a webpage, than publishing a book.

    It means that we might ask whether the idea of a single “original text” actually means anything? We have that concept in modern times, because the manuscript has to go to the publisher, and the printed edition is the definitive text. But when a text can be revised continuously over a period of time, and copies taken at various times, just what is the “original text”? I’m thinking here of the “Life of St Columba” by St Adomnan, which he worked on throughout his life, and added to as he got more material.

    My own opinion would be that this is probably mostly confusion for the sake of it, and almost never comes into play. In reality most texts survive only in a single copy; most of the remainder pass through a bottleneck in transmission, where all modern copies derive from a single 9th century copy (whether extant or not). For very few texts will there be real variants; and most of those will derive from copyists, not from authorial alteration or variation. For any text that has reached us, we must first find actual evidence of authorial changes. Then we might ask if we have evidence that there were multiple versions in circulation at the same time, and in practice I suspect that we will find that there are a small number of “editions”. Here I am thinking of Eusebius’ Church History, which seems to have had 4 editions, the last in 325; as we can tell from things like omission from later editions of any mention of Crispus, Constantine’s heir, after his execution following a palace intrigue.

    If I am right – and I think I am – then in practice the “original” becomes the text commonly circulated; or possibly the editions of it.

    I suppose that one of the reasons people worry about “the original text” is because of the bible; and the idea that only the text “as originally given” is scripture. But I think this is to press the “as originally given” terminology too far. The authors of that phrase meant only to say that copyist errors are not scripture. I very much doubt that they were not addressing the complicated processes of original composition and dissemination in the pre-modern era. Transmission of literary texts is one thing; divine inspiration is another. The former is a human enterprise, full of fallibilities and uncertainties, the latter is a perfect process whose workings are actually unknown to us.

    That the New Testament is scripture was defined by no council, and merely arose naturally from events, as men discovered that it was. How that relates to the inevitable imperfections of the world that we all live in we cannot know. But if Jesus maintained that the Old Testament was scripture – and he did -; and if all human books are capable of being revised in various ways – and they are -; then clearly there is theology here, a paradox, a mystery as to how the perfect can become present in an imperfect world, and how the divine enters the human. But that’s about how God works in the world; and as such is inherently unknowable. We have the scriptures; how the process works, other than we mustn’t introduce changes, is not really knowable either. And it’s best not to confuse this theological issue with the scholarly one.

  3. Thanks for very clear/succinct post.
    Three “tangents”:
    1) Somewhere (where?) it is reported that “somebody” complained to Ambrose that he found Paul difficult to understand – to which Ambrose suggested that reading Paul aloud might help. Given Ambrose’s “progress” to silent reading this seemed surprising – until I was teaching a course in palaeography! Reading “atextwithnoworddivision” is tedious. Reading it aloud would help with the mental skip required in putting the “letters” together to form words.
    2) Just been (re-)reading D.C. Parker, “The Living Text…” where p.23 he has an interesting comment on the influence of the persecution by Diocletian on the formation of the Canon. Holy Books has to be surrendered (for destruction). One consequence was that the notion of “Holy Book” needed to be clarified. What belonged to the Bible?
    3) Pelagius only(?) circulated his Expositions among his “friends”. This seems to have been common practice in the philosophical “schools” – but Augustine had a copy of it at an early date. Who gave it to him? A prime “suspect” might be Marcellinus… Although the attribution of the Expositions to Pelagius is taken for granted, there is good reason to think that he never “published” the work in his own name. In the same historical context, it is a given in Pelagian studies that Pelagius used (liberally) Rufinus of Aquileia’s translation of Origen’s Commentary on Romans. Rufinus, however, does not seem to have “published” the translation during his life-time. The same question arises. How did Pelagius get a copy? He must have been close to the circle of Rufinus! But the contacts between Rufinus and Pelagius are only beginning to be grudgingly acknowledged, partly (I suspect) because it might throw a shadow on the reputation of Rufinus, something that is not welcome in certain circles!

  4. I don’t think that there’d be anything sketchy about friends/discussion partners of Rufinus also being friends/discussion partners with Pelagius. People know all sorts of people, from school or from other contacts. The ancient world was pretty small, in a lot of ways, and Christians probably tended to stick together. Even if your old buddy started believing something weird, you might still be corresponding with him. Heck, you might have no idea how weird he’d gotten, or vice versa.

  5. This is an excellent post, I especially appreciate your comments on the alleged “original-text.” It seems that, except in a few cases, most works were intended to be released as a single completed work and that the completion of this work was signaled by the author through the act of “releasing” the work to be copied by associates, a copy sent to the dedicatee of the work, etc. In the case of Galen, and Quintilian, their works were circulated without their consent and, in the case of Galen, his students and followers discovered that his works were circulating in a mutilated form. In the case of Quintilian, he wrote his Institutes in order to supplant these “inferior” transcribed copies of his lectures that his students were circulating. In each case there was a clear “original-text” that the author had in view. In other words, the authors usually intended to write a single complete work with exactly the right wording, etc.

  6. What is left out here is how the booksellers made their money. Apparently, many books sold at a very high price but how did the booksellers manage to keep the prices high? One possible source of value-added might be ornamental illustration such as we see in the Book of Kells. Another might be scholarship. A third might be the use of trademark.

    Is there any evidence as to how the booksellers kept their profitshigh?

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