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.