An excerpt from “Scrolling Down the Ages,” an essay in the New York Times by Mary Beard.
We usually assume that there is not much in common between the ancient Roman book trade and our own. Roman books, after all, were produced in a world that was not just pre-Internet, but pre-Gutenberg.
All reading material was laboriously copied out by hand. The ancient equivalent of the printing press was a battalion of slaves, whose job it was to transcribe, one by one, as many copies of Virgil, Horace or Ovid as the Roman market would buy.
And it was a large market. Imperial Rome had a population of, at least, a million. Using a conservative estimate of literacy levels, there would have been more than 100,000 readers in the city.
The books they read were not “books” in our sense, but, at least, up to the second century, “book rolls”—long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, onto the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two.
It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right-hand rod, when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page.
Bad manners—but a common fault, no doubt. Some scribes helpfully repeated the title of the book at the very end, with just this problem in mind.
These cumbersome rolls made reading a very different experience than it is with the modern book. Skimming, for example, was much more difficult, as was looking back a few pages to check out that name you had forgotten (as it is on Kindle.)
Like Roman poet Martial, first-century satirist and defender of authors’ rights, most Roman writers knew that the profits of their writing ended up in the pockets of the booksellers, who often combined retail trade with a copying business—and so were, in effect, publishers and distributors too.
At best, the author received only a lump sum from the seller for the rights to copy his work (though once the text was “out,” there was no way of stopping pirated copies.)
Horace, the tame poet of the emperor Augustus, made the obvious comparison: booksellers were the rich pimps of Roman publishing and authors, or even the books themselves, were the hard-working, but humiliated prostitutes.