Ancient scroll worms

As a writer, I am naturally interested in reading. That includes all the ways in which technology changes reading habits. How is reading different on a Kindle? Do you retain more if you “delete through a text“?

And: What if we were still reading scrolls?

That was the fun insight in this piece by Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. She takes us on a tour of reading and writing in ancient Rome. Some aspects of the trade were eerily familiar, but others quite different:

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.

Reading was a very different experience with this technology. You could not really skim, for example. You could not easily go back to check something you had forgotten. And you really had to concentrate, because often the Romans did not separate words with spaces but wrote in one continuous stream of letters.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering where papyrus came from: It came from Phoenicia, the mother country of Carthage and thus Hannibal. The Phoenician city that did the briskest export trade was Byblos. Hence: Bible, bibliography, bibliophile, etc.

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