Publishing the Roman way...

Money-­making booksellers, exploited and impoverished authors, celebrity book launches and the danger of writing controversily. Sound familiar?

Although without the current technology of print-on-demand, digital publishing, even the lithographic or moveable type of not so long ago, the Roman world had a thriving publishing industry. Production was by teams of slaves (and some freedmen) who copied original manuscripts which were then sold in shops. Copyright didn’t exist, so publishers didn’t have to pay authors for their work.

The only way writers could make a good living out of their work was to be sponsored by a wealthy Roman, i.e. to become the ‘client’ of an influential ‘patron’.  The writer could produce his own work, but he was under a strong obligation to write what the patron wanted. He would also be trotted out to give readings of his work to the patron’s friends at parties. However, it was an opportunity  for the writer to launch his latest work in front of other potential patrons, to network and possibly find a new, better sponsor.

Seated man reads from a scroll to Thalia, the Muse of comedy AD 180-200 © Trustees of the British Museum

However, woe betide (thrice woe!) if the author wrote something that displeased his patron. Apart from losing his livelihood an author could face more serious penalties. Books were seen as dangerous because they spread ideas; political control of the media was exercised firmly. The punishment for writing something libellous was death.

As the writer Juvenal pointed out, the best thing to do was to wait until someone died before you criticised them. Historians were considered to be particularly dangerous. Emperor Domitian disapproved of books written by the historian Hermogenes of Tarsus and had him executed. As well as ordering the destruction of all the books written by Hermogenes, Domitian also had all the slaves killed who had done the copying.

Gravestone of Avita, who is reading from a scroll; second scroll on a reading-stand. © Trustees of the British Museum

Gravestone of Avita, who is reading from a scroll; second scroll on a reading-stand. © Trustees of the British Museum

The first books published in Rome took the form of a long roll of papyrus consisting of about twenty sheets glued together. These volumenes  were both difficult to read and easy to damage, especially if produced on cheaper, poorly produced papyrus. If handled clumsily, the scrolls would crack or disintegrate, if exposed to the damp the papyrus rotted, and the ink made from soot, resin and the black liquid from cuttlefish, would begin to fade.  Insects liked eating papyrus so books had to be stored in boxes.

In about AD 365 Romans began to make books of parchment. The sheets were folded and sewn together and looked much more like modern books. However, parchment was expensive and as with the papyrus scrolls, few people could afford them.


Photo courtesy of Benh LIEU SONG under Creative Commons

Most major cities in the Roman Empire had public libraries such as this remarkable one in Ephesus built in honour of the Roman senator, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus by Celsus’ son, Gaius Julius Aquila. Celsus had been consul in 92 AD, governor of Asia in 115 AD.  Influential private citizens, including G. Julius Caesar, established them as status symbols. By AD 377 Rome had twenty-eight large libraries where citizens could go and read books free of charge. However, to maintain tight control over what people read, government officials called prefects selected the books that appeared on the shelves.

There must have been a fascinating black market trade in books and not just pornography…

For further reading(!), I thoroughly recommend Mary Beard’s article “Scrolling Down the Ages” 16 April 2009 New York Times and Lindsey Davis’ Ode to a Banker where her irrepressible detective Falco fancies himself as a poet, but comes up against things far more sinister than a poetry reading evening…


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel, is now out!

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

2 comments to Publishing the Roman way…

  • Alison

    Victoria Lamb @VictoriaLamb1
    @alison_morton Wanted to comment on yr blog post, but my dongle is too slow to load the comment box. Gah! Wanted to say, poor slaves! x