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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

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Investigations ::

Read in Rome

Classicist Peter White finds that bookshops were fundamental to ancient Roman literary life.

Despite all that scholars have learned about ancient Rome—its arts and religion, language and laws, political upheavals, military triumphs, gladiatorial combat, and feats of engineering—they still know almost nothing about the bookshops that once dotted the imperial city’s streets. Booksellers left behind almost no record of their existence, and the only mention of stores where scrolls were bought and sold are a few dozen fleeting anecdotes in the letters of authors like Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Pliny, Gellius, and Galen. “Speaking generously,” says classics professor Peter White, “there are probably between 50 and 75 of these allusions that involve bookshops.”

Yet White, who spent months combing through ancient texts for elusive clues to bookshops’ trade, believes the establishments were a fundamental part of Roman literary life. “We know a lot about the literature that was produced in Rome,” White says, “and we know about the structure of Roman society. But where the two come together, our picture is full of holes. You have to look around for evidence in far-flung places; you have to use your imagination. You have to hypothesize.” In a chapter of Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford University Press), due out in early 2008, White hypothesizes that bookshops not only circulated literature, but also helped influence and perpetuate it. “Horace talks about sending books off to be sold through a bookseller,” White says, “and I argue that Ovid, after he was exiled”—in 8 AD to Tomis, a coastal city in present-day Romania—“was able to keep his poetry circulating because he worked through booksellers back in the capital.”

Because literature in ancient Rome often circulated privately, from one aristocrat to another, or from writers to their friends and patrons, historians tend to underestimate the role that bookshops played, White says. In addition, the emperor Augustus turned friendships with writers like Horace and Virgil to propaganda purposes, seeking to project a particular image of the Roman regime. “So I think in general, scholars have tended to argue that the circulation of literature in ancient Rome was largely private, that commercial distribution was underdeveloped or not developed at all,” says White, whose 1993 book, Promised Verse (Cambridge), examined literary patronage toward the end of the Roman republic. “And I always felt that couldn’t be right.”

Limiting his research to bookshops within the city of Rome, which were concentrated, he says, near the Forum, White doesn’t doubt that the capital supported a literary market. “In fact, the very first anecdote we hear about bookshops there,” he says, “involves the library of Aristotle,” which General Lucius Cornelius Sulla brought back with him after sacking Athens in 86 BC. As soon as Aristotle’s collection reached the city, White says, Roman booksellers finagled furtive access to it and began copying and selling the books. “So there was a market not only for Latin books in Rome,” he says, “but for Greek books too. And not just any Greek books, but really heavy-duty philosophy.”

The market extended beyond literature and philosophy to publications that more closely resembled journalism: “Sometimes a political speech or a trial speech would be taken down live and then made available for purchase,” White says. “My argument is that bookshops are behind this.” Soon after Julius Caesar, then praetor of Rome, delivered a controversial address in 62 BC, a flawed text of it appeared in circulation. A decade later Cicero stumbled through an ineffective speech, only to see a copy disseminated before he had time to publish his own improved version. From his coastal villa, Cicero was able to read the text of a public meeting Mark Antony had convened a few days earlier as Rome edged closer to civil war in 50 BC. First-century AD rhetorician Quintilian, meanwhile, complained that unauthorized editions of his speeches were the work of stenographers who transcribed them “for profit.”

Profiteering stenographers have never been tied to bookshops, White admits, but the connection seems to him more than plausible. Only public events, not closed senate meetings, were written up, he says, and most were published in a hurry to coincide with readers’ interest in social crises and controversies. “That suggests a commercial motive by someone outside the government,” he says. More important, live transcription was a specialized skill that a small minority of Rome’s literate populace possessed. Not many private citizens could have mustered a clerical staff with the necessary training. 

Booksellers’ ability to hire trained scribes, White says, emphasizes another aspect of Rome’s pre-Gutenberg literary culture: the capacity to produce any book on demand. Scattered sources mention a dozen or so bookshop titles—Livy’s History, Horace’s Epistles, Galen’s medical texts—but in-store inventory didn’t mean as much as it does now. “For us, a book either exists and is available or it isn’t,” White says. “But in a society where printing hasn’t been invented and every text comes into existence through someone copying it onto fresh papyrus, you can go to a bookshop and ask the question that you can’t ask at Powell’s: ‘Can you make me a copy?’”

As significant as the bookshops themselves were the characters who congregated there. Several terms are associated with book trade professionals—bibliopola, librarii—but most interesting to White are the grammatici. Book experts often also involved in organizing and running Rome’s public libraries, grammatici “are noticeable in the anecdotes as knowledgeable people showing off expertise about the background of a book rather than the content,” he explains, adding that before Rome’s first public library opened in the 30s BC, “bookshops offered the deepest institutional reservoir of bibliographic knowledge in the capital.”

In his biobibliography, Galen described witnessing an encounter between a customer and a grammaticus, who, upon reading the first two lines of a book inscribed with Galen’s byline, declared, “This is not Galen’s style, and this book has been falsely labeled.” Bibliographic knowledge “serves as a kind of social weapon,” White says, “and it’s localized in bookstores because it has the purpose of helping to sell books. You find these same people today in secondhand stores.”